If you’ve been thinking about starting to watch Syfy’s The Expanse, here’s a flavour review for you. I won’t get into many plot points, but there is a lot of discussion about characters and their relationships, worldbuilding and such. I’ll call them light spoilers.
Let’s get this out of the way right of the top: I love science fiction. Like all of it. The bad, the good, the ugly. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve tried to get to watch Babylon 5, Ghost in the Shell, Farscape, Stargate, Doctor Who. I’ve read the Dune series more times than I can remember. I read the prequels. The prequels! What you heard is true; they’re terrible. I still enjoyed them. Don’t even get me started on Star Trek or Star Wars or where they fit in the spectrum of good to bad to nonsensical but still awesome. I’m listening to a science fiction themed hip hop album as I write this article (Logic – The Incredible True Story, shoutout to Thalia). I enjoyed Avatar but, you know, I only watched it the once. One of my favourite comic book characters is Lobo. You know, the space biker who is really only friends with space dolphins? He slaughtered his whole homeworld but was then forced to save his 4th grade teacher, Miss Tribb? No? You should read The Last Czarnian. It’s the best. It’s in space!
I read James S.A. Corey’s Expanse series after a friend pushed it in my direction a couple times and during a book lull I finally picked up Leviathan Wakes. Then it was a week later and I opened Caliban’s War. What a rollercoaster. The world that Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck created is well thought out, the core characters have a believable and comfortable group dynamic… once Amos is certain who matters and who doesn’t. Obviously, for me, the space part really helped. Tin cans with big ass drives on the back just blasting through space at unimaginable speeds… except they’re fragile, cramped death traps that will kill you if you stop respecting them for even one single second. Things are far. Gravity will crush you or stretch you. Probably both. No fancy energy manipulation around here, no sir. No tractor beams, no teleportation, no FTL. No air. No water. This is a frontier: people are going to die and it is going to suck.
Warning – very light spoilers ahead. This is mostly about characters and a bit about world building. Less about actual plot points.I was excited, cautiously, when they announced that SyFy would be bringing The Expanse to the small screen. Now that we’re (a little over) halfway through the season I had to give it a quick review with a very long intro. Sorry about that. I’m happy to say that my caution, while not totally gone, has been significantly reduced after watching half of the season. I am loving it. Not the loving it of really having no other good space opera science fiction shows to watch (Killjoys was okay, and it’s over for now) but the loving it of hoping they make 7 seasons and a couple terrible made for TV movies and maybe a big screen movie. It has all the elements: great cast, loyalty to the original story (but not too loyal), faithful representation of the painstakingly created universe… they even splurged on the CGI, giving us the variable gravity so important to that universe and they made some Belters look right, more or less.
Let’s talk about the cast for a minute. Thomas Jane is doing a great job of bringing to life the broken, obsessed, alcohol soaked Detective Josephus Miller who isn’t bad… but is no longer sure how to be good. His constant scowl is a good substitute for that basset hound face, and that goddamn hat is there, pissing everyone off. It’s not a fedora, people, it’s a pork pie… in the book. In the show they slap him in a trilby – thanks to commenter tzp for catching my mistake. The Belter hand signals feel natural. Killin’ it, Tom. The producers made some interesting choices with his peripheral relationships, but seem to have kept the character intact. Octavia Muss, played by Athena Karkanis, was an interesting change from the books – she’s now his former partner and former lover. I think. She’s not a hard as nails Belter, but she’s tough in her own way. Jay Hernandez as Miller’s current partner, Dimitri Havelock, has had only a minor role so far, but he is being portrayed as quite a bit more likeable from what I remember in the books. I don’t recall him trying to learn Belter hand-speak or being very nice to any Belters at all, aside from Miller. Anyway, we’ll see where they’re going with that. There was a lot more resentment against the Belt in the books from this guy.
The crew of the (newly dubbed) Rocinante was excellently cast for attitude and character, if not for physical attributes. Naomi is shorter than Jim and Amos isn’t a muscle bound giant… but I’m okay with it. They all feel right. Alex Kamal (Cas Anvar) is right on. The accent is almost Texan. In the books the Martian rancher accent is definitely described as affected, but also a mainstay of the Martian population. In the sixth episode Alex and Amos’ awesome friendship starts showing itself with an awkward conversation in a bar after an awkward conversation in the Roci. Amos. Amos Amos Amos. Man, I gotta say, he has won me over. Wes Chatham is playing it right, the guy is clearly so broken but he cares. In a scary way. His reaction to Naomi when she reveals she knew that Holden logged the Scopuli’s signal is just… heart breaking. He clearly thinks Naomi Nagata is the number one best person in the universe, and not in a sexy way. His loyalty is absolute. Man. I’m tearing up right now just thinking about it. Naomi Nagata (Dominique Tipper) is still somewhat an enigma, but I think that’s accurate. She has the OPA tattoo on her neck, but she is cautious, fierce and intelligent. She’s not one for ’causes’ any more, whatever she was once. It takes a long time to unwrap her character in the books, and it feels like they’re taking the right amount of time here. For now, we see her humanized a bit by loosening up with Holden at the bar. Steven Strait, playing James Holden, as the leader of this little group of troublemakers is subtly arrogant, a born leader who will not back down from anything once he’s made up his mind. On principle. He cares for his people, and he clearly already thinks they’re his people even though his crew is not totally certain of that yet. Who does he think he is, sending war starting messages into space and making shotgun treaties with the Butcher of Anderson Station? James f****in’ Holden, that’s who. You’ll see.
I’m totally buying the main cast is selling, obviously. I’m also into the supporting cast. Chad Coleman is a fearsome, but refined, Fred Johnson. Our flashback glimpse at Anderson Station leaves no doubt as to his abilities, but also the fact that he’s now OPA makes it clear he’s no longer willing to sacrifice his humanity for a cause. Well, probably not. We’ll see. Shohreh Aghdashloo is playing a fantastic Avasarala, but I wish she ate more sunflower seeds and swore like a million times more. That being said, she is clearly not to be underestimated or messed with. She is a ruthless power player in Earth gov – the show even captures the bizarre and fascinating juxtaposition and overlap of her soft, happy family life and her all consuming, hard as nails diplomatic life. Anderson Dawes quickly became a surprisingly good character for me as well. In the books I felt like he flew under the radar a bit, even though he’s pretty central to the OPA conflict for a short time. Jared Harris does a great job of creating a believable fanatic and leader of the grimier parts of the OPA. He wears the neck scar well, the Belter hand signals feel natural and he uses that Belter accent wonderfully.
I’ll admit it’s not the Belter creole I had in mind – it’s more South Africa than street Spanish, but it works. It feels like a mish mash. It feels like the mish mash that the Belters are – and they’re not all 7 feet tall with bulbous heads, you’ll notice. I’m good with that, too. First, I understand that TV production budgets are very limited. This isn’t a big budget film, it’s a TV show. There are a few oddly tall Belters who I’m assuming are late generation low-g dwellers, and the SFX work they did on them is great. As a whole the Belters feel like a real human population – varied in physical attributes and attitudes. The general language and slang seems to be natural as well – Earther, Duster, Skinny.
I could probably write a whole article on the ship design, but I’ll wait once the season is over to get into that. They feel like towers, because down is only down when the ship is moving! Welcome to space, everyone. They look great, too. The MCRN ships are deadly space swords, the Belter ships are filthy little shit boxes that are just trying to jump to the next rock. I don’t believe we’ve seen any Earther ships yet.
The writers are already hinting at back story stuff that didn’t come up in the books forever, little nuggets of wonderful information that are just delectable to those of us who have read the series. As you can see from this glowing review of the series so far that I will be watching the whole thing and I’m not a tiny bit surprised that they’re already signed for season two.
Strap in and get ready for the juice. We’re going into hard burn.