The Expanse TV series Season 1 reviewThe Expanse Season 1

The Expanse Season One; A woman floats in space, planet in background.A couple of weeks ago I watched Syfy’s space-opera adaptation The Expanse all the way through, ten and a half hours. The series left me eager for January 2017, and Season Two; it also inspired me to go buy the first two books. I call that a success.

My comments here are about the television show, not the books. Daniel Abrahamson & Ty Franck, who wrote THE EXPANSE novels under the name James S.A. Corey, have writing credits on all ten episodes, so clearly they are influencing the project.

The first season follows three main characters in a solar-system-wide story. A few hundred years from now, Mars has been colonized and terraformed, although the cities are still domed. The Kuiper Belt is being actively mined for gases, metals and ice. Earth is a major economic power. The relationship between Earth and Mars is strained, and neither planetary government shows the Belters any respect.

James Holden (Steven Strait), an Earther, is crew on a Belt ice-freighter called Canterbury. He is fairly new to the crew, a natural leader who is reluctant to assume leadership. Circumstances lead to Holden and four of his crewmates leaving the ship in a shuttle. While they’re off Canterbury, the freighter is attacked and obliterated, with no warning, by a powerful stealth ship. Holden and the others are the sole survivors, and the evidence points to Mars as the attacker.

Back of DVD of The Expanse with characters Avasarala, Miller and Holden picturedIn the hollowed-out planetoid of Ceres, a major “hub” for Belter prospectors and freighters, Miller (Thomas Jane), a conflicted and corrupt cop, struggles to keep order while political tensions escalate, fueled mostly by a political group with a terrorist arm called the OPA. Miller gets a side-job to locate a missing Earth heiress, Julie Mao, and return her to her family, regardless of whether she wants to be returned. Miller’s quest points him in the direction of another mysterious ship, Scopuli.

On Earth, Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo), the third most powerful voice in the global United Nations Government, tries to figure out exactly what Mars and the OPA are up to. As she says to a highly-placed military official, “The cold war [with Mars] is over. This is something new.” Avasarala is a person who will do anything and use any resource to achieve her goals. Her goals are laudable: the protection of Earth. Her manner is smiling and charming. Her methods are scary.

We viewers know that the missing Julie Mao is not just a distraction for the cynical Miller because this series opens in Julie Mao’s point of view, as she struggles to escape from a deadly derelict ship. That sequence, and Julie’s struggle, are undercurrents throughout the season.

Production values on this show were flat-out gorgeous. We got many lovely CGI shots of the, well, the expanse of space, and the camera glides lovingly over the many ships we see. In contrast to the long vistas of space and the gleaming urbanity of Earth, Ceres, and later Eros Station, look worn and grimy, as they should; these are working, blue collar settlements. On Ceres, the office of the private police force, Star Helix, where Miller works, is sterile and neat, unlike the corridors that lead to the docks. Canterbury looks old and the shuttle is dark and cramped. If, over ten episodes, we got a few too many shots of long, blocky space ships revolving end-over-end just before the thrusters fire, well, I can live with that.

Thomas Jane as Miller

Thomas Jane as Miller

The writing and story-telling is good, at times great, but the real triumph here is with the casting and the acting. Aghdashloo has got to be some kind of casting coup, but Thomas Jane as Miller is sheer brilliance. Miller is at once a character we’ve seen many times before, the noir detective, and something new. The newness is mostly because of this unique setting. Miller wears a hat. No one on Ceres wears a hat. The hat is important as a symbol, but when someone asks Miller why he wears it, he says in case of rain. The character of Miller has a longing for rain, something he’s never seen and probably never will. Belters have a language that involves large, sweeping gestures; when Miller uses these they have levels and nuance. Most of his most intense work, though, is done with glances. Miller broke my heart in his scene in the mass transit pod when he said, “I used to be good at this. Wasn’t I? When was I good at this?” but the moment that really sticks with me is the way he looks at his friend Sematimba in the finale, just after Miller has discovered what has happened to Julie. This, ladies and gentlemen, is acting.

Aghdashloo as Avasarala

Aghdashloo as Avasarala

For a character who is completely unlike Miller in social position, political power, and style, Avasarala shares some characteristics with the detective. For Avasarala, wardrobe is costume. In a show where most of the characters are in space suits or coveralls, and even Avasarala’s male colleagues at the UN choose bland, cubicle-jockey suits, she is larger than life in swirls of rich, brocaded fabrics, cloaks, and elaborate jewelry. They made her stand out, and in at least a couple of scenes they look like ceremonial armor. She is not someone who wants to blend in and go un-noticed. After nine hours of watching her, we catch the flicker of expression in the moment when she realizes that she, the master manipulator, has been manipulated; she’s been played. A nanosecond-later, we see her rally, and we know she’s not going down without a fight. Aghdashloo does a stellar job of informing this powerful, indomitable, high-stakes-poker-player of a woman.

I’ve singled out these two, but really, all these performances are good. Originally, I was going to quibble with the casting of Florence Faivre as Earther Julie because Faivre is tall and lanky, the traits of a Belter. Dominique Tripper, who plays Belter crewmember Naomi, has more the physical build of an Earther. The fact is, these two actors nail their characters so thoroughly that I can’t seriously make that complaint. It seems like Naomi, at this point in the series, is the hyper-capable female sidekick, but she is such an intense and genuine hyper-capable sidekick that I don’t mind. Naomi’s distrust, her secrets and her bristly nature provide a good contrast for Holden’s white-knight naiveté.

Strait as Holden

Strait as Holden

Certainly, this complex story has been streamlined, if not exactly “dumbed down,” for television, and for the most part that worked fine for me. There were a few tiny glitches. While I figured out almost immediately what the OPA was, it was the finale before I heard and understood that the acronym stood for “Outer Planets Alliance.” I think this is probably covered in an early scene with Miller and his captain and I missed it. I didn’t know for several episodes that there was a science station on Phoebe, and that it mattered. Also, in a few places I could not tell how much time had passed — presumably a couple of weeks actually go by between the attack on the Canterbury and the riots on Ceres, and I don’t know if I figured that out. Generally, the one or two short scenes of Belters clashing with Martians carry forward the story just fine, showing us rising tension and deteriorating relationships.

That said, a few characters confused me. Octavia Muss, a fellow private cop, exists to provide opportunities for exposition and feel unrequired love for Miller. One time she saves his bacon. Then she fades out of the show. That would be fine, except that Miller also has a partner named Havelock, who has something bad happen to him, and then fades out of the show. I don’t know why those two characters couldn’t have been merged. Maybe there will be an explanation in Season Two.

All in all, this was a solid hit for me. I have fears. After all, it’s on Syfy. It looks like Syfy doesn’t own it, though, so that’s good. I fear that Season Two will start with ruthless budget-trimming. I pray that a rogue asteroid doesn’t fall on Avasarala as a cost-cutting tactic! If the writing and acting stay as good as Season One, they have themselves a fan.


  • Marion Deeds

    Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town.

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