If you love shows that bring the cosmos to your screen, Syfy has a strong contender for your new favorite. The Expanse, based on novels published under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey, gives us a glimpse of a very plausible 23rd century Solar system. The series premieres on December 14, 2015, but you can actually watch the first episode right now on Syfy's YouTube channel. Is the show any good? Will fans of the genre embrace it? There is good reason to expect an affirmative to both questions.
In evaluating this new entry, I'll take a look at a couple of elements of good Sci-Fi and see how The Expanse fares. I'm not concerned with whether the show brings some transcendent truth about the human condition to our minds or whether it is purely escapist. Good Sci-Fi can be either and often has some mix of the two. Rather, I'm interested in seeing if the story is good and the characters are real.
In my mind, this is the most important aspect of a good story. Flashy special effects are great, but excellent characters are mandatory. Stories are about people. People must be real, they must be relatable. We must either substitute ourselves for these characters or else recognize them in friends, acquaintances, even enemies. It is our empathy that brings us into the story, because that is what drives our desire to learn the fate of characters. Empathy simply cannot be present for a flat or stock character.
As shows tend to have much longer arcs, it is often the case that not all characters are known at the beginning. Certainly, The Expanse will add more characters as the show goes on. The pilot introduces a lot of people and plot points. We don't really care about most of the people right away, and given the limited time and the extensive cast, that's perfectly fine. Two characters that we get to see in more detail are Detective Miller (played by Thomas Jane) and Holden (played by Steven Strait.)
First the good: both actors are excellent. The acting is never overdone. The expressions are real and present. The motions of the characters are portrayed well and naturally by the actors. Holden's character is better off the bat. He is a reluctant leader but with a seemingly good sense of morality. We first encounter him in the outer Solar system on an old trawler. It is almost expected that in this setting he "has a history." While there are hints of this, Strait manages to avoid brooding, and instead gives us aimless. This is an excellent choice to keep the character from becoming a cliché. We see a range of emotions from Strait in the first episode and none of them are over-the-top. I believe he will quickly become a fan favorite.
Detective Miller is a good character and Jane is excellent in the role. But this character, I suspect, is in more danger of being flat depending on the choices made with him in future episodes. It would be easy to make him another tough-exterior-but-soft-inside character who drinks away his pain. It could go either way though. In the first episode, we see him behave unethically ("there's no law on Ceres. Only cops,") but with a sense of justice. Still, I'm wondering how long it will be until he has to turn in his badge and his gun. The trick here will be to not make him do what every other detective in similar circumstances does.
At first glance, these characters are quite promising. The supporting cast is excellent. Jonathan Banks descending into mental illness was very well done. And while she wasn't as thoroughly introduced in the first episode, I really liked Dominique Tipper in the role of Naomi Nagata. Given what happens in the first episode (no spoilers,) I expect we'll see a lot more of her, and that's a good thing. These characters do what they're supposed to do: they make me want to see the next episode. I'm looking forward to getting attached to them.
Two hundred years into the future, the United Nations controls the Earth and the moon, Mars has its own government, and the citizens of the asteroid belt are on their own. My favorite thing so far about this series, is that it starts out on Ceres. I love that the creators have acknowledged the role that the dwarf planet will likely have in our future. It has a lot of water in the present day, but by the time this story starts, this has been taken by the U.N. Whether other planets, dwarf planets, or moons will be inhabited remains to be seen, but this is a very good first view of what the Solar system could be like in the next few hundred years.
It seems that Earth and Mars are analogous to modern-day first world nations, while the citizens of Ceres and the asteroid belt correspond to the modern third world. Some of them are referred to in the first episode as "terrorists," although it is unclear whether that label is deserved. (One commits the "crime" of having stealth tech.) Considering that all of the action in the first episode centers on this population, it is a safe bet that the term is used as propaganda.
The plot unfolds slowly and deliberately in the first episode, although there are a couple of great moments of action and a captivating ending. The story has many international interplanetary components, and pointlessly rushing in is a common mistake. We get to see a couple of characters and get a feel for the state of the Solar system as it is before things erupt. There is the promise of awesome space battles, but also of a great story.
The dialogue is excellent and flows naturally. The script is not contrived and you get a real sense that you are peaking into the actual lives of these future space workers. There was one quip referencing modern airplane flight that brought me right out of the moment, but for the most part the conversations seemed genuine. As this is one of the major ways that character and story are conveyed, it is important to get this right, and The Expanse definitely does.
The science seems quite sound so far. As someone with a relevant degree (chemistry) it makes me happy to see attention to detail in this area. I don't mind some amount of hand-waving (e.g. warp drives, futuristic shields, weapons, transportation, etc.) but if an explanation is given for a technology, it should be logical. The use of magnetic boots to move about ships and the effects of a lifetime in low-G on the population are plausible. The implementation isn't perfect, but poetic license can be taken if the differences from scientific expectation are small. After all, as much fun as the science is, the point of the story is the people in it.
The tech in this story represents expected near-future breakthroughs. It is very believable and fun. The transparent cell phones they use are really cool. The space ships are fun and realistic. There are no fancy energy shields (at least, none that we see yet) or lasers. The computers are advanced but not absurd. They look like actual computers. The show's creators do a great job of building a very convincing twenty-third century.
The Expanse is not set in an enlightened future (like, say, Star Trek.) The Solar system is on the brink of war, and humans and governments are still doing the shady things that they do today. There are real problems that will affect individuals as well as humanity. This more authentic and less Utopian atmosphere has become more prevalent in science fiction and this is a good thing. This makes the story very believable and very relatable to contemporary issues. Comparisons will inevitably be drawn between the characters and organizations in this series and those in our world (indeed, I have done a bit of this above.) These conversations are what the creators want, as it will help build interest in the show.
The production value is very high. Sci-Fi enthusiasts will be delighted by the special effects and the weathered, futuristic set. Most importantly, the characters are promising and the acting great. So far, this show is excellent and I expect it will be a fan favorite. If you haven't already done so, you should go watch the first episode on YouTube, or catch it on Monday night on Syfy. Be prepared to enjoy yourself.