Remember, ages ago, when the SyFy channel was called SciFi? Before that terrible rebrand, back when they had not one, but two Stargate shows and Battlestar Galactica? Sometime last year, the SyFy channel woke up, and presumably looked at Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead and thought, “Crap, guys. Those shows probably should’ve been on our channel.” I’m not a huge fan of either show, but the popularity and the quality of both is hard to argue with.
So, sometime last year, SyFy started making shows again. They started with the fantastic Killjoys and the okay-but-entertaining Dark Matter, and then they just stuck their arm in the bookshelf and started sweeping off books to adapt. I’m not complaining; I’ve got scifi and fantasy to watch like three or four nights a week right now. I really wasn’t complaining when they grabbed one of my favorite space operas and said, “We’re gonna do this one first!” I was squeeing over The Expanse for months before it aired.
If you haven’t read James S. A. Corey’s Leviathan Wakes and its excellent sequels, The Expanse can probably be best described these days as Game of Thrones in space, minus the sex and nihilism, plus a more focused plot. Leviathan Wakes, the first book in the series, and the basis for the first season, follows two main characters: James Holden, the XO on the ice hauler Canterbury and Thomas Miller, a hardboiled cop on the asteroid settlement of Ceres. The solar system is locked in a cold war between Earth and Mars, while the belt and Outer Planets are too poor to be any sort of real power, and are thus roundly abused by both Earth and Mars.
Holden and Miller’s stories start off separate and unrelated. Holden’s ship picks up a distress signal from a freighter, finds it abandoned, and is attacked by a stealth ship The Canterbury is destroyed, and only Holden and the four other crewmembers who were investigating the freighter survive. While neither Earth nor Mars has the kind of stealth ships that attacked, technology aboard the freighter suggests it was a Martian plot.
Miller is tasked with finding the heiress of a major corporation, Julie Mao. Julie’s run away from home and joined up with the Outer Planets Alliance (OPA), a loose group “belters” whose MO runs from legitimate politics to PLO-style terrorism. Introduced to us in the prologue of both the book and the show, Julie was onboard the freighter that got Holden and his crew in trouble, and gives us our first (and only, for a long time) at the horrible secret that starts all this trouble. (And it is horrible.)
The TV series throws in a third viewpoint, pulling in a major character from later books to show us the planetary side of the politics earlier. Chrisjen Avasarala, high level UN official, is caught up trying to manage the fallout from the Canterbury‘s destruction and unravel the who or what caused the solar system’s delicate balance of power to fall apart.
The Expanse is a complicated series in some ways. Like I said, it never meanders the way that Game of Thrones does, but it’s hard to sum up the plot in a few paragraphs and do it justice.
As a fan of the books, I was mostly quite pleased with the series. Avasarala’s early inclusion works, and though the dictates of TV mean they’ve had to clean up her language significantly (She has two modes of communication: sweet and grandmotherly or cold blooded and cursing like a sailor.), she’s expertly played by Shohreh Aghdashloo. Also wonderful is Thomas Jane’s Miller, who plays the hardboiled detective bit in a way that would make Bogart proud. Fringe and Mad Men‘s Jared Harris rounds out the excellent performances as OPA leader Anderson Dawes. Most everyone else does their job well, but these three are the stand outs, and in one or two cases, there are some glaringly strange choices. Amos, one of Holden’s crew, is in his late 40s or so in the books; on TV, he’s maybe late 20s? Because TV. Naomi (Another member of Holden’s crew) is also a little younger than I pictured her, but I can roll with that. In Amos’ case, the books paint the picture of a man who has a hard life and a checkered past who has since gone straight as best he can, and relies on his friends to keep on that straight path. Rob him of twenty years, and he just seems a little sociopathic. We still get glimpses of that hard life, but it’s not coming out quite right.
As long as we’re on weird decisions, the weirdest one was the decision to eschew the one-book-per-season format that Game of Thrones uses. The Expanse ends on an appropriately dramatic cliffhanger, but it’s only about two-thirds to three-quarters of the way through Leviathan Wakes. I’d spent most of the season expecting it to move faster than it was, and about three episodes from the end I’d figured they’d decided to fold certain events into the events of Caliban’s War, because you know what? That might actually make sense. Caliban’s War felt a little bit like a digression, and folding the end of Leviathan Wakes into it might make it more organic. And they still might do that, but if season 2 treats the source material the way season 1 did, with similar pacing, the climax of Leviathan Wakes is going to come at an odd moment. Something bizarre and crazy and very season finale-ish is going to happen like two to three episodes in.
So that’s the bad. The good? Besides outstanding performances (and good performances from everyone else) Syfy’s put a lot of effort into the show. There are lots of wonderful little nuances and wise production decisions. I was, for example, assuming that the show was going to be terribly violent, and probably carry a TV-MA more often than not, because the thing that starts all this off is pretty damn squicky. Squicky enough that the authors (Corey is two people) regretted some of it. But they wisely decided to pull from later imagery that’s toned down and more alien, and one particularly criticized feature of Leviathan’s Wake is absent altogether right now.
The books frequently touch on the consequences of living in space. Martians are taller and thinner than Earth born humans, but not terribly so, where as Belters are tall, gangly creatures that could never live on Earth and likely not on Mars. Obviously, it’d be hard to cast every Belter in the show with a tall, gangly actor, so SyFy got a few and threw in some dialogue early on about how one day, all the Belters would look like that. It’s a good compromise. The Expanse is a world without artificial gravity, and again, it would be prohibitively expensive to film a show with a ton of scenes in zero gee, but they give us enough to know it’s there, and give us thrust gravity, spin gravity (complete with coriolis!), or magnetic boots elsewhere. And spaceships. Man. It’s so nice to see spaceships in a show again. Spaceships, and torpedoes, and missiles, and point defense cannons. It does my heart good. I’m anxiously awaiting season 2, even though I know what’s going to happen for like the next five or six seasons.