TV Review: Syfy’s The Expanse – Epic Sci-fi as it Should Be

I normally try to avoid nondescript jargon and silly tag lines. They rarely do justice to what’s being discussed and typically just serve as printed sound bites. One of my least favorite – the one I’m about to use now – is “The best ________ since ______.” It compares two things that, in most cases, don’t really belong in the same category due to content or the time separating them. So here’s hoping I don’t step on my own sensibilities.

The Expanse is the best science fiction drama since Battlestar Galactica. I don’t take saying that lightly. To date, Battlestar isn’t just my favorite sci-fi show, it’s my favorite show of all time. And I know that comparing five episodes to over seventy is almost apples to oranges, so I’m keeping the comparison even, looking at the first half of season one for both.

I’m also trying to draw a little insight from the books the TV series is based on. I’m about halfway through the third, Abaddon’s Gate. If you haven’t, do yourself a favor and read the books. In the meantime, here’s a little background from their webpage:

Hundreds of years in the future, humans have colonized the solar system. The U.N. controls Earth. Mars is an independent military power. The planets rely on the resources of the Asteroid Belt, where air and water are more precious than gold. For decades, tensions have been rising between these three places. Earth, Mars and the Belt are now on the brink of war. And all it will take is a single spark. 

It is within this future that The Expanse begins. The series follows the case of a missing young woman that brings a hardened detective and a rogue ship’s captain together in a race across the solar system that will expose the greatest conspiracy in human history.

World Building

One of the most standout aspects from the novels is the science. I’ve never read speculative fiction that sounded way more like science fact than fiction. The show mirrors that in a very relatable way. Everything you see, you believe could/would exist in a couple hundred years. No warp drives or teleporters, just good old fashioned guns, gas and rockets.

Of course, there’s the bigger story. The larger than life baddie that will be impossible to stop. But what bites you then digs its claws in is all the subtext. There is so much going on in the background you could watch each episode twice – which I have – and still miss wonderful, complicated details. The texture of the world being depicted is thick and misleading.

Every government or military insight could be torn from your local newspaper. The political double talk and backstabbing feel real. Though it’s hundreds of years from now, you can see how things have played out in a way that is more prognostication than speculation. The technology has also evolved on a realistic track. From handheld devices to holograms, it’s awesome but accessible. And the used quality everything has gives color and dimension  to an already rich background.

Also populating that background are people. People that have distinct pasts and complex histories. Language is a blend of slang, english and, for the belters, a sign language originating from past generations that would have been in spacesuits more than they were out of them. It all works.

ex2

L to R: Miller, Avasarala, Holden

Once Upon a Time…

You know the gist of the story. But what you don’t know are the characters populating that story or how well the actors present those characters. In short, the casting is near, if not, perfect. Having read the books I already had a visual image of the players and even though many of the actors don’t fit that image physically, they are getting everything else about their character dead on.

Top of the list is Thomas Jane, who’s playing one of the two central figures in the story, Detective Joe Miller. Jane demands your undivided attention every second he’s on the screen. The nuanced subtlety reminds me of True Detective’s first season. There’s just so much more than lines being delivered in his performance. Dark and troubled, Jane’s Miller has a magnetic pull as he carves his way through the mystery. You won’t just want to know what’s going on, you’ll want him to be the one who tells you.

L to R: Naomi, Amos, Alex and Jim

Rounding out the two tier lead is Steven Strait as the do-right ship’s captain, Jim Holden. To be honest, I didn’t know Strait before The Expanse. I’m sure I’ve seen him, but not in a role that put him on my radar. He is now, though. In the books, Holden is the glue that keeps just about everything together. Though that isn’t as clear yet in the show, Strait definitely has the chops to come though when the spotlight is solely on him.

I could spend all day complimenting everyone on the show, but let me give you a quick rundown of the four other main characters you should be watching closely. First – and literally because she’s who I pictured when reading the second book, even before I knew she was cast – is Shohreh Aghdashloo as Chrisjen Avasarala. If the writers weren’t picturing her as they created Avasarala, then it’s divine intervention. She is perfection torn from the page, making all the right choices when the camera is pointed her way.

Then it’s Cas Anvar, Dominique Tipper and Wes Chatham playing Alex Kamal, Naomi Nagata and Amos Burton respectively. I hate to relegate them to a single paragraph, but my commentary on all three is the same: Absolutely wonderful. Alex, Naomi and Amos round out Holden’s spacefaring foursome and, like Aghdashloo, are masterfully portrayed.

Eyes and Ears:

The biggest misstep most shows make is to put low rent CG front and center. I totally understand how budgets work and that there are physical and technological limitations when trying to produce episodic television, but it doesn’t excuse some of the visual offenses put in front of you every day. For an example of what not to do, look no further than Heroes: Reborn. Fun story, good characters and horrible effects. But horrible is ok if the story’s good, and we all know what it’s like to try and save money. But when that same 1998 CG is showcased instead of used for a more subtle impact, it looks ridiculous and breaks the suspension of disbelief.

That said, The Expanse looks like it has a blockbuster budget. And it’s not because of how much CG there is, it’s because of how they use it. The mix of practical and generated imagery is nearly seamless. And what doesn’t look good enough to be centerstage, isn’t. There are moments – and this might be my only complaint – where the camera work steps on the storytelling. Cuts that are too quick or awkwardly angled shots get in the way on occasion, but not enough to damage your experience.

Coexisting with the visuals is the score and sound editing. In gritty, tense shows like this I personally hate music dubbed over a scene. Let the actors and the environment fill your speakers. In that area the creators got it spot on. No cheesy fadeouts to last year’s prom theme. Only the cast and stage give you what you need to hear. And while the sounds themselves may be a little nondescript, things like mag-boots clicking and other nods to environment are ever present.

That’s probably enough gushing. Whatever it is about The Expanse, it scratches every itch I have when it comes to fictionalized drama. And as you may have noticed, I try only to include what’s great about things – while still being critical – in my reviews, which was so easy for this look at a new sci-fi classic.

TV Review: Syfy’s The Expanse – Epic Sci-fi as it Should Be Reviewed byMichael Pellegrini on . The Good:
  • Perfectly cast
  • Believable setting
  • Looks right
  • Sounds right
  • Did I mention the story?
The Bad:
  • Let me get back to you on this...
The Expanse truly raises the bar in every way. It might just be the best show on TV right now. It also proves you can actually have thoughtful, complicated, fun and beautiful storytelling that caters to the masses and delights the needier viewer at the same time. Do it for you and watch this show! Rating: 4.9

In Closing:

The Expanse truly raises the bar in every way. It might just be the best show on TV right now. It also proves you can actually have thoughtful, complicated, fun and beautiful storytelling that caters to the masses and delights the needier viewer at the same time. Do it for you and watch this show!
World Building
Story
Casting
Visuals
The Good:
  • Perfectly cast
  • Believable setting
  • Looks right
  • Sounds right
  • Did I mention the story?
The Bad:
  • Let me get back to you on this...

User Rating:

4.8/5
(3 votes)
The Expanse truly raises the bar in every way. It might just be the best show on TV right now. It also proves you can actually have thoughtful, complicated, fun and beautiful storytelling that caters to the masses and delights the needier viewer at the same time. Do it for you and watch this show!
World Building 10
Story 10
Casting 10
Visuals 9
9.8
The Good:
  • Perfectly cast
  • Believable setting
  • Looks right
  • Sounds right
  • Did I mention the story?
The Bad:
  • Let me get back to you on this...

User Rating:

9.7
(3 votes)

Watch The Expanse Tuesday nights at 10/9c on Syfy, then swing by Facebook and sound off!

About The Author

Michael Pellegrini

Michael is a classic example of a child trapped in an adult's body - and I use the word "adult" very, very loosely. With interests ranging from comic books and movies to theater and fine art, Mike has followed humble journalistic beginnings that have led to interviews, reviews, news write-ups and opinion - though it's ever changing - pieces covering those same interests. All of that brings us here, to a site where a community of like-minded geeks can inform the rest of the world on the topics we adore. And on the personal side of things, Michael squeezes time for his lovely wife and house full of dogs between all the comic reading and video game playing.

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