What’s The Show? The Expanse
What’s It All About, JG? Hard sci-fi for the Asimov and Clarke crowd who find the likes of Star Trek too silly and unrealistic, the likes of Doctor Who too fantastical, the likes of Dark Matter to soapy, but who want to spend some time above the clouds nevertheless. Set in the near future, The Expanse gives us a vision where humanity has spread out among the solar system and split into, essentially, three power blocks, Earth, Mars and “The Belt”, the latter being a group of largely disenfranchised peoples who live and work in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
We follow a number of different perspectives – political, personal, social – as we explore the diaspora of humanity and what happens when the fragile balance that exists between the major power blocs is disrupted by the arrival of an extra-solar “proto-molecule”, which represents both a potentially decisive weapon for one bloc to gain victory over the rest, as well as first contact with an alien species. There’s a solid commitment to realism, so signals take take to travel from Earth to Mars (no handy subspace here), distances can take weeks (and episodes) to be crossed, and there’s a proper sense that the verisimilitude is more than just window-dressing but in many ways is the point.
Why Did You Give It A Go? It looked good. Not a very complicated reason, admittedly, but there it is. In some ways there’s an impression that, although based on a book, the TV version of The Expanse was picking up the mantle of Battlestar Galactica (which is becoming a recurring theme here – just goes to show how influential that show has become), taking the care and time to really dig into the politics and personal lives of characters involved in these frameworks in a meaningful way. Some of the events, like The Ring, might be a bit more fantastical and traditionally sci-fi, but the way in which they’re dealt with remains rooted in that plausible approach. We get real consequences and character progression based on experiences, light years away from the soapy space opera that’s more common in space-based adventure shows, and the plot is used as a mechanism to drive the characters, not the other way around. That also sounded like it would make the show worth spending time with.
Is It Any Good? Yes. Yes it is. The first couple of season in particular really take the time to explore and understand the different aspects of all the societies portrayed, how the various political alliances work and just how society has moved on so that, when we get to the proto-molecule and Ring stuff, we understand deeply how this is going to change things. There’s no easy answers presented and the sense of good people doing the wrong things while trying to get them right lends a compelling aspect to everything that happens. Sometimes the commitment to realism can be a bit of a barrier, so for example all the people of The Belt (Belters) have a cod-Carribbean (Creole? Jamaican? It depends who’s talking) accent, which in theory is a really nice way of differentiating them from the non-Belters but in practice can be incredibly distracting – Season Three cast addition David Strathairn can’t land it and it’s vastly undermining to his performance, which is unfortunate to say the least. But for the most part the commitment to show how all the different aspects of society work remains very successful, and a mostly terrific cast add considerably to this. Thomas Jane’s laconic detective adds a much-needed note of wry levity in the early going, David Strait provides an easy-to-like character that doesn’t distract from him having actual edges, and of course there’s the inevitable shout-out to Shohreh Adhdashloo, who’s simply terrific as Chrisjen Avasarala, another wonderfully rounded-out character. Not everyone is perfect – Elizabeth Mitchell turns up to do That One Thing Elizabeth Mitchell Does, and Dominique Tipper proves surprisingly difficult to care about – but for the most part we have a well-assembled cast that really bring detail to their characters. The plots are simple enough to follow without being distracting, yet leave more than enough space to be nuanced and allow shading and complexity. Overall, this is, in fact, a very well balanced show indeed.
How Many Episodes Did You Watch? All of ’em, and I shall be continuing to do so.
Would You Recommend It? Definitely. Even though Season Three has been a bit wobbly in places (after the excellent first couple of episodes, things do sag a bit with a lot “we’re at The Ring”, “we’re still at The Ring,” “yup, still sitting here!” material before events get going again) it’s very refreshing to have a show like The Expanse out there. Don’t get me wrong, I love soapy ol’ space opera as much as anyone, but The Expanse is genuinely occupying a space in sci-fi television that no other show is at the moment, and it’s doing it with the sort of understated confidence and commitment that really lets the material come to life. It’s not completely flawless by any stretch, but in its commitment to using sci-fi to tell stories that are about people first, rather than plot, special effects or gosh-wow, it’s grown to be a thoughtful, compelling piece of fiction. Recently saved from cancellation by Amazon (which in itself says something – that it was actually worth saving), The Expanse definitely deserves your attention.
Scores On The Doors? 8/10