Review: ‘The Expanse’ Season 1 Has Totally Changed the Game for Sci-Fi on TV

Review: 'The Expanse' Season 1 Has Totally Changed the Game for Sci-Fi on TV


Back in 2015, "Babylon 5" creator J. Michael Straczynski said something interesting in an interview: "My hope is that what this will do ultimately is transform the science fiction genre." It was a point he was making in relation to "Sense8" — the Netflix series he co-created with the Wachowskis, about eight strangers who find themselves psychically connected on a level beyond gender, race or sexuality — that the show’s emphasis on complex human relationships marked it as a new evolution. 

READ MORE: Into ‘The Expanse’: What Syfy’s New Sci-Fi Gamble Learned From ‘True Detective’

Because I’d only seen three episodes at that point, I wasn’t in a position to agree or disagree with him on any level, but the thought stuck with me. While the full first season of "Sense8" turned out to be delightfully weird (but perhaps not the gamechanger Straczynski had promised), the concept of a new evolution in sci-fi — a generational perspective on the genre — was interesting. After all, we’re always looking for the new when it comes to TV, and "Sense8" could definitely grow to become the sort of show it aspires to be. 

In the meantime, though, Syfy’s "The Expanse" is already there. 

The thing that’s so exciting about "The Expanse," based on the books by James S.A. Corey, is that it’s the first sci-fi show I’ve ever watched that really, truly doesn’t feel like sci-fi. By that, I mean that it’s the sort of show where its official genre feels almost inconsequential in the face of the complicated character-driven story being told. 

I don’t want to reveal too much about the plot because it’s worth discovering for yourself, but over the course of its first season, which reaches a close Tuesday night (February 2nd), we’ve tracked many different mysteries and witnessed many tragedies. Life is hard in space thanks to limited resources and complicated living situations. And it’s made those who live in this world hard, as a result. 

"The Expanse" is the best sort of future-set sci-fi — the kind that you can believe, all too easily, would evolve out of our present. At some point in the 23rd century, the smart phones look fancier but their screens still crack. There are people in straight relationships and gay relationships and group marriages. There are still Mormons, who are preparing for a whole new level of mission. The rich live well. The poor struggle. It’s not "Star Trek" — there’s no grand glorious yet vague cause to which our heroes have devoted themselves. Survival is what matters. 

On the galactic level, there’s a three-pronged political battle brewing, rich with secrets and conspiracies. Earth, you see, is on the verge of losing control over its colonies on Mars, not to mention the Belters working hard in the outer asteroid belt. (And there are private corporations who might benefit from the wind blowing one way or the other.) 

But on the personal level, things are equally intense. The story technically kicks off with the disappearance of rich girl Julie Mao, which not only becomes an obsession of Detective Joe Miller (Thomas Jane, wearing a totally awesome hat) but a mystery that draws in Holden (Steven Strait) and his ragtag team of fellow space truckers, who find themselves in a constant fight for their lives in the outer reaches of space. Balance that with Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo) on planet Earth, caught in a political quandary of her own that nonetheless has implications for the fates of Miller and Holden, and you’ve got a narrative that spans planets but feels extremely well-connected. 

There are some high-concept curveballs tossed about over the course of the series; elements which do remind you what kind of show you’re technically watching. But when the genre does become a factor, it’s in unexpected ways always driven by science over fantasy. That’s because the science of the series is of particular interest for the creators. When I spoke with executive producers Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby and Naren Shankar at the TCA Summer Press Tour last August, we ended up talking for over an hour, just because all three gentlemen were so engaged and excited about not just the show, but how science fiction has worked on television before and how they might be able to move things forward for the genre. 

It makes you reevaluate the importance of genre in general, to be honest, especially in an environment where the best sort of shows come about via crossbreeding. Whether it be the way shows like "Transparent" and "Orange is the New Black" blend comedy with socially conscious drama, or the way "Breaking Bad" brought crime and family together in new and exciting ways, the fact is that exciting things happen when cross-pollination is allowed; when we don’t shove genres into boxes, and let them evolve into something new.  

"The Expanse" is something new, and it’s worth watching. Get caught up. Get engrossed. It’s worthy of that. 

Grade: A-

The season finale of "The Expanse" airs tonight on Syfy. It has been renewed for a second season. 

READ MORE: ‘The X-Files’ Returns, Or How a TV Show Can Change Your Life

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Comments

Sarel

Just started watching the series. Looks pretty cool. Read the books though and they were fantastic. Right up there with my favourite series Peter F Hamilton’s The Night’s Dawn Trilogy.

Sitemap666

"My question is, WHY do we have to wait a YEAR for the next season?? SyFy – You know you’ve got a hit here… why not keep the train move’n?"

Are you really that oblivious to the realities of making a tv show? They need to write the scripts, possibly hire new actors, rehearse the roles, work on cgi effects, actually direct and produce the episodes etc.? And it’s a very common procedure to make one season per year and air the episodes on a certain time of a year. There’s a lots of other shows too on air, even on SyFy.

So… please…

Max

Nitpick: Earth doesn’t have colonies on Mars; Mars is already fully independent.

jess

The Expanse started out really good, but there was too much inertia, too many ships to keep up with, and the more provocative elements of the universe got shoved to the side. After all of the interesting details and hints about the Martians’ M.O. and society, we never even saw Mars, which was really disappointing. We never got a sense of what life was like for everyday Earthlings who weren’t diplomats or former polygamists. And the space Mormons felt like a red herring that amounted to little. I haven’t read the books, but after all of the amazing set design, direction, and great acting, I expected a bigger payoff and more structure for the universe other than the belters are basically the "third world" in space and someone’s experimenting on them with some sort of bioweapon.

Patrick

PS – Robert is spot on: best thing on TV since Breaking Bad, and best Scifi since the wonderful, and tragically brief, Firefly.

Patrick

Aside from technical alterations and some tweeks to PC, it’s very consistent with the book so far. I REALLY look forward to seeing how they plan on doing the climatic part of Leviathan…. That should be wildly interesting!

Dre

You did not pay very close attention, Mars is an independent Military power with a population of 4 billion in this series, it is not a colony of Earth.

Sarah

I somehow agree with you, but in my opinion if you were searching of a plot with wide political, religious and human topics not strictly related to sci-fy, you could stop few years ago with Battlestar Galactica, which I think was the real first one. Said that, The Expanse is really good.

James

Season 1 was amazing, my only worry is how many more seasons it gets. A lot of SyFy shows to make it too long. But awesome team on this one, I found it through Chad Colemans other project Treadwater, actually some of the stories kind of match up in places

Robert

IMHO, "The Expanse" is the best SciFi show to come along since "Firefly". My question is, WHY do we have to wait a YEAR for the next season?? SyFy – You know you’ve got a hit here… why not keep the train move’n?

Jon

All that and then an a-? What’s the – for?

frank

Very good review. You’ve captured the gist of this show.

Michal

Read the book.

Ed Mellnik

What a waste of money. I dont know whats worse – the directing or the writing. Someone needs to figure out how to tell a story. If I had not read these books I would have been totally lost.
And the casting is all wrong for the James Holden character.

Baron

.

Hopeless

When will it be released in the UK on DVD?

Walter R. Johnson

I have just watched the first three episodes of “The Expanse” on DVD. I have to say that I was impressed. It is the first show on any visual medium that is set in interplanetary space rather than interstellar space (aside from the short-lived ’60s TV show “1999”). That means that the ships use rocket engines, rather than some super-dooper “warp-drive” or “hyperspace” or “wormholes” that stretch the bounds of credibility. This means that the spaceships must use ballistic trajectories to get from place to place – just as they would have to do in real life. Also, there are no fake-seeming space battles, such that the “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” franchises are famous for. Detective Miller’s gun fires bullets, not laser beams. Mars being an independent nation is a nice touch, as is a unified Earth governed by the United Nations. And there was no artificial gravity; there was at least a nod to the microgravity environment of spaceships – although the depicted magnetic boots would not solve the physiological problems of weightlessness.
The idea of the asteroid Ceres being hollowed out and rotated conflicts with the idea of the Belters having physiological gravity-related problems. The feasibility of such a project is questionable, to say the least. Since “The Expense,” unlike almost all TV & movie science fiction, seems to be grounded in real science, it makes sense to question certain aspects.
“The Expanse” shows a future world that is entirely believable. One can easily see it evolving from the present, unlike the fairy-tale fantasy of “Star Wars” or the politically correct idealism of “Star Trek.”

Walter R. Johnson

RE: “On the galactic level,…”
Why would the reviewer use such as incorrect term? There is nothing “galactic” about “The Expanse;” it’s set entirely within our solar system, not in interstellar or “galactic” space. Or is this related to the equally sloppy use of the word “intergalactic” when what is meant is merely “in space?”
Why doesn’t the show, in its extravehicular shots, show a background of stars? Yes, I know, all of the NASA photos show a black background, but there are solid photographic reasons for that. A human outside a spaceship or a habitat would see a plethora of stars all around. Just ask anyone who’s been there.
Sadly, “The Expanse” follows the Hollywood fashion of depicting sounds in the vacuum of space. That’s really the only major bone that I have to pick with the show.

Tom

The indian womens voice almost makes me want to stop watching

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