'The Expanse' Is a Seriously Great Sci-Fi Show That It's Time to Stop Sleeping On
You may have heard a rumbling in the cosmos. You may have sensed, within the constant bass whine of our universe's cosmic background radiation, something shift, like the preordained ballooning of outer space juddered once on its otherwise smooth track. The Expanse is back.
For the uninitiated, The Expanse, whose fourth season just dropped on Amazon Prime this week (and whose first three seasons were broadcast on Syfy), is a futuristic space opera in which humanity has colonized our solar system over a couple of centuries and three major powers have arisen: the sedentary and oxygen-rich Earth, the militaristic Mars, and the constantly exploited Asteroid Belt. The show is based on the series of novels, novellas, and short stories written by James S. A. Corey, the joint pen name of writers Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, and each season corresponds to one individual book. Both the books and the show have won multiple awards, including the prestigious Hugo, and for those of us who desperately missed the likes of Battlestar Galactica and Stargate, this series was exactly what we were waiting for.
It was also cancelled suddenly in 2018 because Syfy's agreement to air the series relied on live viewership numbers, and, according to them, it just wasn't doing well enough. It makes some sense: weird genre stuff like sci-fi often does a lot better via streaming than it does on cable, which is what made Amazon Prime's quick rescue -- after a massive campaign by the show's very passionate, very loud fans -- so exciting. Jeff Bezos himself announced the decision in May 2018 at the International Space Development Conference, and we were off to the races.
The actual plot of The Expanse follows a number of plucky humans thrust into a cold war (which, in its third season, finally got pretty hot) between the three distinct powers, all vying for control and respect in their quadrant of the solar system. In Season 1, Belter James Holden (Steven Strait) and his crew are drawn into a massive conspiracy involving an extraterrestrial and deadly "protomolecule" after their ship answers a phony distress call, knocking down the first domino in nearly starting a three-way war. On Earth, expert political schemer Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo) is steadily gaining control of the United Nations, the governing body of the entire planet, while in the Belt, detective Josephus Miller (Thomas Jane) is unraveling the mystery of who has been pulling the strings to incite a war in the first place. In its second season and beyond, part of the story follows headstrong Martian marine Bobbie Draper (Frankie Adams) as she loses faith with her home planet and throws in her lot with Holden and the crew of the Rocinante.
Like its view of humanity in our interstellar future, The Expanse is a little bit of everything: it's a bit of a space opera, a bit of a noir detective story, a bit of a western. Its view of the future is both bleak (i.e., it doesn't look like humans are going to stop warring with each other any time soon) and hopeful (if we can figure out how to colonize our corner of space, we can work together to find other habitable planets to start our lives on too). Without spoiling actual plot events for those of you who might want to go back and watch it all from the beginning (you should!), half of the fourth season, which follows the fourth book in the series, Cibola Burn, takes place on an Earth-like planet in a faraway solar system which two opposing parties, Earth and the Belt, are attempting to colonize, while the planet itself seems to have other plans.
As with a lot of hard sci-fi, the show is incrediblly complex and hard to parse (I've watched the third season in full twice over by now, and it still remains almost incomprehensible to me). But what's particularly impressive about The Expanse is, though the plots sometimes go all over the place, you'll reach a point where you suddenly realize you love these characters. Through simple osmosis, you'll learn what David Strathairn and Jared Harris mean when they launch into long monologues of Belter patois. You've gotta really pay attention to understand Avasarala's near-flawless rise to the top, but I guarantee by Season 2 you'll do anything for her. You've gotta listen well to appreciate Martian expat Alex Kamal's (Cas Anvar) poetic retellings of life out in the deep, dark black. But for those of us who are ready to enter into this world, the rewards of The Expanse, like the vast new frontier of outer space, are practically endless.
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