Peak TV has caused casualties. The recent explosion in scripted drama means that not only viewers are struggling to keep up with it all, but even the critics who tell us what’s worth watching. During Battlestar Galactica’s run only a decade ago when fewer mainstream dramas were vying for praise, even a space show could attract critical attention. Now with streaming services and yet more cable channels producing scripted TV, Syfy’s terrific return to space, The Expanse, has struggled to get much buzz. But it deserves to.
While some unwieldy subplots prevent it from operating at Battlestar’s level for now, The Expanse largely succeeds as a drama as well as a space opera adventure. Like its forerunner, it tackles contemporary themes through the prism of SF, including resource depletion, inequality, and geopolitical manipulation.
Based on the novel series by James S.A. Corey, the show is set in a future when the solar system has been colonised but interstellar travel is still unattainable. Tensions are brewing between a decadent but depleted Earth, a militaristic Mars, and the marginalised citizens of the asteroid belt. In the belt, washed-up detective Miller (Thomas Jane) is assigned to look for the missing daughter of an Earth tycoon. Near Saturn, a mining ship called the Canterbury answers a distress signal that leads to catastrophe, turning the survivors into fugitives. And on Earth, United Nations powerbroker Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo) tackles the alleged threat of the Outer Planets Alliance, who want freedom for the belt.
Syfy has given the show a higher budget than any of its previous dramas, allowing for huge, detailed sets and bigger name actors like Jane and Aghdashloo. The production values, dialogue, and acting are strong and the themes are timely. This is a step up from Syfy’s recent efforts, and their first genuinely competitive drama since Battlestar.
Distinguishing the show from other TV science fiction is the lack of exposition and cliche. The Expanse drops you in the middle of its universe and expects you to pay attention and keep up. Not only does this avoid awkward spoon-feeding dialogue, it smartly uses disorientation to make the show’s world feel credible and lived-in. We’re just jumping in at a certain point in a long and vivid history. This is not a self-consciously sci-fi show, instead treating its genre staples with the same casual familiarity the characters do. This could have turned the show inward so only hardened SF fans can get invested, but it has the opposite effect: the raw, mature realism makes it more accessible rather than less.
The two main storylines start small and expand. Miller’s search for Julie Mao is initially a means to explore the belt’s criminal underworld, private police force, and protests against the ruling elite. But as his conviction to find her deepens, like a film noir gumshoe he stumbles on a larger conspiracy. Jane plays Miller as wounded and vulnerable, his confidence withered into fatalism until this case wakes him up. Unfortunately his fixation on Julie feels forced because the reason someone he’s never met so intrigues him isn’t well articulated. But Jane is always absorbing, his imposing stature belying a sensitivity that makes Miller more endearing than initially might seem possible.
The Canterbury story is initially one of survival, and a brush with death in episode two gives us something to latch on to when the show’s trajectory is still coalescing. Most of the cast occupies this story: reluctant leader Holden (Steven Strait), engineer Naomi (Dominique Tipper), pilot Alex (Cas Anvar), and possibly psychotic mechanic Amos (Wes Chatham). They spend much of the season bouncing around the solar system, swept up in political conflicts that dwarf them. They’re not the bantering Firefly crew, but their growing determination to push back against the forces manipulating them still makes them appealing underdogs.
The Earth storyline is most problematic, partly due to its origin. Aghdashloo’s character doesn’t appear until the second book in the series. Her first season story is therefore reverse engineered from that point, hobbling it because too significant an outcome would disrupt what has to come next. The story is useful in establishing the political situation on the more affluent Earth and another major female character is welcome. But despite some strong moments (such as scenes with Twin Peaks’ Kenneth Welsh reflecting on Earth’s atrophied state), it’s the hardest of the three to follow and ultimately feels inessential. Aghdashloo has great presence as an actor and hopefully season two gives her some clearer material to work with.
Given the genre and the channel, it’s hard not to compare The Expanse to Battlestar Galactica, unfair as that may be. But it’s instructive because The Expanse has the potential to reach those heights, offering the same rich aesthetics and political dimensions but a more elaborate and entirely serialised plot.
Unfortunately, it’s not yet as layered or successful as a drama. Battlestar set a new benchmark for SF television by standing toe to toe with other golden age shows as a genuinely effective interpersonal story that tackled difficult topics like religion and terrorism. The Expanse has a few knockout dramatic moments – notably a Jared Harris monologue about suffering in the belt – but others are merely rote, while its engagement with weighty issues isn’t as piercing as it could be. That said, the last act of the first book has been delayed until season two, so the payoff to the thematic groundwork laid so far may deliver more potent commentary.
But Battlestar first reached the height of its powers in season two, and The Expanse may yet reach higher. Besides, this season is still an absorbing and exciting experience, both for SF fans and anyone who appreciates a complex drama that demands their full attention.