I have something to admit: I’m a new fan of the sci-fi show “The Expanse.” As great as the show has been for so long, I just hadn’t watched it until recently. It took the show’s imminent cancellation by the SyFy network and the prominent #SaveTheExpanse campaign to get me onboard. But now that I’m watching, I am absolutely and totally hooked. I watched the whole first season within a very rainy 24 hours, and I have zero regrets about that. “The Expanse” is the best sci-fi show since “Firefly,” and I wish I had known about before it was on the chopping block. Fortunately, it looks like Amazon Video might step in at the eleventh hour to save the show and bring it to their own streaming platform, where two of the seasons already reside.
At its heart, “The Expanse” is a political drama in a gritty sci-fi universe of political strife, economic hardship, and grungy, crowded sets. There are three main factions in the show: Earthers, who live in relative luxury on Earth, Martians, a militaristic group, and Belters, who live on the space stations of the asteroid belt and do the back-breaking work required to support the rest of society. All three of these groups are locked in a cold war, with itchy trigger fingers and weapons bristling.
The show might be split into episodes, but the writing is much more like the books the series was adapted from. A clear storyline runs through the first two seasons, connecting all the events in natural, interesting ways. Unlike the episodic adventures of other spacefarers, the cast of “The Expanse” is dealing with a few major problems that just won’t go away. But the storyline doesn’t get stale: it’s driven by a regular pattern of surprise, subversion, and unexpected outcomes. Progress is still made towards solving the problems that animate the show, but things never quite work out as cleanly as we’d hope.
“The Expanse” Is also dark. Brutal, “Game of Thrones” Red Wedding kind of dark. It’s the kind of blood-soaked allegory that we haven’t seen in sci-fi television in ages. The Star Trek series, focused on peaceful exploration over adventure and violence, as set the tone for the modern sci-fi series. And it’s a tone that “The Expanse” gleefully tears to shreds. Nothing about the show is calm or peaceful. But it is complex enough to appeal to viewers that enjoyed Star Trek for what it is, regardless of how different “The Expanse” may be.
Space Ain’t Your Friend
Unlike the space of Star Trek, the space of “The Expanse” is difficult to survive in. It’s cold, airless and unwelcoming to humans. The integrity of space suits is both an important political and narrative element. In “The Expanse,” space is frightening and unwelcoming, unlike the apparently warm embrace of the stars found in TNG. Space stations are dirty and packed with working-class Belters that support the luxurious lives of those on Earth.
It’s an exceptional story that draws compelling parallels with the modern day world of increasing inequity between the rich and poor. The best sci-fi is extrapolative, drawing dramatic predictions based on current trends. In the fifties, it was a world created by the space race. Then, nuclear annihilation. Today, class-based warfare and extreme resources shortages enforced by unfeeling corporate overlords who count only the numbers of production and destroy the souls of their workers. It’s easy to see how the world of global warming and stock market bubbles could expand into the universe of “The Expanse.”
The show has the space-run-by-hateful-corporations vibe of “Alien” and the giant-god-damn-guns of “Aliens.” It’s a fully-realized universe with a surprising amount of detail and showrunners interested in preserving as many of the rules of science as they can. So when you see snowflakes form from blood in one episode, you can expect that someone at the show made sure it would be possible. But producing a show this lavish and complex isn’t easy: the budget for the first season has been estimated to match the first seasons budget of “Game of Thrones” at $50 million.
The downside of such an expensive series is that SyFy can’t reasonable fund it. They have a long history of pie-in-the-sky ideas that they’re financially incapable of seeing past a single season or so, and this is easily their most ambitious property yet. There seems to be some wide-eyed dreamer in charge of SyFy programming, hoping that they can sell enough ads with a breakout hit to cover the outrageous costs of creation.
But the SyFy branding is something of a curse. If “The Expanse” was produced by Netflix, it might have a better chance of success. But with SyFy, the show is bound to the moribund world of cable packages. The core audience for a show like “The Expanse” are the same folks that watch “Altered Carbon” or “Ex Machina.” It’s young viewers that get content through subscription streaming: they don’t have a cable subscription. So even amazing content goes unwatched.
Even the cast has commented on this. While Wes Chatham, who plays the role of Amos, loves being on SyFy, he says the show would probably be a better fit for streaming. And he’s right: the show is a natural fit for a streaming platform. It’s intense, dramatic and engrossing.
Check it out before it’s gone. And #SaveTheExpanse!