Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Expanse (Season One) review


    The Expanse is probably the best science fiction program on television right now. For once, I'm not saying this because it's one of the few science fiction programs on today. There's a surprising now out there and available, especially if you count superhero shows. No, The Expanse is one of the best science fiction programs out there today because it's good.

    Really good.

Evolution works in mysterious ways.
    While not quite up there with George R.R. Martin's work, this is one of the few stories I would say has been adapted in the same ball park. The Expanse is a tightly-written plot with lots of great world-building, subtle or otherwise, which all comes together in a fascinating collection of character vignettes working toward a common goal. If not for the amazingly frustrating ending to the first season, I would give this a eleven out of ten.

    Unfortunately, I have to give it a ten out of ten because the first season feels like the mid-season finale. It is, however, intelligent science fiction and futurism which deserves all the viewers it is. So, if you want my short-short review, The Expanse is a series you should go onto your Xbox or Playstation or computer to order the season for now. You won't regret it. It's the best thing SyFy has done since Battlestar Galactica.

    The premise is it's 200 years in the future and a hard-science view of the world is being predicted. There's no hyperdrive but humanity has space travel capable of causal travel between Earth and the asteroids around Jupiter. Those human beings who were born, live, and die in space are called Belters. They are cheap laborers who have been exported from Earth and, over the past few generations, have suffered numerous deformities due to the lack of gravity as well as treatments to counteract its effects. Belters are vitally necessary to maintain the luxurious lifestyle enjoyed by Earth's 30 billion inhabitants as well as the ongoing terra-forming project maintained by Mars.

Imagine the most realistic space series set in the future you can and then add the T-Virus from Resident Evil.
    A Cold War situation exists between Mars and Earth over who should control the Belt even as there's a substantial movement within the later to seek independence. Belters are culturally, as well as physically, unique as they're a hodge-podge of Earth's unwanted which have all mixed together into a unique Creole-esque culture. The situation is tense but manageable until a group begins transporting a mysterious organic compound with unusual properties. An ice trawler comes to investigate it when they receive a distress signal, only to have events spiral out of control once its discovered its owners reveal they'll do anything to protect it's contents. The careful balance of power is disrupted irrevocably and everyone sets course for war as a result.

    One thing I appreciated about the show right off the bat is it manages to explain the politics in a way which is both simple but also allows numerous more complex variations. There's Earth which is the rich but overcrowded world, Mars which is the powerful but dependent world, and the Belt which is the poor collection of settlements needed by everyone else. Earth and Mars both depend on the resources mined by the Belt but they don't give the workers there any respect since they exist solely to keep the lights running. It's a wonderfully good metaphor for the Third World nations as exploited by the First and Second.

Ah, the zero-g spot. Where no man or woman has gone before.
    The majority of the plot centers around James "Jim" Holden (Steven Strait) who is the executive officer on the ice hauler Canterbury. About the only person who can qualify as Lawful Good in a dystopian post-cyberpunk future, he really runs his head up into the wall every time he tries to do the right thing. He's accompanied by three other members of the Canterbury crew, including an ex-terrorist (Dominique Tipper), an ex-Martian military pilot (Cas Anvar), and a human wrecking crew who could give Jayne Cobb lessons for criminal practicality (Wes Chatham). Watching them stumble around the conspiracy is always entertaining even as they can't agree what genre they're playing in.

    The secondary plot of the series is handled by Detective Joe Miller (Thomas Jane) who is a Earth-obsessed Belter working as a dirty cop on a space station. Uninterested in anything but his paycheck, he becomes inspired by a young woman (Florence Faivre) who abandoned her family's fortune to work to build a better society. Joe runs afoul of his fellow Belters who consider him a race-traitor and becomes more obsessed with his quarry the more he devotes himself to the conspiracy she's wrapped herself up in.

I love Naomi and Amos. They're two characters. Sadly, Holden is the star.
    Finally, Shohreh Aghdashloo plays Chrisjen Avasarala, the Deputy Undersecretary of Earth's government and 3rd most powerful person in the solar system. Chrisjen has devoted her life to trying to root out Belter terrorism but the conspiracy's attempts to start a war between Mars and Earth forces her to re-evaluate her long-held prejudices. Shohreh does an amazing job creating her character and carries every seen she's in, making them easily able to stand alongside the Game of Thrones cast.

     Part of what makes The Expanse so good is we do get an impression of the world from multiple perspectives, social-classes, and attitudes. There's also quite a bit going on in the background which doesn't necessarily relate to the main plot. For example, the Church of Latter Day Saints (I'm serious) is building a generation ship to a new star system because they want to be at the forefront of space exploration. It doesn't have anything to do with the main plot, so far, but it underscores how petty and foolish the conflicts among humans are even as they tear apart what should have been a unifying frontier.

Thomas Jayne's character would have fit right in the 1940s. Unfortunately, he's a couple of centuries late.
    The world-building is amazing as I've said but what I like most about it is that it's both plausible as well as dark. This is a used future akin to the original Star Wars but it's also an overpopulated, corrupt, seedy future which makes it all the more interesting. Part of what made Firefly so entertaining to me was the show was unapologetic about how the Outer Planets inhabitants had to be vicious as well as cruel in order to survive. This is the same way for Belters and watching this collide with Holden's misplaced idealism is never not funny. Albeit, by the end, I was really hoping he'd get eaten by a protomolecule crystal.

    The show isn't afraid to kill off cast members either and several times I was genuinely stunned to find out the stories of characters I'd been following ended in premature death. Almost no one is safe in the show and while I'm sure book readers have a good idea where all of this is going, I'm keeping myself unspoiled as I experience the twists and turns on-screen. This helps contribute to the dark and cold atmosphere which is one of the things I love in my sci-fi. Too many shows are afraid to kill anyone of consequence and this detracts from the realism.

Hands down my favorite character. A great actress even when she's not playing a Quarian Admiral.
    Fans of hard science fiction will love the hell out of this series even as the aforementioned protomolecule will annoy them. I really would have enjoyed this series more if they had just made it a straight-up hard sci-fi series about politics in space with a noir aesthetic. That's not what the Expanse novels are about, though, so there's nothing to do about that. Still, I love the fact they use magnetic boots on the show. I love magnetic boots.

    Unfortunately, the show does have one major flaw that I've already mentioned. It is only ten episodes long, undoubtedly due to the budget required for all of the special effects, which ends not in any meaningful plot resolution but a series of cliffhangers that don't even seem fully resolved themselves. It feels like the show needed at least two or three more episodes to even get to a proper cliffhanger ending. Instead, the show feels like it's setting up for a cliffhanger ending only to stop. Which is unfortunate and about the only complaint I can bring up against the series that was, otherwise, again, Syfy's best offering in years.

Ah, space. It's the best place to kill people horribly by a variety of terrifying ways.
     Visually, the storytelling is excellent as well. While we don't get to see much in the way of prosthetics, the show does its best to make all of the Belter cast pale and recruited from tall as well as thin-looking individuals. They're a massively multicultural collection of individuals as well, including a surprisingly large amount of the cast being biracial. Little tidbits about how the world is no longer a Western Caucasian male-dominated power-block are present all throughout. The use of the Belter language is also great, too, helping to highlight how things have changed.

    The special effects are excellent and remind me of Battlestar Galactica's reboot during its heyday. We get to see plenty of space battles and little things like objects floating in the air all of the time. Some of these special effects are cheap like floating objects just being partially held off-screen but their omnipresence helps immerse the viewer in the world. The one special effect which doesn't work at all is anything related to the protomolecule which, sadly, feels like it belongs in another series.

    In conclusion, I recommend The Expanse to anyone who is a science fiction fan and looking for a new intelligent offering. The plot has a delightful series of twists and turns, numerous interesting characters, and a delightfully grim take on the future. The sudden end to the season is irritating but I chalk that up to Syfy not being sure whether or not it would catch on. Thankfully, it's been renewed for a second season.

10/10

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