If you haven't watched Syfy's The Expanse yet, there are some minor spoilers here. But this isn't really a review, more of my first impressions from the show.
TL;DR version: Despite some minor issues, The Expanse has a lot going for it and is worth your time if you're a scifi fan.
Pilot episodes are a cruel way to judge a program. Actors are still learning how to inhabit their characters and develop a rapport with the other actors. The writers haven't found their groove yet either and as viewers, we haven't been immersed in the world the show is trying to create long enough to understand everything that is happening.
Syfy's The Expanse, which had a two-hour, two night premiere this week suffers from many of these challenges, but also shows enough promise to make revisiting the world a worthwhile exercise.
If you're not familiar with the show, or haven't read the books, check out this Q&A with the authors, Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham:
This is a great time to be a show creator as there are more platforms than ever and they are hungry for content. Thirty years ago The Expanse would have had to limit itself to the parameters of a broadcast network show. Today, if SyFy hadn't picked it up, it could have aired on Fx, Spike (which recently announced it was going to produce Red Mars), Netflix, Amazon or even Microsoft's Xbox platform.
The downside is that the bar is set very, very high. Viewers have come to expect quality from their genre shows on the level of Game of Thrones, Daredevil, Man in the High Castle and Syfy's beloved Battlestar Galactica. Those shows are all very different, but are light years beyond what sci-fi fans grew up with in the previous decades (see: Manimal).
So The Expanse both suffers by comparison to the very best genre shows, but also holds its own in many regards. Some of my initial quibbles?
- The difference between the truly great shows and the merely good are often in the details. Throughout the show, I found myself asking questions like "Why, after walking around in soil, are the XO's feet not dirty when he is being put on the gurney?" Or, "Two hundred years in the future, people are still wearing over-the-ear headphones?" Or, "If nobody wears a fedora in 2015, why is someone wearing one in 2215?"
- The storyline featuring Thomas Jane's character, Detective Miller, was the weak point of the pilot. The noir detective in space also felt pulled directly from Blade Runner, and not in a good way.
- Similarly, the crew of the spaceship Canterbury felt a lot like the crew of the Nostromo from Alien.
- Many of the sets and characters looked like left-overs from Syfy's Defiance or one of TNT's scifi efforts. It's sort of a generic, post-apocalyptic streetscape that is a very poor man's version of the L.A. street scenes from Blade Runner. That movie created an atmosphere that was clearly lived in. The world inhabited by the citizens - called "Belters" of the asteroid Ceres asteroid looks like a set. The extras look like, well, extras. My hunch is that we'll get a better understanding of the social, political and economic realities of this world, what role corporations play in creating this space, what role religion plays and so forth. The show worked hard to make sure these scenes featured a racially diverse group, but what happens when you put that sort of diversity in close quarters? Maybe we'll find out in future episodes, but my guess is that we're just going to have to accept that the underworld of Ceres is a crazy mish-mash of diversity.
- But here's the real issue: why is this show set in space? Why not Baltimore? Or off the Eastern Coast of Uganda? What is the driving purpose that makes setting this show in space essential to the telling of the story?
- Juggling three storylines is difficult, especially when you try to give them near equal weight. I'm not sure that anything we saw from the Shohreh Aghdashloo storyline was essential to driving the plot forward in the first episode. Rather than try to introduce multiple characters/storylines - each of which are literally happening millions of miles from each other - why not focus on one story, and let the other two naturally spin-off from the core story?
Yes, that seems like a lot of issues, but even moving from the first hour to the second, several of these issues started to resolve themselves. I was very impressed with the strides the show took from hour one to two.
The second hour of the two-hour premier event took a huge leap forward in my opinion. The pacing was really quite good. They slowed it down in the beginning, allowing each of the three storylines more time to breathe.
The Detective Miller storyline improved greatly as well. I appreciated some of the tech gadgets he utilized while on the chase looking for his missing person, Julie Mao. He gained access to her apartment and then was able to break into her communications system in a way that was future-tech, but also seemed like something a detective in the future would have.
I'd also like to call out the good work by many of the actors. Dominique Tipper and Wes Chatham in particular were quite good. Both brought something unique to the show and I hope we get to see much more of both of them.
Perhaps the biggest praise I can give the show is that as the tension mounted for the crew of the shuttle, I was genuinely concerned. The drama felt authentic.
The series' other big strength lays in the set design for the spaceship scenes. The interior of the ships look lived in and believable. The visual effects are well done as well. The fact that I didn't really think about the visual effects is a good sign. I was never pulled out of the story, trying to imagine how Visual Effects Supervisor Bob Munroe and his team created the effects. Check out this interview with several cast members from this year's New York Comic-com at around the 6:40 mark for details on the set design:
Overall, I think The Expanse has a lot of good ideas. The elongated physiology of the native "Belters," some of the tech elements introduced were clever, and they made a very commendable effort to show that the locations were more than facades. In the second episode Detective Miller and his partner investigate the infrastructure of the city on Ceres. I really appreciated that. It's rare that any show, let alone a scifi one, acknowledges that big things like cities and spaceships have something 'under the hood' that makes it work.
Moving forward, here are some of the challenges the show is going to have to manage in upcoming episodes:
- Striking the balance between fast-paced action and slow-boil political intrigue. Game of Thrones has mastered this art, but it's not easy. How do you keep the politics from killing the flow, or how do you keep the action from over-whelming the slower material? Good luck to the writers.
- Tying the three storylines together. Crazy coincidences, Deus Ex Machina or a fortuitous chance encounter are ok if they happen once, but if the stories all converge miraculously, there's going to be a lot of eyerolling from the audience.
- Keeping focus and keeping all the plates spinning. We've got multiple stories in widely varying locations and right now we're not sure who we're supposed to be aligned with. Who is our surrogate, Holden or Miller? Both?
Here's what I'm hoping to see in upcoming episodes:
Don't be afraid to kill characters. When the medic looked like he may not have made it when they were running out of air on the shuttle, I thought, "Excellent, that means the stakes are real." I was then disappointed when seconds later he was again breathing. [To be fair, they did kill off a lead characters love interest.] Again, learn from Game of Thrones. When no one is safe, you have to watch every episode... live.
More science. I really like that the main characters work for an ice mining company. The economics and logistics of that sort of thing lend depth to the political storyline. The vastness of space is another issue that can help build the drama. It's a long way between Earth and Mars, what impact does that have?
A nuanced approach to the socio-political issues. We need to really understand the thinking and emotions of the "Belters." They can't all think and feel the same way. What are the factions within the movement/rebellion?
If you're a scifi fan, I'd say The Expanse is worth giving a shot (episodes 3 and 4 are available online now as well). The show has done a good job of trying to keep things believable while still telling a story that has enough action to keep you interested.
For those of you interested in the space where real-world technology and science fiction are merging, I invite you to sign up for my newsletter, The Adjacent Possible. I cover hard scifi, technology, innovation and people who are closing the gap between them.