The Expanse

Television series review

Unlike many far-future shows or movies, The Expanse is believable to a harrowing degree. There are no Vulcans, or lightsabers, or even aliens with strange protrusions from their heads. Instead, you have a premise and a plot that seem ripped straight from our past tendencies, projected into a future landscape as fascinating as it is terrible.

Based on a series of novels by James S. A. Corey and set in the 23rd century, the series presents a future where humanity has colonized the inner part of the solar system, with stations located as far out as Jupiter’s moons. Even some of the larger asteroids in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter contain bustling colonies of “Belters,” humans with their own cultures, dialects, and adaptations to the reduced gravity and artificial environment.

Meanwhile, human colonies on Mars have become independent from Earth, achieving enough power to stand toe-to-toe with its mother planet. Earth and Mars engage in a constant diplomatic and military boxing match, which leaves the Belters vulnerable to becoming disposable collateral damage during Cold War–esque side conflicts between the two planets. Belt activists for independence are lauded freedom fighters at home, but are considered terrorists by the snarling superpowers of the solar system.

Humanity is nothing if not steadfast in our ability to do terrible things to each other in the name of “defending our homes.”

Sound familiar? Humanity is nothing if not steadfast in our ability to do terrible things to each other in the name of “defending our homes,” which is what makes so much of this series relatable despite the advanced technology and exotic locales. But fair warning: the first episode can be daunting, if not downright impossible to follow. Just when you get familiar with a detective on the Belter colony Ceres, the story jumps to a ship in deep space. Then suddenly you’re on Earth, following a glamorous older Indian woman as she plays with her grandson and discusses United Nations politics. The scope of the show creates a steep learning curve, but give it until the second or third episode, when the landscape of the series begins to make sense.

And speaking of that United Nations politician, Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo) just might be my favorite character. It’s an incredibly juicy part for an older woman—a position of power and intrigue with some of the best lines in the series. With the rest of the cast in drab militaristic or functional clothing, it’s obvious the costume designer has enormous amounts of fun with Chrisjen’s gowns, coiffures, and jewelry. Almost as a contrast to her glamour, Chrisjen is a force to be reckoned with, a woman confronting the maxims of her youth while fighting to find the right side going forward. Every scene she’s in crackles.

My one criticism of The Expanse is the lack of comic relief. There are a few character moments here and there, but ultimately this exciting, gut-wrenching series is a sci-fi noir thriller. It has no interest in making audiences laugh.

For Amazon Prime members, the first two seasons of The Expanse are free. A third season is available for three dollars an episode. The series originally aired on SyFy, but when that channel canceled it in May, a hue and cry from fans led Amazon to pick up the show for a fourth season. I have only seen the first two seasons at this point, and even if I never get around to seeing the rest, I feel it was worth it to watch what I did.

While The Expanse is about an interplanetary arms race, it’s also an intimate story. This is about the tension between people who believe the ends justify the means, people who hope to rise above our worst impulses, and people who are just trying to survive. Like the best science fiction, it holds a mirror up to our present-day lives, asking us to reexamine everything we take for granted, and everything we wish to change.

The Expanse is unrated, but I would rate it PG-13 for crude language, subject matter, and intense, sometimes graphic science-fiction violence.

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