2016.46: The Expanse – Season One (Blu-ray)
Blade Runner was originally not intended to have a post-credits crawl-up setting up its scenario- indeed at one point it wasn’t going to be set in any particular place or have any particular date. Instead it was going to drop the audience into its world and leave them working to make sense of it all, but the studio and/or film-makers got cold feet, so we got the crawl up and the ‘Los Angeles, November 2019’ legend that doesn’t really work at all (indeed, it never really did even back in 1982). Maybe they were right to do it, but even in 1982 I missed that brave conceit of letting the audience do some work. The fact that they maintained that crawl-up and setting for the Final Cut version of 2007 quite mystifies me and is the one negative about that otherwise definitive version of the film.
So why do I mention that film again, in a post talking about a new sci-fi tv show? Well, The Expanse does have a short text intro, but otherwise it bravely throws the audience into its remarkable future world and simply leaves the audience to it. It’s a bold gambit for a new series and one that, for me, pays off handsomely. This show refuses to hold your hand; you are thrown into the 23rd Century and its likely four episodes before you really ‘get’ what the show is and the story it is telling. Before that, you are left to it, trying to make sense of the societies and rival factions and who might be good, who might be bad, and whats really going on with the derelict Scopuli.
Bizarrely still not picked up by any broadcaster here in the UK, even now, several months after it aired in the States, The Expanse is the best science fiction show I have seen in years. With all the channels we have over here now, it is a complete mystery that this show hasn’t found a broadcaster yet. Weary of waiting for the world to make some sense, a few weeks ago I caved in and imported the Blu-ray, surely a sign that some broadcaster was about to announce UK airdates (typically as soon as I got it through the letterbox). And yet no, not even my purchase of the blu-ray set has mystically triggered anything, but you can’t say I haven’t tried. What gives?
My all-time favourite science fiction series is the reimagined Battlestar Galactica series from awhile back. Which at the time surprised me no end, as I wasn’t a fan of the original, am weary of reboots in general and didn’t expect anything special at all. Of course I was completely wrong -this was one reboot that was a total success. It was gritty and realistic, had brilliant production design, great writing, a fantastic cast and likely the most thematically complex score of any television series, ever. It ran for five great years and actually managed a deeply satisfying end (for me, anyway, although I know some fans were put off by it).
With The Expanse, the SyFy channel is trying to repeat the success and critical clout that it managed with BSG. The odd thing is, The Expanse doesn’t really resemble BSG much at all- instead, it really harkens back to Warner Bros classic space opera Babylon 5.
I was a B5 nut back when it was first aired. It consumed my life for the five years it was on, right up to a series finale that, yes, brought tears to my eyes. B5 was an underdog right from the start- a low-budget, indie-sci fi epic at a time that Star Trek dominated the tv science fiction landscape.
B5 had cutting-edge CG effects that opened up the scale of what a genre tv series could be, gaining a huge canvas for its space opera of alien politics, ancient evil and intergalactic war. Writer/producer J. Michael Straczynski had a five-year plan, a vision for each season and the arc of an overall story, and barring a few detours he managed to tell the story he wanted to tell. The ambition of the thing is pretty amazing to this day and it remains a remarkable achievement, and it is only the troubles involving some cast departures and a poor season five (precipitated by JMS being told he had to complete the saga by close of season four and then actually getting a season five he hadn’t planned for) that weakens it compared to BSG. But B5 had moments the equal of anything before or since; moments of edge of your seat, WTF brilliance, from great character arcs to plot twists and awesome cliffhangers.
Watching The Expanse, I frequently thought about B5. Its in the realistic sets, the costume design, the multi-cultural feel, the politics, the machinations of rival planets. The Expanse is everything a ‘new’ B5 would be- it’s really how B5 would look if it were made with the technology of today, albeit The Expanse doesn’t actually have any alien empires in it (as yet anyway- who knows where it is finally headed, certainly not me, as I’ve not read the books).
The simplest way to describe The Expanse, particularly as it has adopted the ten-episode series format so popular now, is that it’s a sci-fi Game of Thrones by way of Babylon 5. If that sounds interesting and worthy of your time, then you’d be right. Based on a series of books by James S.A.Corey (actually a pen name for two writers, Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) the series benefits from having a solid story with a well thought-out background perhaps richer than you might expect on television. And yes, as it’s based on a series of books, there is evidently some overall masterplan for the story and where it’s going. The first season of the show is based on the first book, Leviathan Wakes, and I’m told it manages to adapt about three-quarters of it, leaving the remainder for the start of season two. It sounds odd, but people who’ve read the books seem to think the break before the end of the first book makes sense. All I know is that the end of season one left me slightly frustrated in a kind of good, “wtf happens next?!!” kind of way that has me itching to turn to the books, but I can see how it works. It leaves viewers curious and eager for more (and thank goodness there is a season two) but manages a rather neat way to close out the season that perhaps the remainder of the book lacks.
So anyway, whats it about? The Expanse is set in the 23rd Century. Humanity has colonized the solar system, but is not united like in, say, Star Trek -this is a more fractured humanity. The United Nations controls Earth, Mars is ruled by an independent military power, and the asteroid belt, home to vast resources that are vital to both Earth and Mars, is populated by working-class grunts eager to break free of what they see are their Terran/Martian oppressors. Tensions are running high as the series opens, with the three factions – “Earthers,” “Dusters,” and “Belters” – on the brink of war.
The Expanse is part space opera, part detective-noir mystery, part political thriller. A young woman named Julie has disappeared, and a run-down/washout Belter detective, Joe Miller (Thomas Jane in terrific form), is assigned to the case. Miller gets drawn into a web of intrigue that spans the solar system and a conspiracy that could threaten all humanity. The same conspiracy entangles a deep-space officer of a mining ship, James Holden (Steven Strait) whose encounter with a distress signal out at the rings of Saturn drags him and several of his crew into a chaotic series of events culminating in the deaths of hundreds, maybe thousands, and possibly igniting all-out war. As Holden tries to makes sense of it all, his fate becomes entwined with that of Miller, and the two men find themselves working together to find out what happened to Julie and why her fate is central to the entire mystery.
After an initial number of episodes that stumble a little as the show establishes its rather complex web of political machinations and rival power-groups, the series really gets going and proves to be a thrilling and fascinating watch. Indeed, that stumble at the start is actually rather welcome, as the show deliberately drops the viewer into its future-world complete with odd languages and unspoken agendas leaving the viewer having to work at making sense of it all. It is an approach I found quite refreshing, and I have stated earlier its a great move and something that immediately warmed me to the series. Indeed it’s left me keen to rewatch the show now that it all makes more sense to me.
Anyway, I’ll say no more as that would reduce ones enjoyment of the show. I only hope it gets a UK airdate sometime soon/eventually. It really deserves it and it really is strange that it hasn’t been aired here already- maybe when season two nears early in 2017 in the States something will happen. In the meantime, there is always the Blu-ray set from the States (great picture naturally but alas woefully devoid of any extras) to get your fix if the show seems interesting to you. As for me? Those books seem awfully tempting…