Here’s what I learned from consuming Season 1 of The Expanse over two nights. Firstly, I apparently have way too much time to kill. Secondly, I didn’t know how much I missed having a reliably good science fiction space drama on my watch list.
And last but not least, I’m a sucker for how episodes end on a cliffhanger. I couldn’t wait to find out what happens next. Telling myself “Okay, just one more” happened more times than I care to admit.
The Expanse takes place in a couple of hundred years when humans have colonized the solar system. This isn’t Gene Roddenberry’s vision of a Utopian human society. There are a lot of the real world social, political and economical issues, past and present, in the Expanse. I like how I can readily see what The Expanse is trying to do without it feeling too forced in the face.
The Expanse is wise to zero in on a few core issues so it doesn’t become too messy. A key source of tension between characters is class hierarchy. Basically, the haves vs the have nots. If you’re born on Earth, you might not realize how it’s a privilege to live under an endless blue sky with an abundance of water, fresh air and good ol’ gravity.
If you’re born on the asteroid belts, you toil in slavery-like conditions where air and water are at a premium. Making matters worse, living in low gravity causes serious health complications. It’s no wonder the Belters resent the Earthers.
The other primary source of tension that the Expanse builds upon are the different factions that are at odds with one another. There is an inherent distrust of outsiders and a fear in the unknown. One reason for this is because Earth is in an escalating cold war with independent military power Mars.
I like that the Martians are just humans who have colonized and are terra-forming the red planet. Having no “aliens” makes the story that much more relatably human. Another antagonizing faction is the Belter’s labor union named the O.P.A. who are suspected of terrorist activities which ties into some of today’s real world concerns.
This is all a long way of saying that The Expanse establishes the world so that we can get a handle for how it works and provides the context for the story. The Expanse focuses on central characters who don’t readily identify with any of the above factions and it’s how they navigate between the cracks and dark spaces that is compelling.
Each of three core characters have story lines in their own genre flavor that when blended together is pretty seamless. Police Detective Miller’s (Thomas Jane) story is a noir-esque mystery. He’s a morally challenged anti-hero figure tasked to find a missing young woman, the daughter of the richest man in the system, and gets caught up in a conspiracy. Miller is born in the belts but lived mostly on Earth so he’s seen as a traitor by his fellow indigenous people.
After leaving Earth to work in the Belts, ship officer Jim Holden’s (Steven Strait) morally grounded decision lands his crew mates in the cross-fire of a new, mysterious high-powered threat. This space opera story line is the strongest to me because of the life and death stakes at every turn and the fun interplay between the crew mates. They are often escaping from the frying pan into the fire. I also love the attention to how the outer space mechanics and physics work.
While I like the character of Chrisjen Avasarala, a high ranking United Nations official who will stop at nothing to win the game and uncover the conspiracy, as well as actress Shohreh Aghdashloo, this is the most separate story. I believe the intended genre is to be a taut political thriller but comes off as a character drama piece.
Her scenes works best when it’s focused on Chrisjen actively being Chrisjen; for example how she manipulates people and is one step ahead of her Earth counterparts. Her story is less organic in scenes when another character is describing her or when she’s uncovering the backstory of other characters.
All three story lines have a different piece of the bigger puzzle. Although there are some parallels between Chrisjen and Detective Miller’s story structure, Miller plays off of much stronger supporting characters and the stakes are more immediate. Chrisjen’s Season 1 arc ends on a promising note that should hopefully address some of these issues.
Thomas Jane is a solid lead actor, I might like his performance more than his character who’s slowly growing on me. Jane knows how to make a scene and dialogue interesting which otherwise might fall flat with a lesser actor. He works a shot glass almost as well as Lena Headey’s Cersei with a wine glass in her hand in countless scenes.
To be clear, The Expanse is also based on a book series but is not “Game of Thrones in outer space”. I wouldn’t call The Expanse a space epic because it doesn’t encompass a big enough scope to completely capture my imagination. The characters are good but I’m not caught up in their world long after watching.
The three core story lines aren’t balanced that well either, Holden’s story is the one I’m most interested in. In the mid-season, there’s a little lull where the story has take time to set up the final stretch. The finale pulls everything together. I have some minor issues with it though. It’s satisfying but I wouldn’t say it’s emotionally resonating.
The Expanse blends mystery and space drama in a future which draws upon our modern world issues. It’s part detective noir, part political thriller but it’s the space opera element which makes The Expanse most watchable. The first season leaves room to improve upon and to continue to develop it’s own identity next season. Those looking for a sci-fi show set in space that’s not too generic, The Expanse is a good place to start.
What are your thoughts on Season 1? Which science fiction shows are you watching now?