The Expanse TV Series
(latest update on 7/15/17 for Season 2)
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
I first uploaded this page on December 10, 2015, after seeing the pilot online (multiple times), then revised it after watching the first four episodes. Now that the short season is complete I need to edit again. I've reviewed all of the novels and shorter works so far, enjoyed all of them, and had been anxiously waiting for this series since it was announced. Even with the books' authors as part of the writing and production team there were a few changes, even a couple of added characters, but overall it was faithful to the text. They only covered about three-fourths of the first book, and left it on a cliffhanger of course, but that's okay since it has already been renewed for a second season. It will be more accessible to those who have read at least the first novel, Leviathan Wakes, but it should appeal to any viewer who likes dense dramatic structures and relatable characters. It's not for the casual viewer though, you have to pay attention to detail.
For instance, the opening scene of the pilot is the same as the prologue in the first book. It shows a young woman locked in a space ship storage locker. After she breaks out, both her name and the name of her ship are visible on her jump suit. If you don't notice that, you might miss the connections later in the episode. The story shifts to and from different locations, including Earth, the asteroid Ceres (which has been tunneled out and made habitable inside), and an ice hauling ship near Saturn, as well as one of its shuttles and another ship they explore. That's just in the pilot, other locations and characters were introduced later. You have to be aware of those shifts to follow the story properly. Subtle hints about character traits are dropped into conversations, ones that will resonate in later scenes. Patience is also necessary. The full implication of the first scenes in the pilot is not explained until the penultimate episode.
I may have revealed too many details in some sections of my book review, but I want to avoid that here, at least for now. All you need to know of the basic premise is that Earth and Luna are controlled by United Nations Earth. Mars is independent, with its own military and fleet of ships, which is supposedly much more advanced than Earth's, although Earth still has them beat in number of ships and troops. Many asteroids, as well as moons of Jupiter and Saturn have been settled, the Belt primarly dealing with the mining of minerals, the other outposts being scientific research stations. Tensions between Earth, Mars, and the Belt have been growing for years, and the spark that will ignite war is about to be struck. Some of the impetus toward war is covert but deliberate, others are accidental and inadvertent. By the end of the fourth episode another faction was revealed, and while its agenda might be surmised, the full details are still a mystery. As dense as the narrative is, another strong element of the show is the believability of the world-building, the different cultures depicted. Earth and Mars represent the power elite, the Belters the oppressed workers just fighting for survival, a bit of respect, and a small share of the profits. The Belt consists of many nationalities and they have developed their own patois, "Belter Creole." That's only explained a couple of times in the show, for the most part you have to guess at the meaning through context, and it is the same in the books. I'm hoping for either subtitles or a bonus feature on the video release.
The production design is impressive, equal to, if not better than anything I've seen in a space-based show before. On top of that, the depiction of space ship maneuvers and effects of gravity (or lack of it) are realistically depicted. The acting and writing also lived up to my expectations, and I am extremely optimistic for what lies ahead. A couple of the characters were not as I had pictured them, either in age or physical stature, but that's a minor thing, and my opinion of them changed over the course of the season. One major change is that Chrisjen Avasarala, a UNE executive, is a strong presence from the beginning even though she did not appear until the second book, but I understand their reasoning. First, we got the award-winning actress Shohreh Aghdashloo earlier in the show than if they had adhered closely to the first book, and without her side of the story there would not have been any scenes on Earth, only in the Belt and beyond. The cast list in the Overview column to the right is limited to those who have appeared in at least two episodes. For a few, those two will be it (unless there are flashbacks), but I won't identify them to avoid spoilers. Space (and war) is a dangerous business, and lives will be lost. I applaud the production's attention to detail, and the cost that must have accrued, because we have already seen several ships, both physical sets and elaborate CGI, that will no longer be in the show.
I enjoyed almost all of every performance, but I'll reserve the highest accolades for Thomas Jane as Detective Miller. He is one who initially did not fit my vision of Miller from the books, but now I can't imagine anyone else in the role. The tragedy of fate is a strong element throughout the series, and Jane was the perfect embodiment of that. My favorite character from the books has been Naomi Nagata, and Dominique Tipper is excellent, although the restrictions of the short season and the need to service the rest of the cast limited her presence. The second book had another strong female character, and I'm looking forward to her on the show, but I hope they don't downplay Naomi's role again. A few of the character dynamics were different than I recall from the books, primarily the antagonism between James Holden (Steven Strait) and Amos Burton (Wes Chatham), but it does make sense in the context of Amos' back story, which we learned in one of the novellas. I won't name-check everyone of course, but as with another of my favorite shows, even the supporting players make strong impressions in their limited screen time.
The pilot was released online early, but had its broadcast premiere on Syfy December 14, with Episode 2 the following night. Immediately after that, they put Episodes 3 & 4 online and On Demand. The pilot had to set up a lot and introduce many characters and situations, so it was slower, but subsequent episodes picked up the pace considerably. Unfortunately, broadcast ratings were mediocre at best, probably due to online availablity, as well as the fact the network has alienated many viewers the past few years with too many 'reality' shows, and a focus on fantasy and the paranormal instead of hard SF. It is apparent that Syfy liked what they saw since it was renewed fairly early. There were only ten episodes this year, but Season 2 will have thirteen. That other favorite show I referenced in the last paragraph is of course Firefly. The Expanse is the first show since then that I've watched as obsessively. I've lost count of the number of times I've seen the pilot, but I know it's close to ten, maybe five times for the rest, and I'll do it all again soon since I've pre-ordered the Blu-Ray set due out on April 5. I suggest you do the same. Highly recommended.
[Update]: Now I've watched the season again on Blu-Ray. Still love it, but was disappointed with the bare-bones approach. Only three deleted scenes, no commentary or behind-the-scenes features on the discs, but the Digital Copy does include the various featurettes that Syfy offered online. I may wait for a complete series set before buying any more discs, in the hopes of many more extras then. I noticed several times in the show where they've already hinted at things, Amos and Naomi's backgrounds in particular, that we won't get the resolutions to for several more seasons, if they follow the book plots in order at least. [Addendum: Season 1 is now on Amazon Prime in the US, and on Netflix in many other countries.]
[Another Update]: The Season 1 finale, "Leviathan Wakes," made the final ballot for the 2017 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form. It got my #1 vote in the category, even though it was not one of the two episodes I had nominated myself. We'll get the results on that August 11. EDIT: It won the Hugo!
I should have updated this page before now. Season 2 is three months past, but it's just a few days away from the Blu-Ray & DVD release (July 18). I watched every episode on broadcast, then again later On Demand, but SlingTV doesn't retain every episode that long. When I found out that Syfy considers Sling to be like any other cable or satellite company, I was able to log in on their site, where at the current time they're offering every ep from both seasons. Over the past week I've binged it all again, Season 1 with the digital copy, the first nine episodes of S2 at syfy.com, then to Sling On Demand for the final five, since they have a better video player. I could have waited for Tuesday to finish up, but my will power was weak. And guess what? I still love the show, perhaps more now than ever. It is likely I will still re-watch at least the first ep of S2 again soon, since On Demand, both on Sling right after broadcast and a few days ago on syfy, there was at least one scene missing that I recall from the first broadcast, the first appearance of Cotyar (Nick Tarabay). The "Previously On" segment in front of the second episode contained a clip from that scene.
As mentioned in the previous section, Season 1 ended before the concluding events of the first book. They finally got to that point this year in Episode 5, "Home," which is a strong contender to be on my Hugo nomination list next year. By that time I had started thinking it would be okay if they altered one character's arc. They didn't, and that's okay too, and no, I will not reveal details about that. What I will say is I was extremely pleased that Naomi (Dominique Tipper) got the focus and attention her character deserves. She remains a favorite, exceptionally smart and brave, but also emotionally vulnerable at times. We got a few more hints about her past, and the same goes for Amos (Wes Chatham) and Alex (Cas Anvar). Knowing details from the books makes the anticipation of those reveals on the show excrutiating, since I don't know when they will play out. They've altered a few things already, skipped over some events, condensed the time line for others, as well as consolidated a few characters into one. Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo) continues to be a strong presence, and the network loosened their restrictions on strong language, so we get many F-bombs from her, and from quite a few other characters too. They were sometimes muted on broadcast, other times they were allowed.
Two more strong female characters were introduced, and the diverse casting was once again excellent. Frankie Adams plays Martian Marine Gunnery Sergeant Roberta "Bobbie" Draper, a tall, strong woman, born on Mars but of Samoan heritage. Frankie was born on Samoa, is very close to six feet tall, and in addition to her acting career has also been an amateur boxer. Another addition is Cara Gee, a Canadian of Ojibwe descent, playing Fred Johnson's (Chad Coleman) second-in-command on Tycho Station. I've only seen her in one other thing so far, but I know her accent here is not her normal one, but heavily influenced by Belter Creole. Hers is apparently a composite character, not identified by name in her first couple of appearances. We later hear her addressed as Drummer, a character that didn't appear until the fifth novel, so I think she is a combination of Drummer, and either Samara Rosenberg or Michio Pa, maybe an amalgam of all three. Drummer was born on Ceres, had formerly worked for OPA chief Anderson Dawes (Jared Harris), but is now completely loyal to Johnson. I haven't had this much difficulty settling on a favorite character since Firefly, sometimes it just depends on who's on screen at the time. A lot of that has to be credited to the writing team, giving each character a unique voice and presence, but even great writing can fall flat if the delivery is weak. Even minor characters shine with dynamic (and/or poignant) dialogue, including Avasarala's husband Arjun (Brian George), Sadavir Errinwright (Shawn Doyle), and Jules-Pierre Mao (François Chau). There's also a minor character I would like for them bring back later; Valerie Buhagiar was in only two episodes as the owner/pilot of a cargo vessel trying to help refugees, but she could easily fit into events that occur in later books.
The finale episode this year had the same title as the second novel, Caliban's War, but again the season ended somewhere mid-book, and there's no way to know exactly where the story will go in Season 3, how much of the plot they'll skip over or condense this time. Another award-winning actor, David Strathairn, has been signed for a "significant" role next year, but no details beyond that, and I'm not even going to guess. Production started just last week, and we don't know when it will return, so it will be a long, agonizing wait. The only consolation is I can re-watch the first two seasons whenever I want, and there will be at least two more stories published in the meantime. Strange Dogs (e-book only) is the next novella, also out July 18, but I've refrained from checking on who or what its subject will be. Then in December it will be the seventh novel, Persepolis Rising. I've pre-ordered both, and will add comments about them to the book review page as soon as I've read them. [EDIT: Comments on Strange Dogs now added.]
Official page for the show at syfy.com.
My reviews of the books, #1 Leviathan Wakes - #5 Nemesis Games.
New page starting with book #6 Babylon's Ashes + Strange Dogs novella.
The Expanse Wiki - concerning both the books and the Syfy TV series.
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