With their sudden refocus on science fiction and the endless network craving for new properties to acquire and exploit, it should not have been a surprise when James S A Corey’s series of novels The Expanse, often described as “Game of Thrones in space” was announced as in development by SyFy given the success of HBO’s adaptation of George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.
That it should be so dubbed is also perhaps unsurprising, as Corey is actually a pen name for the writing team of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, both of whom are associates of Martin and now serve as producers on the show, and with the second season of the show confirmed before the first has even broadcast it is hoped that not only will The Expanse mirror that success but follow the model, with the first season adapting Leviathan Wakes and the second its sequel Caliban’s War.
It is the 23rd century and humanity has colonised the inner planets and the minor bodies of the solar system, but the grudges and resentments which have simmered for decades are approaching boiling point. Tithed to the inner worlds for their setup costs and dependent upon them for water and oxygen, the Belters possess the minerals that support Earth, now governed by the United Nations, and Mars, a military power whose advanced technology secures their strategic position.
On Ceres, most vital port of the asteroid belt, stripped long ago of its water ice, Detective Josephus Miller (The Punisher’s Thomas Jane) of Star Helix Security is concerned about the growing unrest exacerbated by the political activism of the Outer Planets Alliance. It’s not that he doesn’t agree with many of the points that they are making, it’s just that it is his job to keep the peace and too often turn a blind eye, with the compromises he has had to make on the job driving him to the bar every night.
An Earther, his partner Dimitri Havelock (Suicide Squad’s Jay Hernandez) is tolerated rather than trusted, which is why when Captain Shaddid assigns Miller a job to be carried out discretely on the side she makes it clear Havelock is not to be informed. His task: to locate Juliette Andromeda Mao, heiress to the Mao-Kwikowski Mercantile fortune, last seen on Ceres among the dissidents, now missing.
On the ice freighter Canterbury near Saturn, acting executive officer Jim Holden (Sky High’s Steven Strait) listens to his conscience when his captain orders a distress call wiped from the ship’s log despite knowing that to respond will cause the crew to lose their bonus.
Instead, hearing that voice from the dark, he reports the call and draws the short straw to take a shuttle to the derelict Scopuli alongside engineer Naomi Nagata (Vampire Academy‘s Dominique Tipper), mechanic Amos Burton (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay‘s Wes Chatham), pilot Alex Kamal (Source Code‘s Cas Anvar) and medic Shed Garvey (Royal Pains’ Paulo Costanzo).
On Earth, United Nations Deputy Undersecretary Chrisjen Avasarala (House of Sand and Fog‘s Shohreh Aghdashloo) is obliged to leave the company of her beloved grandchildren to attend the interrogation of a Belter believed to be an OPA terrorist, while somewhere in space the elusive Julie Mao herself (The Following’s Florence Faivre) has managed to free herself from captivity, floating through the deserted corridors of her ship to the horror of the engineering section where she realises she is the only survivor, the crew consumed by an unknown energy.
A complicated and sprawling story across many worlds, ships and outposts, pilot episode Dulcinea (written by series developers and executive producers Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby and directed by An Adventure in Space and Time‘s Terry McDonough) by necessity relies heavily on computer generated imagery and exposition, but even that is insufficient to properly explain the intricacies of the political ties and cross-system relationships nor the multiple characters, a situation hampered by the often barely-audible dialogue, so far back it is placed in the ambient noise of the soundtrack of engines and life support systems, but on the promise of this first hour and foreknowledge of what is to come it is worth persevering.
The Canterbury, its shuttle Knight and the Scopuli, soon to be joined by the Donnager and the Rocinante, are functional workships, not the silvered fish of Starfleet slipping through the ether, and inevitably like Babylon 5 a generation before there is a huge reliance on digital sets and environments, though aside from a couple of minor exceptions (the motion of fragmenting icebergs and during the explosive cliffhanger) with a greater realism than the primitive tools available to that pioneering epic, though in terms of ambition and scope that is the closest comparison.
Though no alien species will appear, the altered physiology of the Belters is shown, though perhaps not as exaggerated as in the novels and not in any of the lead characters (Nagata should be full Belter), though for practical reasons the altered gravities of the different settings is on the whole ignored other than on ships in flight.
Eschewing the silence of Firefly or the muffled sonics of Battlestar Galactica, here spaceflight has the traditional sound associated with the science fiction genre, though atypically the ships also have inertia and mass, as emphasised during the Canterbury‘s high-G “flip and burn,” as well as the interventions necessary to keep the crew alive and conscious during the manoeuvre, the combination of terrifying momentum and fragility recalling the Leonov‘s aerobraking in 2010: Odyssey Two.
Slightly younger than the character as written, the normally ruggedly handsome Jane is shown as suitably past his best, while yet to reach his thirties, Strait is rather prettier than expected and somewhat too buff for a long-term spacer. Perhaps too innocent, a convincing transformation to the man he must become will be one of the challenges of the season.
By circumstance and choice Miller is a loner who is isolated from his colleagues, but Strait already demonstrates Holden’s easy camaraderie with his crewmates which will lead them to follow him in the coming crisis, much of it precipitated by his own impulsive righteousness, and everyone has quirks through which they express themselves; out in the black they need something to hold onto their humanity and individuality.
One of the most fascinating characters of the sequence, Avasarala surprises both by her presence (she does not appear in the first book, only introduced during the Ganymede incident of Caliban’s War) but by how swiftly the soft-spoken diplomat and master of unobtrusive manipulation gets her hands dirty, indicating that she at least will be a departure from expectation; that Miller employs unorthodox hands-on policing methods should surprise nobody.
In an age when most major science fiction shows have benefitted from a double length pilot with which to introduce the complexities of their universe – Encounter at Farpoint, The Gathering, Emissary, Serenity – if not a full mini-series, SyFy’s decision to make a single episode available online prior to the two-night network premiere on 14th and 15th December is counterintuitive, the strands too abstract and disconnected to demand attention with too much to take in and insufficient payoff, needing that second hour to hook the wider audience who may not fully grasp what is presented, though mitigated by the option of repeated viewing.
Those familiar with the novel series, the sixth of which, Babylon’s Ashes, is due for publication in summer 2016, will appreciate how the expanding series parallels the global power struggles and multiple viewpoints of Game of Thrones, with even the title sequence of The Expanse showing first the industrialisation of Earth then the expansion of that fractious empire to the Moon, Mars and beyond, colonies springing up in the same manner as the award-winning opening credits of Game of Thrones. It should also be noted that akin to that notorious show, it will be emphasised on a regular basis that the audience should not become overly attached to any character.
The road to the stars is long and dangerous and this is only the beginning, and should it fulfil its potential The Expanse could possibly fill the decade long void since the conclusion of the genre-redefining Battlestar Galactica.
Dulcinea, the premiere episode of The Expanse, is now available online in certain countries prior to broadcast on 14th December