Monday, March 14, 2016

Into "The Expanse"

Immediately, SyFy's new series "The Expanse" invites comparisons to "Battlestar Galactica" and "Babylon 5."  It's very ambitious, featuring a big, epic, hard science-fiction story of immense scale and scope.  The network spared no expense, this being one of several projects designed to help it reclaim its place in the genre media landscape. There are some excellent action set pieces, spectacular art direction, and a diverse, interesting cast - Jared Harris, Frances Fisher, and Chad Coleman show up in small but memorable roles.  I wanted to like the show very much, but I have some very strong reservations.

Two hundred years in the future, mankind has colonized Mars and parts of the Asteroid Belt, but tensions are high between the various populations, which have become estranged from each other over the centuries.  The narrative is split into three distinct parts, all related to puzzling out what happened to a missing spaceship called the Scopuli.  A detective, Miller (Thomas Jane), based on Ceres in the Asteroid Belt, is hired to find Julie Mao (Florence Faivre), one of the Scopuli's crew.  A freighter, the Canterbury, intercepts a distress call from the Scopuli that takes them far off course.  It's crew includes reluctant leader Jim Holden (Stephen Strait), engineer Naomi (Dominique Shipper), pilot Alex (Cas Anvar), and mechanic Amos (Wes Chatham).   Finally, a politician on Earth, Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo), works to avert  a potential war between Earth and Mars using any means necessary.

"The Expanse" is very exposition-heavy and trusts its audience to be able to follow along as it plunges into the complexities of its fascinating universe.  The worldbuilding here is great, painting the "Belters" as an exploited underclass that is overdue for a revolt against the inner planets, and the Earthers and Martians as larger world powers (ha) locked in a Cold War that is about to go hot.  Notably, the series isn't afraid to get very dark and cruel very quickly, detailing all sorts of horrible ways that people can suffer from living in space with inadequate resources.  Quite a bit of the series hinges on the tiny struggles of individuals, against the massive, faceless corporations and governments that control the system.  The individuals die, frequently.

However, I found it very difficult to get invested in the story, which is largely left in the hands of very cliché, typical heroes.  Miller is essentially you standard noir detective archetype, complete with a fedora and a lost cause.  Holden is your average whitebread, bland idealist, and easily the least interesting member of the Canterbury crew.  Thomas Jane and Stephen Strait aren't bad in the roles, but don't bring anything to them either.  Shoreh Aghdashloo, however, is fantastic as the Frank Underwood of the 23rd century, and it's a shame that her storyline suffers from the worst writing.  The political maneuverings are entirely too simplistic, with considerable gaps in the storytelling.  Essentially, when all was said and done, I couldn't find anybody to care about beyond a few minor characters who are gone too soon.

That's always been my problem with "edgy" media that can't wait to show you how grim they can be - they frequently forget to also deliver the human drama required to give their stories the proper stakes that really make an impact.  Sure, "The Expanse" kills off characters at the same rate as "Game of Thrones," but it doesn't have a Tyrion or an Arya to root for, or a Joffrey to rail against.  "Babylon 5" covered some of the same ideas twenty years ago in a far cheesier and low-budget fashion, but the Narn and Centauri war hit so hard because it deeply affected characters I loved.  I think that "The Expanse" has the potential for great human drama, but it has yet to find its heart.  The first season is smart and intriguing and beautifully realized - and terribly, terribly cold.

The good news is that "The Expanse" is getting at least one more season, and a chance to improve.  I hope it spends more time on its characters the next time around.  The creators did a great job of setting up this world, and now they need to populate it more fully. Avasarala's wardrobe looks amazing, but maybe let her get in on the action next time?


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