The Syfy network’s new space drama ‘The Expanse’ doesn’t officially premiere until December 14th. However, the network has made an early sneak preview of the pilot episode available on many streaming and cable On-Demand services. Normally I’d just wait until the regular airing, but the show piqued my interest enough to take a look. Could this be the next ‘Battlestar Galactica’?
Genuine science fiction shows are still a novelty on Syfy, and good ones even more of a rarity. ‘The Expanse’ is clearly a serious and ambitious undertaking for the network, and an attempt to reclaim the ‘Galactica’ audience that filtered away after that show ended.
Based on the book series credited to the pseudonym James S.A. Corey (the collaborative pen name for authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck), the story is set in the 23rd Century. I have no doubt that time period was chosen to draw comparisons with ‘Star Trek’. In this time, humanity has colonized much of our solar system. Earth is ruled by the United Nations, while Mars is an independent military power. Just beyond the latter, a vast industry mines the asteroid belt for valuable resources. Air and water are precious commodities. Political tensions between these three factions – Earth, Mars and the Belt – have escalated and are nearing the point of war.
We open on board a spaceship called Scopuli, where a girl named Julie has been locked inside a room. She manages to break free to find the rest of the crew dead, and something scary is happening in the engine room. (Sorry, I can’t describe it better than that, but I honestly have no idea what it is.)
Next we cut to the huge space station Ceres in the asteroid belt. Rebellion is brewing between the impoverished lower class “Belters” (those who were born in space and have never been to Earth or Mars) and the wealthy upper classes from the inner planets. In addition to the socio-economic differences, Belters are also taller and physically weaker than normal humans due to having lived their entire lives in low gravity, and are viewed as sub-human as a result. Navigating between these strata is a detective named Miller (Thomas Jane), who’s hired to locate a missing and presumably kidnapped girl. Originally a Belter, Miller had surgery to resemble an Earthling and is treated as a race traitor. Despite this, he puts pressure on a slumlord to fix the faulty air filters that are lowering living conditions for the Belters.
In deep space, the ice trawler Canterbury sets course for Ceres to deliver its latest cargo when the ship receives a distress call from the Scopuli. The captain considers this a massive inconvenience and opts to ignore it and purge the computer logs, but recently-promoted X.O. Holden (Steven Strait from ‘Magic City’) can’t let it go. He reports the signal to corporate management, which orders the ship to divert course. This doesn’t make Holden very popular with the crew, because it means that the Canterbury will miss an important (and lucrative) berthing at Ceres.
On Earth, U.N. Deputy Undersecretary Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo) is called to a black site interrogation facility to oversee the torture of a Belter terrorist on the eve of an important political conference.
When the Canterbury comes within range of the Scopuli, Holden and a small away team take a shuttle to investigate. What they find is an abandoned ghost ship, without even any bodies anywhere. Suddenly and seemingly from out of nowhere, a new ship approaches. Holden assumes it must be pirates and that the distress call was a trap. He and his team get back on the shuttle. Before they can make it to the Canterbury, however, the threatening vessel fires torpedoes – not at the shuttle, but at the Canterbury. Holden calls to warn the ship, and tells his girlfriend (the ship’s navigator) to dump all the cargo if necessary. Just as she starts to tell him, “There’s something you should know,” the torpedoes hit and obliterate the Canterbury in a nuclear explosion. These are no ordinary pirates attacking; the stealth technology and nukes suggest that the enemy ship must be from Mars.
The show has a lot going on and, based on the pilot episode, is much more serious-minded and sophisticated that your usual Syfy fare. The production values and visual effects are mostly very good (though the episode is photographed frustratingly dark, as if to hide issues in those departments). I’m not sure that I would call this “hard” science fiction (i.e. maintaining a strict adherence to plausible realism), but the show puts in some effort at depicting real scientific concerns about physics and gravity (good excuse for a zero-g sex scene!) that most sci-fi movies and TV shows just hand-wave away.
The pilot episode isn’t quite a home run. None of the characters really stand out and grab your attention. The show also wears its influences on its sleeve – from ‘Alien’ to ‘Firefly’ to ‘Galactica’ and even touches of ‘Blade Runner’ and ‘Total Recall’. I suppose it’s difficult to do anything entirely original in this genre. More problematic is that I found a lot of the premiere just plain confusing, and had to back up and replay a number of scenes to figure out what was going on in them. Some of this is due to the writers’ desire to drop you into a fully-formed world and make you work a little to catch up, but some of it also just feels rushed or poorly directed.
Regardless, this is an extremely promising start. It’s one of the very few new shows of the fall TV season that I think will be worth a series commitment.