Science fiction television is in the midst of a resurgence, the least likely culprit of its success being the lowly SyFy Channel. Rebranded from Sci-Fi Channel some years ago, the station had become less science fiction and more wrestling drama cum Sharknado, leaving a struggling genre in the field to rot under a dying sun.
As the world turns, tastes change and studio executives take risks — perhaps feeling the pressure from streaming juggernauts Netflix, Hulu and Amazon to give viewers a reason to stick around in the midst of Stranger Things and The Man in the High Castle. Thus SyFy procured several adaptations and originals: 12 Monkeys, Killjoys and, yes, The Expanse.
Based upon the novels by author James S. A. Corey, The Expanse is a futuristic space opera/mystery with many moving parts.
Two hundred years into the future, Earth balances a tenuous relationship with sister planet Mars, colonized by Earthlings long ago and now independent. Between the two are asteroid belt miners who dream of independence as they procure minerals, water and other necessities of life for the two competing planets, always receiving the short end of the deal.
Season 1 begins with what appears to be an attempt to start an interplanetary war. A mining ship known as Canterbury is destroyed by a mysterious vessel, leaving James Holden (English actor Steven Strait) and a ragtag crew of survivors to pick up the pieces while navigating the treacherous political landscape between Earth, Mars and the various pods of rebels and activists that exist elsewhere in the solar system. Meanwhile, detective Joseph Miller (Thomas Jane, notably of The Punisher and Boogie Nights) is conscripted to search for the missing daughter of a space billionaire, which inevitably leads him to investigating the destruction of the Canterbury.
On Earth, United Nations diplomat Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo) conspires and treads political tightropes with the expertise of a spider. As all the parts begin to come together, the web begins to untangle, leaving behind only a mystery beyond her political motivations.
Let’s talk a moment about the visuals of the series. Many a time, a great science-fiction series has come along with an excellent premise but the technology to create the world is, well, lacking. A person’s suspension of disbelief can only stretch so far before the graphics budget forces you back into reality à la a rubber lizard costume or foam space rock. The Expanse is a beautiful series and quite the opposite in tone and nature. Ships are well-designed, and the colony outposts are controlled chaos, inspired by the futuristic landscapes of Blade Runner and Cowboy Bebop. Most of all, the material is taken seriously and presented carefully so as not to breach the thin line between quality and schlock.
Case in point: The time spent making space colonization realistic and familiar. Nothing says “world of the future” better than when Miller pulls up to a noodle bar, with Asian-inspired text on the banner, and orders a burrito. Corey’s original novel is a well-designed effort to humanize the impossible, similar in style to Phillip K. Dick’s uncanny ability to make the impossible seem not only possible but, yeah, duh — obviously this is what the future will look like.
In The Expanse, the eclectic cast of characters, played well and without pretentiousness or even a modicum of eye-rolling dismissal, lifts the series above and beyond the standard SyFy fare of yesteryear. This is a space opera worthy of your time and patience, and oh, what luck! Season 2 began on Feb. 1, and the first season is available on Amazon Prime.
Out of the Box is a column by VCReporter staff and contributors about television and streaming content.