SyFy, you are crushing the space drama genre in 2015-2016.
First you had Dark Matter, a wonderful and mysterious space drama like Firefly mixed with Battlestar Galactica starring the little demon girl from Silent Hill
Then you have Killjoys, an exciting romp around a tense faraway solar system starring Iceman from the X-men movies.
Now we’ve got the best of these shows fused into our own near future solar system in the Expanse, the story of mysterious relations between Earth’s UN dominated government, Mars’ Sparta-like Military government, and the rebellious Belters, those who live in the asteroid belt and Jovian moons mining raw materials for both worlds. The show is told from three perspectives, a cop on Ceres, a grungy crew that came off an ice-mining ship and wound up on a converted high tech Martian warship after being mysteriously attacked, and Indian diplomat on earth from the United Nations.
The first season wrapped this week, and it has already been renewed for a second, with good reason.
It’s stylish, well-acted, feels real, and it’s downright compelling. What a finale! What the hell is that blue crystal stuff? Are there viral space zombies? Is there bio-nuclear AI? Do I know what I’m even saying?
The fact that I’m asking these questions is why I like this show. Now let me explain more.
There is lots going on in the show, negotiating lots of characters, but the narrative remains very well structured. The crux of the story is the conflict between Earth, Mars and the Belt, which has been intensified by the disappearance of Julie Mao, famous heiress to an Earth corporation, suspected to be perpetrated by the OPA (Belter independence extremists), the attack on a ship called the Canterbury by what everyone suspects is Martian stealth ships, and the closure of the Martian trade zone. These three events coupled with the three different narrative perspectives, divide up the large solar system and political and personal occurrences into digestible bits, each with their own style and feel.
Trudging around with Miller the gritty cop in the belt on Ceres, we get a tense noir detective feel. He is gruff and charismatic, and these characteristics are opposites that play well. Moving through the rocky tunnels mirrors the gruff nature of Miller, meshing with the sleek (and awesomely real-feeling and accurately evolved-from-today) future tech. It’s a powder keg with an old world feel, but I feel its too indulgent of Miller’s introspection. Perhaps it’s almost too noir, maybe parodying instead of embodying the genre.
With Holden and the misfit crew, we get a nerve wracking, claustrophobic, action/horror feel. This is the group that really steals the show. There are a lot of personalities in a small space with lots on the line, and makes for great TV. Holden is a reluctant leader with a lawful good alignment that becomes more precarious as the show progresses. His crew includes a snappy and witty pilot, a willful, strong and caring engineer, and her fiercely loyal and morally questionable compatriot. As the season moves along, they find themselves having to sacrifice more and more of themselves to solve a mystery they find has a growing relation to them both as individuals and members of humanity. And their hijacked Martian gunship, the Rocinante, is pretty badass.
The Indian diplomat, Avasarala, on Earth and her experiences give us expansive political drama. She is quietly powerful and moving, and has a strong desire to get at the truth, adeptly plowing her way through the political processes, but not without consequences her position and the lives of those she loves and cares about. Earth feels very decadent and sterile. The show doesn’t spend much time there, but what we see of Earth feels as cold and as unforgiving as space. This is perhaps the shows slowest part, but perhaps its most important, for all the conflict that is happening in space is started, and will most likely be ended, here.
Ironically, the most at home I feel on the show is on the deck of the Rocinante, not a planet or asteroid. Earth, Mars and the major moons have become decadent cesspools or cold political theaters, military hotbeds or corporate hegemonies. The only home and freedom that seems to come clearly across is those who make their way through the solar system on ships and bases.
There is a lot at stake personally for many of the characters right away, so we feel for them and are invested in them very quickly. There is no wasted dialogue or time in this show, (given its short freshman season) everything is tight and streamlined, well-organized and (mostly) well-written.
I like Holden, leader of the mining crew a lot because he starts having to compromise his idyllic world view very quickly, and I like Amos, the morally bankrupt ice hauler, because he is a scoundrel who doesn’t not bend to anyone’s will. The Detective Miller is leaning towards too much of an emo of a detective for my taste, but really shines at the end of the season. I really like the Indian diplomat Avasarala, though I find her sections drag a bit. I think that’s more an effect of those around her, the boring earth environment, and some of the writing rather than the actress Shohreh Aghdashloo’s ability. I like the pilot Alex as a comic relief side character, but surprisingly, I dislike the OPA leader, played by Jared Haris (who I normally like a lot) most of all. He’s too much of a cookie-cutter bad guy. No depth. We have yet to have a charismatic central villain to hate. But all in all a solid cast.
There is an amazing, intuitive and logically evolved future tech used in conjunction with excellent CGI. This, paired with realistically portrayed space travel and outer space existence makes for an amazing television experience. Oxygen use and power use are taken into account. RCS thrusters and realistic use of magnetic boots and gravity are in place. Practical considerations are taken into account even in this SyFy environment, more so than in Battlestar Galactica, Dark Matter or Killjoys. It gives the world a tangible, dangerous, relatable quality which heightens submersion and helps suspend disbelief in some of the more fantastic elements of the show. The more seamless the world building and logically consistent the rules are (especially when those rules are keeping with what we know to be true about space and life in space now) the easier it is to participate in what is fantastical about the show and the more we are willing to forgive (like forgetting, sometimes, that even with mag boots, hair floats in space!).
The excellent world building, script, acting and CGI started Battlestar Galactica, and continued in Killjoys and Dark Matter, is getting even better. Keep it up SyFy. I’m on board. You can find season 1 on Amazon or on SyFy’s website, which by the way, has some awesome world building bonus content for the show (a growing source of bonus content for SyFy’s TV shows which are fun to play around with. Other networks are doing this too, such as AMC’s Walking Dead and Into the Badlands websites, and of course, Game of Thrones. Check it out!