Disparate Stories Out in the Black
The Expanse: Season 1
Space is really big. I know, that's a shocking statement to make, but it's true. When you watch a TV series about space, say a Star TrekOriginally conceived as "Wagon Train in Space", Star Trek was released during the height of the Hollywood Western film and TV boom. While the concept CBS originally asked for had a western vibe, it was the smart, intellectual stories set in a future utopia of science and exploration that proved vital to the series' long impact on popular culture. or a Star WarsThe modern blockbuster: it's a concept so commonplace now we don't even think about the fact that before the end of the 1970s, this kind of movie -- huge spectacles, big action, massive budgets -- wasn't really made. That all changed, though, with Star Wars, a series of films that were big on spectacle (and even bigger on profits). A hero's journey set against a sci-fi backdrop, nothing like this series had ever really been done before, and then Hollywood was never the same. or what have you, they make space seem small, in a way. "Captain, at Warp 5 it will take up two hours to travel across the Gamma Quadrant..." You can get anywhere, and be on any other planet, in the matter of a commercial break. That is, of course, because it would be really boring to actually have to travel across the vastness of space naturally, so the producers think, so space is made smaller to make its stories more digestible. Multiple star systems in a single adventure.
What makes The Expanse interesting is that it takes the opposite approach. Space, even just around Earth, is really big. Want to get somewhere, even traveling at fairly quick speeds? It's going to take days, even months. You'll be on your boat for some time, and if anything goes wrong or, heaven forbid, you're trapped out in the black in just a space suit, then you better hope someone comes along in the next few hours. Otherwise you're dead and no one will even find you.
The Expanse is set around the Sol system -- our solar system -- between the planets of Earth and Mars along with the Asteroid Belt. Travel is limited there because, again, even getting from one planet to another takes a long time without faster than light travel (and this series doesn't feature faster than light travel). The three planets have their own cultures as well. The Martians are dedicated to remaking their home into a new Earth, while Earth is full of people who take their world for granted. Meanwhile, the Belters look down on the "Inners" as users that don't appreciate all the hard work the Belters have to do to survive out in low-g.
It's an interesting take on space and the dynamics of the characters within, a take I hadn't really seen before on television. The first season of the show explores this future setting for our solar system via three main storylines, allowing us to really explore the perspectives of the worlds (at least the Belt and Earth at the start) as it guides is into a deeper story with implications for everyone. The show has grander ambitions, as is slowly revealed in this first season, and that then leads to a series spanning story that becomes particularly involving.
The main cast of characters come from the Canterbury, an ice hauling ship out in the Belt. James Holden (Steven Strait) is the second officer on the ship, tentatively promoted to executive officer when the previous XO goes a little batty out in the black. When a distress call comes in, it's dismissed at first as pirate bait, but then Holden goes back, checks it again, and officially logs it. The Canterbury heads back, dropping off Holden and a small crew -- Belter engineer Naomi Nagata (Dominique Tipper), Earther mechanic Amos Burton (Wes Chatham), and Martian pilot Alex Kamal (Cas Anvar) -- to investigate the derelict ship, but then someone comes along and blows up the Canterbury to try and hide a greater secret, and that sends Holden and his crew off down a rabbit hole of conspiracy and war.
While this is going on, over on Ceres in the Belt, investigator Joe Miller (Thomas Jane) is given a case to crack off the books. He's assigned the missing person's file for Juliette "Julie" Andromeda Mao (Florence Faivre), an Earther who was last seen on Ceres and, apparently, has been working in the Belt. Her father, Jules-Pierre, wants her to come home, and Miller has to track down her trail and see just where she's gone. And then, on Earth, we have UN Deputy Undersecretary Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo), who is trying to stop a war between her planet and Mars, despite everyone else at the UN table apparently chomping at the bit to begin one. And all these plot lines, eventually, will tie together.
The trick with The Expanse is that you really have to give it a few episodes to get going. Reviewers when it first came out discussed the fact that the various stories didn't really tie together, that what was happening with Holden and his crew didn't seem to have any bearing on Miller, or over at the UN on Earth. And that's true for a few episodes. It takes time for the series to get all the pieces in place, to start having people meet up with each other as their stories converge. But then do, all because of one reason: the protomolecule.
The protomolecule. doesn't come into focus until late into season one, but it's the driving force of the whole series. It's basically alien tech, or an alien contagion, or something (as far as the characters in season one are concerned), but most people recognize that is can be used as a weapon. And something like this, a powerful bit of tech that can morph and change and adapt, could upset the balance of power across the solar system. Finding it and either controlling it or destroying it becomes a major theme of this season, and beyond, as the show moves forward.
But you don't get that early in the season. It is a slow burn, with three different plots going in three different directions. Two of those three plot lines, to be fair, are quite interesting. The former crew of the Canterbury, Holden and his team, have the most involving story, what with surviving the destruction of their ship and desperately trying to find a way to survive. They get stuck right in the middle of the protomolecule plot line, and go from one twist of the plot to another, never quite able to escape their destinies. They are absolutely the main characters of the show, and they're who we'll focus on fully as the series moves forward.
Miller's plot line over on Ceres is good, too, but mostly because Thomas Jane sells the shit out of his character. He's got swarthy charm that he oozes the whole time, delighting in playing this kind of dirty cop who slowly finds himself on a mission of redemption. Ceres is also our major view into life on the Belt, and the storyline lets us see these characters and their own culture, their style, and their grievances with Earth. It's fascinating, and while the quest to find Julie Mao isn't that interesting (at least, not until it intersects with Holden and his team), the world around Miller is quite cool to explore.
The weak link is Avasarala and the politics at the UN. This whole section of the show feels very far removed from the storylines out in the Belt. While I understand why its here -- Earthers wanna see stories about themselves, sure, and also this allows us to see how the superpowers are operating in their war against each other -- these sections of the show could, frankly, be removed entirely and I don't think it would make much difference. At least, not in season one. Thankfully the focus isn't on Earth for long, making this feel like a far removed C-plot, and then in later seasons it becomes more interesting and more organically woven in.
Slow as the start may be, the show gets going and this first season becomes really good. It's important to give the show a few episodes, to let its version of our worlds hook you in. Once you do, I'm sure you'll find a sci-fi show here absolutely worth watching. And then you can go through the rest of the seasons with us (and then see that later seasons we've already covered: season four, season five, and season six). It's a great ride out into the black, and you absolutely should come along for the journey.