Why The Expanse ought to turn out to be your subsequent favorite sci-fi present | Science fiction TV
E.Everyone wants to know what show will be the next Game of Thrones. Sci-fi drama The Expanse, originally from the SyFy channel and now from Amazon (the fifth season closed last week), isn’t. But at first sight you will be forgiven for thinking that way.
Like Game of Thrones, the show is based on a series of books that are really about politics and power. But unlike Game of Thrones, the writers, who write under the pen name James SA Corey, have a plan for the story they tell, with an approximate ending date. You are on the last book to be published next year.
In contrast, George RR Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire, on which the show is based, has no approximate end date. It’s been about three decades since the first A Song of Fire book was published. All eight The Expanse books were published in less than a decade.
But anyone who likes Game of Thrones will likely enjoy The Expanse, and not just because one of the Expanse writers worked as Martin’s assistant. In essence, both series are stories about power and ambition packed into larger stories about personal and social conflicts. In Game of Thrones, magic – the defining mystical aspect of most fantasy stories – is difficult. It’s hard to get to and difficult to use.
Space in the open is also difficult. Very hard. This is not a universe where people can simply move around the galaxy or shoot phasers at evil aliens, unlike the majority of mainstream science fiction. Gravity, air, fuel, food and, above all, security are rare goods in a volatile solar system ruled by three human factions: people from Earth who have banded together around the UN, a new nation that has colonized Mars, and “Belters”. People who lived in space stations and on the edge of the colonized solar system on the verge of survival. They resent “innards” – Earthlings and Martians who enjoy basic luxuries like unlimited air and easily accessible water.
Space travel is also difficult and painful. In the Expanse Universe, people are subject to the same rules as all of us. Ships don’t rush through space while passengers casually look out the window – they’re strapped to a chair, praying that the rocket’s hard fire will end soon.
There are familiar tropes within the series, some of which might make it more accessible to new viewers. The first season exactly follows the first book, which is essentially a noir conundrum, in which a fedora-wearing Humphrey Bogart-style detective (played by Thomas Jane) tries to solve a murder investigation he’s obsessed with. Elsewhere, there is a well-known male protagonist, James Holden (played by Steven Strait), who is self-righteous and capable and motivated to do good in a universe full of evildoers.
It’s hard not to get caught up in Strait’s version of Holden, who preaches less and is more disoriented by the enormity of what he’s thrown into. But the bigger stars are the show’s supporting characters: Wes Chatham as Amos Burton and Shohreh Aghdashloo as political mastermind Chrisjen Avasarala. Holden himself is a pretty common space hero, but it’s his friends and allies who demonstrate the book’s unique appeal. The most interesting characters are the morally ambivalent ones, like the enigmatic Belter leader Fred Johnson (played by Chad L Coleman). When the real enemies show up throughout the series, like Marcos Inaros in season five (played by Keon Alexander), they’re not the rubber-masked two-dimensional antagonists sci-fi viewers might be used to. The most dangerous and monstrous people in this universe are often the smoothest speakers with pretty faces and lots of money.
What ultimately sets the book and series apart, and in part led Amazon’s Jeff Bezos to revive the show after SyFy decided not to renew it, is that it is a story about an intermediate period in the course of human history. James SA Corey made important turning points in human history while writing these books. There are allusions to the rise and fall of empires and the effects of great technological advances. These changes resulted in increasing pain for humanity and that is the central theme of the Expanse Universe.
What’s tempting about The Expanse is not watching astronauts discover the alien. It is the opposite. It’s about seeing what stays the same when humans approach the alien.