clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Expanse season 4 struggles to make hard science sexy

Landing on a dusty, barren planet slows down the glossy science-fiction drama

Holden puts his hand on an alien structure on the planet Ilus. Alcon Entertainment/Amazon
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

The entire first episode of season 4 of The Expanse is more or less dedicated to getting fans back up to speed with a series that went off the air when Syfy canceled it in May 2018. The epic space opera, adapted from the novels by S.A. Corey (pen name of authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck), picks up right where it left off. The crew of the Martian gunship Rocinante is present and accounted for, along with all of the show’s supporting characters. You’d be hard-pressed to tell that someone new is footing the bill, outside the fact that the show is now only available on Amazon Prime.

The only thing the show lacks at the outset is a sense of urgency.

That gap between seasons may explain why it takes six full episodes for the new season to finally pick up momentum. The main characters are exploring a new setting and a new situation, but that amounts to a slow start for a series that kicked off in season 1 by pumping them full of amphetamines while they accelerated away from a nuclear explosion. It all adds up to about five hours of table-setting before the main course is served.

[Ed. note: The following includes mild spoilers for the first six episodes of The Expanse season 4, which airs on Dec. 13 via Amazon Prime.]

The crew of the Rocinante — captain James Holden (Steven Strait), first officer Naomi Nagata (Dominique Tipper), engineer Amos Burton (Wes Chatham), and pilot Alex Kamal (Cas Anvar) — don’t actually get to work until the final moments of that first episode, when they finally set down on an alien planet called Ilus. What follows is, for all intents and purposes, a page-by-page adaptation of Cibola Burn, the fourth book in the Expanse series.

Cover art for Cibola Burn features the Rocinante and weird alien structure on the surface of Ilus. It has a green hue with yellow and orange explosions.
Fun fact: Daniel Dociu, who does all the cover art for The Expanse novels, was the face model for Father Grigori in Half-Life 2.

Season 4 continues the series’ obsession with politics, dives deeper into questions of who owns stellar bodies and the materials derived from them, and follows through on overarching themes of transhumanism. The planet Ilus itself is the anvil on which all of these topics are bent into shape. Ilus is also known as New Terra, the nomenclature the scientific team at Royal Charter Energy (RCE) prefers. They use it as often as they can to show off their legal rights to everything on the planet.

On the other side of the table is a group of Belters — humans who grew up in space — trying to eke out a life mining lithium on a hostile world. The face-off between the two factions is a powder keg that sometimes looks more like a mob hit than a proper negotiation.

But the next few episodes continue to meander. While Holden and Amos ride into town to diffuse the situation, Naomi and Alex move some boxes around and generally tend to the wounded. A recent accident that killed members of the RCE field team might have actually been a terrorist attack, and security chief Adolphus Murtry (Burn Gorman) wants some answers. Unfortunately, his character rapidly devolves into a mustache-twirling sociopath.

The real bright spot of these early episodes is Dominique Tipper’s performance. As the Rocinante’s only Belter, Naomi has a lot of symbolic weight on her shoulders. There’s a literal weight as well, as she’s among the first of her kind to try and live “down the well” on the surface of a planet with more than the force of Earth’s own gravitational pull.

Amos stands on the bridge of the Rocinante, asking about the color of Avasarala’s dress. Alcon Entertainment/Amazon

Tipper’s every movement onscreen speaks to the pain of trying to walk around under planetary gravity after a lifetime in space. Nearly every scene where she opens her mouth, she’s up against proxies for Earth and Mars, holding her own and clearing the way for her kind. She’s clearly setting the groundwork for the later half of season 4 and season 5, which will bring the Belters into conflict with the rest of the human race. Along the way, she turns in some of the series’ most heartfelt moments, dealing with issues of depression and suicide.

Another bright spot is Wes Chatham. His work as the laconic gunman Amos has been inspired from the start, with a weirdly sensitive take on the muscle-bound killer present in the novels. He spends most of his time in season 4 cavorting with Murtry’s second-in-command, Wei, played by actor Jess Salguiero. Their relationship is complicated by the fact that their bosses very much want to kill each other. Strangely, their sexual banter gives the season its best laughs.

The anchor around the neck of season 4 is all of the hard science going on in the background. At its core, Cibola Burn is a tale of conflicting biologies. Human beings aren’t well suited to breathing the same air as other extraterrestrial species, and trying to make a life on Ilus is foolhardy. Even though it contains enough oxygen to keep them upright, the atmosphere slowly begins to take its toll on the Belters and the RCE alike. Parts of the book read like a 500-level course on genetic diversity, with a weekend seminar on advanced particle physics. Turns out that’s very hard to translate to the small screen.

It’s not for lack of trying. At one point, the camera bores right into the side of the Rocinante. An illuminated ball — it’s hard to even be sure of its scale — suddenly stops glowing. Then another ball falls out of a dispenser. Then another. None of them glow. Narratively, that’s because fusion itself has stopped working, turning off the electricity for everyone on the surface of the planet and in orbit around it. But it doesn’t work onscreen. It’s just some nondescript balls getting pooped out inside a metal sphere.

Holden and Naomi ride out to a weird alien structure with a member of the RCE’s science team. Alcon Entertainment/Amazon

The planet itself — a huge, barren rock with some weird alien bits sticking out — seems to be actively working against the showrunners, as well as the material itself. Ilus does few favors for anyone, other than to provide some nice drone shots. Huge plot points that represent turning points in the novel are given short shrift because very little of it plays well onscreen. In their place, Holden and Drummer (Cara Gee) spend a lot of time in their underwear. The entire show would be stronger if the crew had spent as much time beefing up the series’ underpinning science as they did lighting Holden’s abs.

By episode 6, however, it feels like the story is ready to start moving. A massive explosion on the surface of the planet finally forces the Belters and the RCE to work together. That’s where our early preview access stopped, unfortunately. But it seems like Detective Miller (Thomas Jane) is finally ready to step into the frame. The Expanse was always at its best when Strait and Jane were working together. With any luck, that renewed chemistry can help the show put the pedal back down after a meandering start.

The Expanse season 4 premieres on Dec. 13 on Amazon Prime Video.

The next level of puzzles.

Take a break from your day by playing a puzzle or two! We’ve got SpellTower, Typeshift, crosswords, and more.