Welp, we have a new favorite show. At San Diego Comic-Con, we got to watch the entire pilot of Syfy’s The Expanse, based on the books by James S. A. Corey—and we were blown away. This is a show that digs into the politics of our spacefaring future, but knows it’s the characters that make science fiction shine.
The Expanse panel—moderated by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, the writers collectively known as James S. A. Corey—started with a full showing of the pilot, which is set 200 years in the future, when humans have colonized Mars and established a mining colony on Ceres. A cold war has been simmering between Earth and Mars and it’s threatening to break out into a violent conflict. Meanwhile, many denizens of the asteroid belt (known as Belters) resent the way they’ve been treated by the governments and corporate entities of the planets. The solar system is a powder keg waiting on a match.
During a roundtable interview with the press before the panel, executive producer Mark Fergus, who is credited with bringing The Expanse to TV, said:
We’d been wondering why sci-fi jumps ahead to when technology is really advanced. And alien life has been discovered — everything’s kind of done. And we were always looking for what happened in the 100, 200, 300 years between leaving Earth and getting out there and fumbling our way out to the solar system.
We follow three main characters all linked to a possible such match: Josephus Miller (Thomas Jane), a detective on Ceres station, alcoholic and corrupt, but with a lingering conscience; Jim Holden (Steven Strait), an executive officer on an ice freighter, a rare Earth-born human among a largely Belter crew; and Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo), a UN undersecretary dealing with with the tensions Earth is experiencing with Mars and the Belt.
First off, there is just an incredible sense of scale on this show. The filming crew had 80,000-square feet of stage space, and most of the sets are physically constructed, not greenscreen. It helps create a real, textural sense of place. It’s easy enough to make the future Earth feel real, but Ceres station and the ice freighter Canterbury seem just as lived in. (Plus, The Expanse plays with gravity in a really smart way.) There is no sense that our characters are just hanging out on a sound stage.
But more important than that, the folks behind The Expanse clearly understand that the future is a setting, not a story. Ceres station is less impressive for its technology than for its rich and diverse cultures. We hear characters speaking a variety of languages and dialects, wearing clothing with specific social intentions (the self-loathing Miller wears Earth-style clothes, complete with a hat straight out of a film noir—“Obviously, I took the part so I could wear the hat,” quipped Jane), and carrying technology that reflects their personalities and socioeconomic class.
In Corey’s novel, the Belters are universally tall and gangly thanks to their lives in low gravity. It would have been an incredible technical challenge to create an entire race of tall, extraordinarily spindly humans on screen, and the show solves it in a clever way. Belters have a variety of physical types that reflect their occupations and genealogical histories, although you will see the occasional extremely tall Belter. It ends up adding to the setting—hitting home how Belters have been physically battered and altered in order to provide resources for Earth, Mars, and Earth’s moon. The crew managed to turn an obstacle into an exercise in worldbuilding.
Executive producer Naren Shankar told the press that the show is committed to telling stories about humans in a technologically advanced future, not stories overwhelmed by the technology itself:
The technology’s there, it’s just that we’re not a technoporn show, it’s not about devices. [...] It’s a world in which artificial intelligence exists, in which people have been probably genetically engineered to some extent for disease resistance and radiance resistance and muscle growth, it’s just we don’t talk about these things. Think of it this way, you don’t get in a car and go “My, this internal combustion engine is extremely efficient. I’m extremely happy with how it gets me to 60 miles an hour.” No one talks like that. We just get in and fucking drive. That’s the world we’re trying to make.
It’s uncommon, but it exists. That’s the aesthetic of the show.
And the real stars of the show are the characters themselves and the relationships they form. Jane perfectly portrays Miller as a man beaten down by the world, someone who is kind of a bastard to the people who know him, but who still has a tender heart lurking beneath all of his emotional calluses. Holden is likable without being milquetoast, and the crew of the Canterbury has a little of that Alien magic when it comes to banter. Chrisjen Avasarala is sweet when home with her family and perfectly fearsome when confronting a captive terrorist. Incidentally, the Avasarala plot is largely new for the first season of The Expanse since she doesn’t turn up until the second book in the series.
This is the kind of science fiction we have missed from Syfy, part of the network’s recent return to form: a deeply thought out future world that reflects on our present one, with high production values and characters who speak and act like real people. You can bet that when December comes, we’ll be glued to our screens.
The Expanse premieres in December 2015 on Syfy.