The Expanse Makes The Journey From Page To Screen In Epic Fashion
It is the era of “The Binge”. Technology and a glut of available content and delivery platforms have created a ravenous consumer who, like Veruca Salt, wants it now! All of it. Right up front, in one big gulp. Content providers have heard this and given us our media Gobstopper. For TV lovers this is glorious! But it’s also great for those shows that require a little time to hit their stride. Syfy’s new series, The Expanse, is one of these shows. And thanks to it’s partial binge-ability, excellent source material and expansive vision, it scores big in all areas.
Based on the popular series of novels by James S.A. Corey, the nom de plume of writing duo Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham, The Expanse is SyFy’s first serious science fiction effort since Battlestar Galactica bowed in 2009.
The premise: 200 years after humans have pushed out into space to inhabit far flung outposts on dwarf planets, asteroids and moons, the political situation of the solar system is at a boiling point. Earth (and a dependent Luna) are in a cold war with an independent Mars for control over the resource rich “Belt” and outer planets. Meanwhile, the inhabitants of that region, known as Belters, have an agenda of their own. Poor, oppressed and physically different (due to the low gravity they live in) they have formed a revolutionary/terrorist organization called the Outer Planets Alliance (or OPA) and are fighting for independence from their inner planet overlords. Into this mix flies the crew of the Canterbury, a merchant marine type ice hauler working the frozen reaches near Saturn. When the crew of The Cant answers a distress call that goes south on them, all hell breaks loose. And that’s about all I can say without full on spoileration.
What I can say is that the show is big. Multiple plot lines unwind on Earth, Ceres Station in The Belt and in all the frigid places in between. All very beautifully crafted by showrunners Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby and their writers. With a talented cast and an apparent budget to match they manage to convey not only the dangerous political and socio-economic situation in the solar system, but the real dangers of space travel as well.
The universe of The Expanse has no light speed or any other magical black box device to help us conveniently travel from one place to another. Gravity is achieved by thrust or rotation. There is no endless supply of air, water or fuel. All of these things must be obtained the hard way. And lives are frequently lost while doing it. The ships of The Expanse run on something called an Epstein Drive, a type of fusion reactor that we can believe exists several centuries from now. It’s fast, but it still takes weeks and months to travel between locations. People travel across the stars at 1G (or some percentage of it) and only exceed those speeds for short durations. And when they do, they must pump their bodies full of drugs and stimulants to withstand the physical strain. All of this “real science” stuff lands The Expanse squarely in the gritty hard science fiction arena, but the authors and showrunners keep it from getting bogged down in those nuts and bolts by marrying it to story that sits closer to space opera. And for fans of excellent sci-fi TV, this is a very happy marriage indeed.
As a fan of the novels (which I also binged, burning through the five available books in about two months) I had the natural fear the reader has of seeing his or her imagined world created on screen. Fans of the novels will be pleased with the sets, locations and, especially, the ships, which are beautifully realized. In addition I think the cast, mostly unknowns (to me at least), are excellent and seem to understand the arcs their characters will take. All this satisfies. But as a reader, my greater fear was that something critical in the storytelling would be lost in translation from page to screen.
Much like the Game of Thrones novels, the literary version of The Expanse employs multiple narrators who often relay differing points of view on the same events. This adds a huge amount of texture and perspective to the big doings of the Solar System. But the team behind The Expanse seems to have taken a page from GoT’s strategy for success on the small screen, by approaching the novels as one long story, introducing characters from later books right up front and filling in narrative gaps with scenes that don’t appear in the literary version at all. That they chose this approach is not surprising, as the authors of the series have both worked closely with George R.R. Martin for many years.
But the best thing about this new series is that Syfy has made the first four episodes available on their website (they can also be purchased on iTunes if that’s your jam). This allows for a mini-binge, which is good, because the one knock on this new show is that it’s a bit of a slow starter. There’s plenty to love in the first three episodes, but the uninitiated can expect to be a little confused while getting a handle on the world and its rules, as well as the characters and back story of series.
Syfy seems to have recognized that the fourth episode, “CQB” is the point in the series where the story really finds its stride. In pre-binge years this situation could have spelled doom for a complicated (in a good way) show like The Expanse, but thanks to the programming flexibility now available to broadcasters that no longer needs to be the case.
“CQB” is one of the more satisfying hours of TV I have seen in recent years. Its chock full of action, sharp dialogue and character development and has tons of revelations about the deepening mystery that the The Expanse is laying out for viewers. And it is a great place to land after gulping down the three preceding episodes. The only problem is that afterwards, you’ll have to go back waiting for weekly episodes and that’s a real bummer.
Even so, the recommendation here is that sci-fi fans should spool up their DVR drive (or laptop) and belt themselves in for the first four episodes. Once they’ve got hang of it, I’m convinced they will be in for the long haul. And, for my part, I hope that is a very long journey indeed!
The Expanse airs on Syfy, Tuesdays 10/9C.
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