I’ve watched the first episode of Syfy’s upcoming adaptation of The Expanse series of books (it was an unfinished cut, but probably 90% finished). I’m a big fan of the books, which are fun, fast-paced space opera filled with likeable characters who do and say bad-ass things while trying to save humanity. The tl;dr of this review is that they’re doing the books a good service, and if you like your space opera with a solid dose of scientific realism and great, damaged, earnest characters, you should give it a watch.
The long version is this: The Expanse is set a couple hundred years in the future. Thanks to the development of a very efficient engine called the Epstein Drive, it’s possible for ships to traverse the solar system in days and weeks, rather than months and years. These aren’t FTL drives, they’re just highly efficient. The downside is that we still have to accelerate and decelerate wherever we’re going, so we all have to endure high-g maneuvers. So, alongside the development of the drive, we’ve built really good crash couches with really good drug-delivery systems to help keep people from dying due to 10-gravity (or higher) effects over long periods.
Due to this, the solar system has been colonized. Earth is a fractured global socialist world, where the environmental impacts have all the major cities living behind sea walls to keep the oceans out, and leaving is often a one-way trip, since extended living in lower gravities (or no gravity at all) means your body will suffer if you ever travel back to 1g. Mars is independent, and a bit militaristic. Many of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn have colonies, and the asteroid belt is the source of raw materials for everything. But the people of the belt, who aren’t entirely human after a few generations of living without gravity, aren’t happy with how the old worlds treat them, and there’s rebellion a-brewing.
The rich settings established by James SA Corey (actually the pseudonym of two authors, Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) in the books is well sketched-out in the ‘pilot’ episode. I especially like the look of Ceres station, where much of the early action will play out, and the subtle but noticeable use of very skinny/lanky actors for the belters drives home the kind of species differentiation that’s happening in this universe. Overall, the tech and the environments are very believable – the zero-g settings look right (including the space sex, parents take notice). There is a bit of polished and swoopy-CGI with some of the ships and virtual camera work – the Canterbury, for example, looks awfully sharp and clean for a ship that’s supposed to be old and in some disrepair – but overall, things are definitely a cut above what we expect for TV science fiction these days.
But even better, the casting of the major characters works really well. Not everyone is exactly as I pictured them in my mind’s eye when reading the books, but I grok the choices made and see how these people work for the characters. Especially Thomas Jane (Hung, The Punisher), playing a pitch-perfect Detective Miller, the beat-down, world-weary, mildy corrupt cop on Ceres who still has a baseline humanity that hasn’t been stripped away. Steven Strait’s (Sky High) Jim Holden is likable so far, and knowing what the character will get up to, I can see him doing it well. And Shohreh Aghdashloo (Grimm, 24) is imperious so far as my favorite character, Chrisjen Avasarala, the UN official who will become so important.
So yeah, I’ve watched just one episode. It moves very quickly, and jumps back and forth between four different storylines even as it explains the setting, the science, and the politics of the universe. Things happen quickly. I got a lot of it because I’ve read the books, but I’d think that smart viewers would be able to slip into understanding pretty smoothly (and I think it holds up under multiple viewings, too).
My feeling is this: The Expanse has the potential to be the best space opera we’ve seen since Battlestar Galactica, and if the first episode is any indication, it’s going to succeed. I can’t wait for December.
The Expanse starts December 14th, at 10pm/9pm central, on Syfy. Check out more info at Syfy.com.