Let’s all be honest with ourselves here: Syfy’s had a rough go of it of late (the success of Sharknado notwithstanding). The one-time home of Battlestar Galactica has long struggled to find a series with the same sort of quality, world-building, and high-stakes as the aforementioned space epic — but that ends on Monday with the premiere of The Expanse. At once a show rich with history, stakes, mystery, conspiracy, and a beautifully complicated imagining of life beyond our planet, The Expanse does all of this with an impressive and almost prolific sense of self. Its storytelling, characters, and politics are rich with reflection on the human existence and its evolution beyond terra firma, and the results are as engaging as they are fun to watch unfold.
Returning to its space opera roots, Syfy’s plugged into something truly special in the on-screen adaptation series showrunners Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby created from Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck’s Expanse novel series. With the human race now spread out across the solar system — mainly established on Earth, Mars, and in the asteroid belt — humanity begins to evolve in three distinct directions, all of which converge and divert with fascinating, allegorical, and often catastrophic consequence. And at its heart? A big ol’ conspiracy-laced mystery. What’s not to like here?
“When this show starts off, they are forced — through the shit hitting the fan — into a situation not of their own making and they have to scramble for their own lives,” explained one of the series’ stars, Cas Anvar, to us in an interview. “Every single one of those characters has to step up to the plate and deliver. And if they don’t work at 150% top potential efficiency, they will all die.”
Those stakes never leave the series, and the show’s ability to be both claustrophobic and limitless create a swirling tension not unlike the storms churning atop Jupiter’s surface (because SPACE METAPHORS, you guys! Get it?). Primarily focusing on the experiences of Jim Holden (Steven Strait) and Detective Josephus Miller (Thomas Jane) as they both find themselves unraveling a conspiracy the likes of which mankind has never seen, The Expanse does more than bait and switch and intrigue us with space and/or alien tech. Far from it: Humanity is front and center in the series, and how its evolved — both on planet Earth and throughout the solar system — is as fascinating as it is foreshadowing. It’s rooted in more reality than some of the more popular showed currently out there.
The tensions are clearly analogous to what’s going on in our own world: belters are essentially slave laborers, Mars is home to the biggest military hive mind our galaxy’s ever seen, and Earth is the United Nations-led center of it all. And where we’ve evolved in so many ways, our human failings still create problems.
“You look at our world, which is still inundated with sexism and racism and classism — we’re destroying ourselves over religion and skin color,” explained Anvar. “But in The Expanse, it’s all eliminated: [humanity] is united, but guess what? Now we have planetism. We become discriminatory based on what sort of gravity you grew up in; if you had an atmosphere to breathe, water around — that becomes the privilege class. If you come from high gravity (Earth) to no gravity (the Belters). It really sneaks in a lot of contemporary issues and talking points.”
And it comes with high praise and a lot to like. Like the endless amount of lauding coming from the current king of epic genre, George R.R. Martin, who’s gone on record multiple times extolling the virtues of the series and even hosting a premiere party at his theater in Santa Fe, New Mexico. There’s also a ton of diversity — both in its representation of people of color and women. It certainly passes the Bechdel Test, but these aren’t all a bunch of moral ladies and/or stereotypes. They are fully formed characters first, their gender and race not being the driving force and/or major influence of their actions on the show. “Show me another show that has that!” Anvar said — and he’s right. It’s not a task we’ve seen readily accomplished on screen.
It’s hard out here for a genre show — let’s be real here. To reach a wide audience, and get them on board, with so much world to build, laws to structure, and lore to provide, is a near-Herculean task to ask of a staff of writers, creators, cast, and crew to complete in as effortless a fashion as The Expanse has done. We don’t want to give too much about its inner-workings away, but we will say this: whether you’ve read the books or not, The Expanse is sure to delight and surprise you. Its is a gravitational pull so alluring, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a reason to not keep watching.
Have you read The Expanse novels? Planning on watching the show? Let us know in the comments below.
Image Credit: Syfy
Alicia Lutes is the Managing Editor and Chief TV Obsessive here at The Nerdist. Find her on Twitter (@alicialutes) if you dig that sort of thing.