Star Wars is once again the crowning king of box office blockbusters. Star Trek has been rebooted and revitalized for a new generation. In just a few months we will see the highly anticipated next chapter of Mass Effect, arguably gaming's best sci-fi universe.
But with a solid cast, near-future speculative setting and a fantastic book series, no one comes close to achieving the level of sci-fi greatness on television of Syfy’s The Expanse . Here's why you need to be watching when season two arrives on Feb. 1.
It's a game of planetary politics. Fans of Game of Thrones will find a lot of similarities with how The Expanse is structured. It makes a lot of sense considering writer and producer Daniel Abraham (who co-wrote the book series the show is based on and co-produces with Ty Franck) has collaborated with A Song of Ice and Fire author George R.R. Martin, adapting his series into a graphic novel.
Set a few hundred years into the future, The Expanse follows multiple characters from our newly colonized solar system. Entire generations of humans have grown up underneath Martian domes or in large space stations near the outer planets. Earth's countries are united under the U.N., but a cold war exists between Earth and Mars, and the two have grown to resent one another.
Caught in the middle are the Belters, those who live and die on large space stations in the Asteroid Belt beyond Mars. Belters and their stations are invaluable for continued space travel, exploration and colonization, but are often looked down upon as a sub-human working class. It's an intriguing setting rife for political and violent upheaval.
The first season is a tale of three stories. Unlike Game of Thrones, which tells multiple stories featuring a wealth of characters, The Expanse's first season narrows it down to three. Each provides important insight into different political factions and the characters who have distinct roles to play.
James Holden and the crew of the Rocinante are your not-so-typical space adventurers. Earth-born Holden has a hero complex. He, along with Naomi the Belter engineer, Alex the Martian pilot and the violently pragmatic Amos make up the small crew as they become embroiled in a corporate conspiracy that threatens to send every faction into all-out war. They're armed with a spaceship and a “Never Say Die” attitude.
Their adventures are action-packed but their relationships with one another make every episode compelling. Their trust has to be built up and earned through each stressful situation and mysterious reveal, and it's paced perfectly throughout the first season.
What about the politics? Well, how about Shohreh Aghdashloo as a U.N. diplomat? Chrisjen Avasarala is one of the most powerful people on Earth who just so happens to be playing a very dangerous game. She's kind and empathetic, a grandmother and a loving wife. But she's also a ruthless politician, clever and resourceful.
In the novels she isn't introduced until the second book. In the show she's brought in much earlier, letting us witness Avasarala's reactions and strategic moves in finding the truth about the attacks and preventing war. As per the novels, look for her role to become even more integral in the future.
Okay, but does it have Thomas Jane as a noir detective in a space station? That's oddly specific but yes, it does. While Holden and his makeshift crew elude capture, Detective Miller is given a case of a missing rich girl. Miller is a cynical, surly cop who wears a fedora and hates almost everyone, including himself. It’s through him that we get a better look into Belter culture at Ceres Station, and the poor livelihood in a world where air and water don't come free.
He becomes obsessed with a missing woman, Julie Mao, and her fate leads Miller's story to eventually intertwine with Holden's for the thrilling finale. Mao offers a bonus mini-viewpoint in the prologue and a bit later on. It gives us a peek into the bigger conspiracy that will affect everyone in the solar system.
The Expanse is hard science fiction. I love Star Wars but it's basically fantasy in space, complete with space knights and space wizards. You'll find no magic powers in The Expanse. Familiar sci-fi tropes we take for granted, like faster-than-light travel, remain an impossibility. Instead The Expanse uses established technology and extrapolates a few hundred years, also known as speculative sci-fi.
Artificial gravity can be created through linear rotation. Growing up in such an environment creates lots of bone and muscle issues for the human body (hence the sub-human denigration of Belters).
A new fusion drive allows for more efficient and faster space travel. But space travel still takes a solid amount of time. It's more directly addressed in the novels than the show, but people can't simply zip around from planet to station.
Traveling at high-g, when a ship has to burn a lot of thrust to suddenly turn in zero gravity, is complete hell on the human body. In The Expanse, it requires crew members to strap into “Crash couches” that shoot them up full of drugs to keep them conscious during the intense maneuver.
Likewise, you won't find any force shields or magic laser guns, and laser weaponry on spaceships are largely inefficient compared to ballistics. Punching a hole in a ship that leads to the deadly vacuum of space is all you need to create a bad day for enemies. Plus, with zero gravity, a bullet can travel in a straight line forever. That's some deadly accuracy, and concepts like these are what makes The Expanse a lot of fun for hardcore science-fiction geeks.
There's a lot going for The Expanse. It blends some big-name stars with some solid newcomers, crafts multiple intertwining stories, and expertly adapts the source books into a fun, multi-layered adventure. The first season represents only about the first half of the first book, while the sixth book was just published last month. With plenty of excellent source material to draw from, we're in for what could be one of the best sci-fi shows of our generation.