Preview: The Expanse 1×1 (US: Syfy)

Wide, but not deep

In the US: Mondays, 10/9c, Syfy
In the UK: Not yet acquired

As I’ve remarked before, nothing’s original these days – you’re basically just mixing elements of previous works together to come up with novel combinations. In sci-fi, that goes doubly so. Indeed, given any new sci-fi series, it’s usually possible to spend your time going, “Oh, that’s X meets Y,” where X and Y are the TV shows being synthesised together to create the new series. 

So you have to at least credit the creators of The Expanse with developing something that enables viewers to play this very nerdy drinking game not twice but thrice over, with the option of further plundering later on. Based on the books of ‘James SA Corey’ (really Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck), it’s set in the 23rd century and postulates a future where the solar system has been colonised. The UN runs Earth, Mars is an independent military power and the asteroid belt is a source of raw materials that both Earth and Mars are looking at eagerly.

So Earth: think Elysium meets 24, with Shohreh Aghdashloo as the UN boss running black sites to try to find out what Mars is up to, as war in space looks inevitable.

The Asteroid Belt: Think Total Recall meets Babylon 5 meets Blade Runner meets Dune. Thomas Jane (The PunisherHung) is a ‘belter’ private detective investigating the disappearance of a rich girl who’s run away from home. The belters have grown up in low g, so often have things wrong with them, such as weak muscles, overly long limbs and problems with bone fusion. They also have their own language, which Jane speaks but his non-belter partner doesn’t. They’re also feeling a bit grumpy, since they’re the working class who make everything happen, doing dangerous work for low pay, while everyone gets rich on their labour.

Mars: We’ve haven’t seen that yet. Take two shots when we do.

Outer space: Think Alien meets Virtuality, with a proletariat crew grumping around the solar system with their cargo. Steven Strait (Magic City) is the unambitious second officer who gets a promotion to XO when the captain, Jonathan Banks (Breaking Bad, Community), gets a touch of the space blues. Then they get a distress call and thinks start to get a bit more dangerous.

What links the otherwise totally unconnected outer space and asteroid belt strands is that the distress call is from the missing rich girl. What’s going on, what will happen next and will everyone get to meet up by the end of the 10 episodes to become Elysium meets 24 meets Total Recall meets Babylon 5 meets Blade Runner meets Dune meets Alien meets Virtuality? You’ll just have to wait and see.

So far, so derivative. But, as I said, so’s everything these days. So does The Expanse do much that’s interesting with this pot pourri of sci-fi stories past, or is it just a rip off?

At the very least, The Expanse does indicate that following a somewhat fallow period for Syfy, in which it was more content to make B-movies like Sharknado and “me, too!” shows like Alphas and Z Nation, it seems relatively determined to make proper science fiction that leads rather than follows. Like Defiance, it loves itself a bit of world-building and tries to imagine what these 23rd century societies might be like. Life in the belt is well realised and no one has a modern-day fashionable haircut; bravely, even Jane has deformities from having grown up without the benefit of billions of tons of rock beneath him.

The Expanse also wants to emphasis that it is more Battlestar Galactica than Star Trek, with some attempts at correct physics which it credits its audience with having the brains to understand. For example, the solar system is very big and you need to go very fast to go any distance; that means accelerating quickly, which isn’t something the human body is very happy about and might need some assistance dealing with the associated difficulties. None of this is explained to some newbie – you just have to work it out for yourself.

But as is also often pointed out, science-fiction rarely tries to predict the future so much as extrapolate the present or even the past, and where The Expanse does fall down quite severely is in its depiction of cultures. Everything is basically the Wild West in outer space. There’s some racial diversity, but not much. Everyone appears to be straight.

And everything is run by white men (yes, captain, XO and 2nd officer of the spaceship are all white and men). Women, despite the fact that we’re talking about zero-g mining so physical strength isn’t an issue, aren’t numbered in the miners at all. And by the end of the first episode, there are only two female members of the cast left alive in outer space. One’s an engineer on the spaceship who has an oddly, cleavage-revealing outfit. The other is…

No. Have a guess what she does for a living, first.

Bet you can.

Yes, she’s a prostitute. 

As you may have noticed, the show’s Achilles’ Heel is the people side of things. As well as devising a future that’s less progressive than the 1950s, it’s also quite poor at creating characters you might care about. Jane’s almost interesting, but his is more or less the only person in the show who has any depth. Attempts to make Strait a slacker don’t endear him to you so much as irritate you. And they’re the ones who get the bulk of the characterisation. Pity everyone else who doesn’t even get that much.

The Expanse is very much science-fiction aimed at the ‘Sad Puppies’ contingent – big ideas, science-based, very little about the people, with heroic white guys running the place, the centre of all attention. If that’s your bag, The Expanse is one of the best offerings in this field for some time. If it’s not, then while you can admire it, like all that ice they’re mining in the asteroid belt, it’s a slippery affair that’ll you find hard to grab onto.

But don’t just take my word for it – try the trailer and if you like it, underneath is the entire first episode for you on YouTube.

  • Mark Carroll

    I do like decent world-building but I do like caring about interesting characters too rather than heroes. The world-building doesn't suffice unless the ideas are big indeed. (I can live without the diversity, but that's easy for me to say as an able-bodied white male!)

  • benjitek

    Was looking forward to Expanse, the trailer looked great. The first episode was a disappointment. I made it to the end, barely — it didn't exactly hold my attention. I'll watch a couple more, maybe it'll get better 🙁

  • Andy Butcher

    I'm not sure how much of the weakness of the characters in the pilot is down to the script, the fairly massive amount of exposition required to kick off a show like this without a handy mini-series to set the scene (leaving little time to get to know anyone), or the casting.

    Other than Jane, none of the main cast gave the impression of being able to handle their roles very well, and I think this might well prove to be the Achilles heel of the show. Which would be ironic, given that BSG's amazing casting was what made it work.

    Still, like benjitek, I'm willing to give it a few more episodes, if only because I thoroughly enjoyed the books…

  • I did wonder why an Oscar-winning actress was doing such a hammy job on 24. I guess it was under protest!

  • I'm a great advocate for the return of the 'pilot movie' to overcome these problems, but I guess that ain't happening. But it's always interesting to see how showrunners get round the issue of the first episode plot/character dump, since everyone does it differently. Particularly interesting is the character v plot issue – how much time to spend on character versus plot when you're cramming, since it tells you a lot about both the show and the showrunners, and sometimes genre.

    In the case of sci-fi and action shows, it seems to be standard to think “if we give them lots of ideas, we can do character later”, whereas I think any show that plans on having longevity should be aiming for the other way round – people will forgive a slightly slower paced drama, I think, if they like the characters from the get-go, and will only appreciate more the ideas/action scenes later on. Go the other way and you have to have a constant ability to produce new ideas and action scenes or else people will give up, again unless the characters are good.

  • Mark Carroll

    I'm reminded of Fox switching “Firefly” around to get an action episode in first, pushing the originally intended pilot much later.

  • benjitek

    I enjoyed her in 24… They killed her off sooner than originally planned, but she still had a good run, and, was still paid the originally contracted amount.

  • Her 'Beh-roooz!' delivery was pretty legendary, IIRC. Ain't It Cool even started a drinking game about it:

  • benjitek

    Cute… She has won a number of awards, no Oscar though — she was nominated for 1.

  • Like I said, I thought it funny that such a well regarded actress was doing such an 'interesting' job with her lines.

    But then Laura Benanti on Supergirl, too. Although it turns out she's only rubbish in scenes with Melissa Benoist. Not sure why that should be

  • benjitek

    One opinion I guess…

  • Andy Butcher

    Yup. I remember that when it was first aired, the most common criticism of the BSG miniseries was that it was rather slow. But that was because it took the time to set up the characters, which then allowed them to start the show with '33', still one of the best 'first' episodes ever, imho.

  • Love 33. It would have been perfect, if it hadn't been for tinkering by the Syfy channel bosses.