In addition to announcing itself as a worthy successor to Battlestar Galactica, season 1 of Syfy’s The Expanse delivered a futuristic drama that took its genre and the inherent concepts found within seriously, making for the sort of book-to-TV adaptation that’s attractive to newcomers but is also sure to please fans of the source material. Mixing hard sci-fi with none-too-subtle touches of neo noir, the series brought a graphic realism and sense of groundedness to its massive story.
Adapted from the novels by James S.A. Corey, The Expanse delivers a narrative that’s, well… expansive. Hundreds of years in the future, humankind has not only explored but colonized the solar system. Mars is an independent military power teetering on the brink of war with Earth. Meanwhile, water and oxygen have become commodities as precious as gold and silver. Amongst the din of a great many political machinations, season 1 also established a mystery. At its core, a young woman gone missing and a police detective – Josephus Miller (Thomas Jane) – with a bad reputation is tasked with finding her. At the same time, an ice hauler is the victim of an unprovoked attack and the surviving members of its crew – including Steve Strait, Domnique Tipper, Cas Anvar, and Wes Chatham – find themselves unwittingly embroiled in a massive conspiracy involving humankind’s first contact with an alien (or “extrasolar protomolecule”) organism that, naturally, is perceived as both a potential weapon and a shot across the bow by certain powers that be. Again, the series’ plot is expansive.
Season 2 begins draped in aching paranoia and extreme tension in the wake of the season 1 finale. Various factions are still pulling for their own interests. Mars is preparing for conflict; Earth is embroiled in political squabbling with regard to implied aggression from the red planet and the overarching conspiracy of several leaders looking to start a war; and the OPA (Outer Planets Alliance), headed by Chad L. Coleman’s Fred Johnson, is making headway into the deliberate introduction of the protomolecule on the Eros space station as part of a controlled experiment that claimed thousands of lives.
With a narrative that dense, the series wisely moves to shore things up a bit and bring more of its storylines together. Key among them is Miller’s rocky transition from hardboiled detective to member of the crew aboard the appropriated Martian gunship headed by Strait’s Jim Holden. The fusing of two key character threads affords the series more time to move around the solar system, focusing its attention on the maneuverings of UN Assistant Undersecretary of Executive Administration Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo), as she enlists the services of Nick Tarabay’s Coyter, a former spy who’s agreed to help uncover the conspiratorial goings-on in the Earth government. Room is also made for Martian Marine Roberta “Bobbie” Draper (Frankie Adams) and her squad as they prepare to engage Earth and protect their Martian planet’s interests across the solar system.
Such additions to the cast and overarching storylines help The Expanse refocus its narrative, narrowing it so as to shift away from the sometimes-isolated nature of the various season 1 story threads. Season 2 is, in effect, intent on constricting the series’ titular vastness. The effort pays off big in the season premiere, which still manages to keep a Game of Thrones level amount of plates spinning, but also, like that series, finds more time for human interaction. This exploration of interpersonal relationships and motivations increases the breadth and depth of the series from a character standpoint, and keeps the sprawling plot from swallowing them whole. Case in point: the impetus of a violent clash between Miller and the seemingly brutish (but even he has layers) Amos is literally tabled, making room for a dinnertime conversation about, of all things, the scarcity of real cheese.
It may lack the libidinous spice of Jim and Naomi’s tryst, but world-building from a such a specific character standpoint makes that world more knowable to the audience. The Expanse uses familiar sci-fi tropes – there are elements of everything from The Matrix‘s synthetic protein slop to Neuromancer‘s vat-grown beef in the cheese-centric discussion – but at its core the scene successfully explores something common amongst all humans: the pleasure and comfort derived from acquiring and experiencing that which you are normally deprived. The Expanse may take it to a near-farcical extreme – cheese being policed like narcotics – but such dystopian examples flavor the moment and breathe life into the characters’ seemingly prescient circumstances.
Though still just a sketch by the time the two-hour premiere has run its course, Marine Gunnery Sgt. Draper – perhaps a reference to Mad Men alums Jared Harris and writer Robin Veith’s involvement in the series – serves to color the Martian experience in an interesting way. Because of ongoing conflict with Earth, Mars has had to push back its terraforming by nearly 100 years, which Draper sums up the ramifications of by saying those fighting have sacrificed their chance to see the red planet’s future to act as cogs in the great machine that is its friction-filled present. Draper has yet to interact with any other major character, but this narrowed focus on her viewpoint makes her a welcome addition to the series.
By thinking smaller and narrowing its focus in certain respects, The Expanse becomes a more refined series, its characters more fully formed. Like most good sci-fi, The Expanse is both a solid form of escapist entertainment and at times an eerily accurate reflection of the present. Touching on everything from socio-economic disparity to governmental corruption to discrimination based on a person’s place (or planet) of origin gives the series and its storylines a welcome weightiness that’s no easy task considering how frequently they are suspended in zero gravity. It all adds up to one of the best sci-fi shows on TV at the moment.
The Expanse continues next Wednesday with ‘Static’ @10pm on Syfy.