Implying both scope and sprawl, the title of Syfy’s new drama The Expanse also captures both the highs and lows of the series, which has unquestionably expansive aspirations, but fails to emerge from a far-flung muddle over its first four episodes.
Syfy already has put the first episode of The Expanse online, weeks ahead of a two-night premiere on Dec. 14 and 15. Though both episodes are adapted by Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby and are directed by Terry McDonough, it happens that the first episode is much better than the second, which sets in motion the meandering that plagues the series.
Based on the well-regarded source novels by James S.A. Corey (or Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, if you don’t believe in pen names), The Expanse is set in the 23rd century. Humanity has colonized the solar system. The U.N. rules the Earth, Mars has become an independent military power, and major mining operations are underway in the asteroid belt, where laborers struggle for the barest of creature comforts while harvesting the resources that power everything.
Because The Expanse is situated in a very specific future with a very specific connection to Earth as we know it, it gets to claim distinction from the acclaimed run of Battlestar Galactica, even though the world-spanning political unrest in a society in which language and cultural barriers are melding but class barriers remain rigid surely will seem familiar.
Much of The Expanse will feel familiar because, at least for four episodes, the writers are struggling to maintain momentum across at least three sci-fi-trope-heavy storylines that eventually could coalesce into something unique. Working the Ceres station in the belt, Thomas Jane’s Josephus Miller is a gruff, cynical detective living adjacent to the station’s more comfortable white-collar residents, but investigating the crimes in the dark, scuzzy blue-collar pit of the station — a den of sin, poverty and union agitation. Miller is investigating the prodigal daughter of a wealthy Earth family whose disappearance has something to do with a distress signal that attracts a small rescue vehicle sent out from the ice freighter The Canterbury. Led by gruff, cynical Jim Holden (Steven Strait), it’s a rescue mission that could lead to war. Meanwhile, Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo), a U.N. Deputy Undersecretary, is using enhanced interrogation to try to get information about the threat of the Outer Planets Alliance, an advocacy group that represents either progress or a major threat.
It isn’t that The Expanse is necessarily borrowing from Battlestar Galactica or Blade Runner or Elysium or Snowpiercer or any of dozens of sci-fi predecessors and successors in either its storyline or its futurism, but its differentiation is only in the small details and not in the broad strokes, at least initially. There’s fun to be had in piecing together the local patois and the ethnic melting pot, in observing the subtle deformities of people born and raised in zero gravity and in trying to understand the premiums placed on water or oxygen. There’s amusement in checking out the evolved version of dating apps or available recreational activities — comedy clubs and prostitution, of course — or in trying to figure out if Miller’s ridiculous hat is a futuristic affectation or a character affectation.
There’s a welcome texture to this world that speaks presumably to the source material, while the world is also well-realized visually. Again, The Expanse isn’t rewriting our perceptions of space exploration or tech so much as showing how effects technology has improved, while TV has, for the most part, shied away from this genre in recent years. The space stations and vessels are CG-y, but never embarrassingly shoddy, and there’s a nice polish to the depicted contrasts between dark, metallic work spaces and the overly bright spaces occupied by the more advantaged classes.
Inhabiting the world of The Expanse is much easier, though, than caring about any part of it in the early-going. The three parallel stories are both conventional and, at least for now, stories of characters being duped or manipulated by whatever forces actually are pushing for war. Is it Mars? Are they rogue belters? Is the OPA plotting a takeover? While waiting for the stories to intersect, levels of investment are regulated by the varied strength of the actors.
Jane is much more effective at conveying world-weary resignation than Strait. The former Punisher star channels a hard-boiled gumshoe better than the Magic City veteran embodies what seems to be sketched out as a Han Solo type. Around the fourth episode, another character accuses Holden of looking nervous, when the reality is that Strait hasn’t changed his expression so far in the entire series and is getting generally upstaged by plotline colleagues Cas Anvar, Dominique Tipper and Wes Chatham. The caramel-voiced Aghdashloo has the ability to make you believe that she’s invested in whatever she’s talking about, but it’s mostly terrestrial bureaucracy.
The Expanse also likes to tease viewers with a scene or two featuring overqualified character actors who eventually may become important. As an OPA leader with questionable motives, Jared Harris has one scene in the first four episodes, and it’s the most intriguing five minutes I’ve watched so far, if only because he’s sporting a magnificent nationality-bending accent. Chad Coleman also has only one scene, but he may hold the tantalizing key to what Mormons have to do with this whole series. And try not to pay too much attention to the credits because there are a few familiar TV faces whose disposability may be spoiled.
Syfy is trying to dive back into the space race, and The Expanse, with its many-volumed origins, has epic aims, the likes of which TV hasn’t seen for a while, and generosity mandates it be allowed to unfold its story at its own rate. Maybe the rote space-noir, vessel-in-peril and dying-Earth narratives will gel into something unique. Maybe the ideology will add a different twist on the “colonizers versus colonized”/”workers versus corporations” binaries. It’s not there yet.