SyFy’s decision to cancel The Expanse last year didn’t exactly come as a shock. The series – an attempt to simultaneously recapture Battlestar Galactica‘s past glory while cashing in on the multiple, weaving narratives and political scheming, coupled with fully-fleshed fantasy world that Game of Thrones’s success indicated a mainstream audience was ready to embrace – was both expensive and not produced in-house. As a result, SyFy didn’t make any money from the streaming sales, instead ad revenue served as their only income source. The financial reality, coupled with the ratings steadily declining from the first season to the third, meant the network was left with little option to cut the series and move on.
From the cold, logical view of the TV economics, the decision makes a certain amount of sense, but it still smarts when a smart, sharply written, epic science fiction variation on Game of Thrones finds itself tossed aside so casually. Thanks to the efforts of passionate followers on social media and Amazon’s eventual intervention, however, The Expanse is now one of those happy examples of a show too good to truly die. World’s richest man/Expanse mega-fan Jeff Bezos ordered his people to rescue the show from SyFy, and we are now a little over a week away from the fourth season debuting as an Amazon Prime exclusive. The first three seasons are already available for Prime members, and what begins a slow-burn mystery and exposition-heavy beginning eventually gives way to one of science fiction’s richest, most satisfying series.
Based on the novels by James S.A. Corey (the joint pen name of Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham), The Expanse exists as a thematic cousin to George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones novels, with one notable exception: it appears Franck and Abraham will actually finish their saga.
This means the showrunners will not have to improvise an ending they’d assumed they’d only have to adapt. Like GOT, The Expanse novels incorporate multiple POV narrators across various locations, feature opportunistic, power-hungry and/ or revenge-seeking antagonists, and throw in some socio-economic critique and political commentary for good measure.
To be honest, calling a series the [whatever] version of Game of Thrones can feel a tad cynical and calculating. After all, Game of Thrones was a complete phenomenon – a genre show of royal scheming, dragons, and ice zombies whose well-drawn characters and jaw-to-the-floor plot twists found an audience beyond fantasy fans. It was a mainstream hit that captured the zeitgeist in a way that was both thrilling and completely unexpected. Who wouldn’t want to create an association between such a success and an upcoming series for which building buzz will be critical? It’s simply the latest incarnation of “Die Hard but on a…” approach that industry seems to utilize when pitching ideas.
However, The Expanse belongs in that conversation. It’s a show of political intrigue, scheming opportunists and power-plays. It’s world of Martians, Earthlings, and Belters feels fully-formed and almost tangible in its development, and its characters are well-drawn and dynamic.
The novels and the series it inspired feature multiple, compelling narratives, and jaw-dropping twists. It centers around 3 different groups of individuals: Earth has much of the greenery and the majority of the population, Mars has more sophisticated technology but fewer individuals and resources, and The Belt (as in Asteroid), the poorest group that provides goods for Earth and Mars, while suffering poor health due to low gravity in which they are forced to reside.
There’s a certain sense of harmony and equilibrium that is being maintained when the series begins, but it’s immediately clear that uneasy alliance is just one small push from toppling completely. In the pilot episode, that push comes in the form of an attack on the ship The Canterbury, and in the ensuing episodes all of the various factions fight to determine who is behind the attack, most of them missing the universe-shattering catastrophe beginning to take root in their midst.
The plot is compelling and highly bingeable. The narratives tend to feature noirish mysteries coupled with political power-plays that lead the central characters to larger, seismic conspiracies. This inherently lends itself to an ever-growing ensemble with shifting focal points, but the POV constant throughout the series is James Holden (Stephen Strait), the self-righteous, flawed but decent captain of the spaceship Rocinante.
He’s sort of sentenced to be the straight man to The Expanse’s more colorful characters, but he’s an effective grounding force for the occasional craziness that makes up the series. He’s supported by Alex (Cas Anvar), the ship’s pilot, Naomi (Dominique Tipper), the ship’s engineer, and Amos (Wes Chatham), the ship’s ruthless mechanic.
Stacking the show with character actors such as Thomas Jane – as disgraced detective seeking redemption in a missing persons case – and Oscar nominee Shohreh Aghdashloo as a profane, high-ranking member of the UN are just icing on the cake.
Comparisons to GOT feel apt, but there is one area in which The Expanse leaves its HBO counterpart behind. The show’s female characters are strong, capable individuals who are not defined by their sexuality, and their sexuality is never exploited or used as plot device. Whether it’s Aghdashloo’s Chrisjen Avasarala, Tipper’s Naomi Nagata, or Frankie Adams’s Bobbie Draper, The Expanse‘s female characters are just as beloved and capable of sharing the spotlight as its male characters. It really shouldn’t have to be said anymore, but it’s so nice for a series to just allow its female characters to exist as fully-developed characters. The series gives them their due, never forcing them to look on from the sidelines as the male leads fight the battles and manipulate politics. It shouldn’t feel so completely revolutionary but it truly is.
The series also features an ethnically diverse cast and both gay and straight characters without ever commenting on the diversity it’s putting onscreen. There’s no big deal made about Anna Volovodov (Elizabeth Mitchell), a minister with a female partner and a daughter. It just puts it onscreen in a matter-of-fact way and tells anyone who doesn’t like it to turn to another series. Those traits alone aren’t enough to make the series worth watching, but they’re wonderful plus sides.
In addition, neither the antagonists nor the protagonists feel broadly painted. Both are nuanced and well-developed. It’s a series that understands plot is irrelevant without characters you like (or at least love to hate) with motivations you can understand. Actually, that’s the thing that might most distinguish The Expanse from its dragon, ice zombie, fantasy counterpart: it has a certain faith in the basic decency of most of its characters.
When pushed, they tend to make the honorable decisions and character believed to be soiled and irredeemable sometimes transform into unlikely saviors. The Expanse sees redemption as a possible path for almost all of its characters, even if all of them tread in morally gray waters. Game of Thrones may ultimately end on an optimistic note, but it tends to traffic in a nihilism The Expanse lacks. It has more faith in humanity’s capacity for good.
In short, it’s truly a love miracle of the social media age that a show like The Expanse remains a series that deserves to find a new audience that can keep around until it reaches its end point. The narrative is compelling, it takes some fascinating twists and turns, and it has characters the series takes time developing to the point we understand and like them. It’s a series that rewards devotion, and it’s the kind of sci-fi series that respects its audience enough to assume they can follow a complex narrative and grow to care about the characters involved.