Of Epics and Earthers, Lost in The Expanse

Every year there are two or three promising new sci-fi series that sputter out before finishing their first season. Thanks to some notable failures such as Almost Human, Caprica and even longer lasting shows like Defiance which didn’t maintain the necessary viewership to be successful, television currently lacks a new large-scale science fiction drama that delivers. SyFy’s new show The Expanse, based on the acclaimed novels by James A. Corey, hopes to become the experience we have all been waiting for. Epic worlds, the vastness of space, a compelling story of humanity: The Expanse may succeed in creating and exploring all of these things. Yet although this new show offers an intriguing variety of characters in uniquely detailed worlds, it’s difficult to tell from an uneven and at times confusing pilot if they will combine effectively to create an epic saga.

The problem with launching a new epic, especially one set in a possible future, is that you have to provide centuries of background socio-political information while telling an engaging story. This is nearly impossible to accomplish in a 42-minute pilot. The Expanse makes a valiant effort to do everything right, but there is just too much new information to absorb in too short a time. That said, the first episode does give us an excellent sense of the worlds in which the story takes place, providing us with a strong foundation on which to build in subsequent episodes.

The world of The Expanse is set 200 years in the future. Mars has been colonized and now exists as an independent military power (the populace of which is known colloquially as “Dusters”). Earth and the Moon (which has also been colonized) are ruled by the UN (these inhabitants are known as “Earthers”). And then there is the asteroid belt. “The Belt” is the main source of resources for both the Earthers and Dusters. “Belters” mine for ice and other resources, often never setting foot on a real planet. The hub of the Belters is the asteroid Ceres, a giant self-sustaining space port which is currently under the control of the UN. But Mars is hungry for more power.

The story follows three sets of characters tightly connected to its unfolding plot. The most prominent character is Detective Miller (played by Thomas Jane), a cop on the Ceres station who keeps things in order by using intimidation and deduction. In the words of Miller, “There are no laws on Ceres, only cops.” Because he is willing to go beyond the normal confines of decency to get his job done, Miller is selected to search for the missing Julie Mao (Florence Faivre), the daughter of two wealthy and influential Earthers. Although Julie is not an active character in the first episode, foreshadowing in the show’s trailer blatantly reveals her to be the unifying link among the storylines and the spark that could ignite a war between Earth and Mars.

Back on earth, top UN diplomat Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo) is working to maintain peace. But like Miller, Avasarala is willing to resort to extreme measures to ensure her own success. In the first episode we see her utilizing the earth’s gravity as an enhanced interrogation technique. Or—put more bluntly—we see her torture a Belter on the futuristic equivalent of a rack, suspending his Zero-G-adapted body above the ground and letting gravity slowly pull him apart.

Another interesting set of characters is from the ice hauler, the “Canterbury.” Here we are introduced to a number of characters, including second officer James Holden (Steven Strait), mechanic Amos Burton (Wes Chatham), chief engineer Naomi Nagata (Dominique Tipper), and pilot Alex Kamal (Cas Anver). Holden and Kamal quickly stand out as intriguing, with Kamal displaying a certain brand of zany recklessness that is enjoyable to see in a pilot. These actors have good chemistry and could easily become fan favorites of future storylines.

The pilot episode does many things right. The acting overall is quite strong and very capable of telling a compelling story. The cinematography is likewise excellent, with the shots set in Zero-G environments adeptly communicating a sense of weightlessness. The three-pronged world is incredibly interesting and fairly well established in the first episode. And there is even the promise in the three different classes (Earther, Duster, Belter) for trenchant social commentary, the kind of thoughtful cultural critique that defines the best science fiction over the past century.

The Expanse has me excited by its potential, but leaves me incredibly hungry for a story. Upon my second viewing of the episode I gleaned more narrative elements, but the show still suffers from trying to communicate too much in too little time. All of the components for creating a successful sci-fi epic are here, but that makes it even more frustrating that they aren’t yet fully realized. I truly hope that The Expanse becomes, well, a bit more expansive, and evolves into the great show it can and should be.

 Grade: B                                                                                                                               Not enough story yet to determine if this sci-fi epic will, in fact, be epic.

Rating: TV-14 LSV                                                                                                           Old enough to still not legally participate in the sex or violence.

The Expanse, Sundays 10/9C, SyFy