The Expanse TV Series on Syfy
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
(Updated on 7/15/17 for Season 2)
(Updated on 7/2/18 for Season 3)
(Latest Update - Seasons 1-3 now streaming on Amazon Prime
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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!
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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 at 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. Another great addition is Terry Chen as Praxidike Meng, a botanist on Ganymede searching for his daughter. 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 get off Ganymede, 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. [EDIT: And now Elizabeth Mitchell has been announced.] 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.] [EDIT2: And now I've read Persepolis Rising.]
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The image to the right is from the show's opening credits. Unlike in the sections above, I'm not using the artwork that will be on the Season 3 Blu-Ray and DVD, due in two weeks (7/17/18). I don't like it because it depicts one of the characters completely wrong. I probably won't buy it on disc, not because of the artwork, but rather a tight budget. Besides, it will eventually be offered on Amazon Prime, as the first two seasons currently are. In case you haven't heard, Syfy declined to renew for another year, but about two weeks after that announcement Amazon said they were picking it up for at least two more seasons. So it will all be on Prime for quite a while, which makes the decision to keep my Prime subscription a very easy one. I read somewhere that the writers have plans for at least four more seasons. Even though there are six more books to cover, I think that is doable if they continue to concentrate on just the major events. It's possible I misread that, thinking they said seven seasons total, but maybe they meant seven more, which would make ten. With the move to Amazon, number of episodes might change, but they will likely be longer than was the case with Syfy, so that's not a concern. They got through the first book's plot in fifteen episodes, and approximately another fifteen got us to the end of the second book. Episodes 6 & 7 this year had overlapping elements, closing out the second book and beginning the third. Counting Episode 7, it took them just seven more to complete the third book's arc. Ty Franck had said on Twitter that even if Amazon had not come to the rescue, he felt the conclusion to this season would have been a fitting end for the series. I disagree. No way would I have wanted that to be the end.
Even though I've read all the books, I'm still frequently surprised by the show because there have been changes, plus casting has been superb. Once again they introduced a character early, consolidated others, and altered individual character arcs, including shifting events from one character to another. None of that has been a detriment to the basic plot. Elizabeth Mitchell portrays Anna Volovodov, a Methodist minister, who in book three lived on Europa, but apparently on Earth here. She comes into the story early, tasked with helping her old friend, UNE Secretary-General Gillis (Jonathan Whittaker). He wants her to write a speech that will help him weather the political storm brewing because of the rogue Earth and Mars factions working to utilize the proto-molecule, which threatens to bring the entire system to the brink of war. He is still not aware of the full extent of things going on right under his nose, and Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo) is otherwise engaged off-planet and can't help him with strategy, which he might not agree with anyway. After the clashes, a couple of prominent characters are sent to prison for their actions, and the focus of the story shifts outward to the edge of the solar system. I won't spoil any of that, except to say it involves something else that has been created by the proto-molecule. End of book two's plot, on to book three.
A flotilla of ships from all over the system is en route to the phenomenon, and the Reverend Doctor Volovodov is aboard one of the Earth ships. There are other religious leaders involved, acting as counselers to the crew that may share their faith, as well as being curious of the implications for their faith now that it has been verified Earth is not the only cradle of life in the universe. Anna is a very charismatic woman, an example of a spiritual person welcoming and encouraging to all, not just those who share her beliefs. It is very refreshing to see religion presented positively, rather than in a negatively judging way. They did something similar toward the end of Season 1, in a discussion between Miller (Thomas Jane) and a Mormon he encounters on the ship bound for Eros. Anna is also lesbian, married to a black woman, both situations presented so matter-of-factly that it hardly bears mentioning. Just one more facet to her personality and to the culture of which they are a part.
The Belt is represented in the fleet by the Behemoth, which began as the Nauvoo, constructed at Tycho Station for a group of Mormons who intended to embark on the first extra-solar expedition. Fred Johnson (Chad Coleman) commandeered it for another purpose, and now it is an OPA vessel, turned into a hospital ship later because of its ability to spin for artifical gravity. Bobbie Draper (Frankie Addams) was not in the third book, but she is inserted into the action throughout the season. Avasarala, also absent from the third book, appears prominently in the first half of the season, later only in a few brief news broadcasts. Naomi Nagata (Dominique Tipper) is on the Behemoth, working as an engineer under Captain Camina Drummer (Cara Gee). Neither of those things happened in the book; Naomi stayed on the Rocinante, and Drummer wasn't introduced until the fifth novel. When it was announced that David Strathairn would be on the show, my first guess was he would be the Behemoth's security chief Carlos "Bull" c de Baca, but that character isn't around. Instead, he plays Klaes Ashford, who had been the Behemoth's original captain, now he's second in command under Drummer. Strathairn is a tremendous actor, very good here as was to be expected, and I am glad they altered Ashford's demeanor and story arc a bit to make him more sympathetic.
James Holden (Steven Strait) continues to be at the heart of most of the action as skipper of the Rocinante, and as someone with a close connection to the proto-molecule. A new major character introduced is Melba Koh (not her real name), played by Nadine Nicole. Her true identity is revealed after a few episodes (but not here by me). She has a grudge against Holden, and she doesn't care how many other people are killed or injured as she carries out her revenge. Anna Hopkins plays Monica Stuart, a journalist filming a documentary on Holden and his crew aboard the Rocinante as they approach the new alien structure. She is unaware her cameraman has been compromised and is working for Melba. For those not familiar with the books, I'm sure the reappearance of a certain character took them by surprise, but I'm giving no hints about that. They also successfully transitioned Nadine Nicole's part in a way that, if they follow the plot of book five, it will not be a surprise for her to be featured again. Other characters will not be on the show going forward, some because of death, others due to their story arc being complete and the plot moving in other directions.
I am curious about who will be cast in prominent roles for Season 4, as well as wondering if characters we've seen before return as they did in the book. One of those actors has a new show premiering in the fall. If they time it right, he could film scenes on his hiatus next spring. Then again, will CBS let him? It is also possible they will continue using actors even though they didn't continue in the books, the way they utilized Frankie Adams this year. I would love it if they could fit Mitchell and Strathairn into the continuing narrative, but the budget might not allow that. I don't know if production will move to California (Amazon Studios is in Santa Monica), or remain in Toronto. I do have concerns Amazon might be cutting the budget, with a first clue being FX supervisor Bob Munroe not returning. For a show that has relied on state of the art FX to be the best looking SF series to ever appear on TV, that is not a good sign. However, I won't think about that too much, just be grateful we will get more show. Still, the wait for new episodes will be excruciating. As I said at the end of the previous part of the review, I do have episodes to rewatch whenever I want, plus more books to look forward to. I'll have to be content with that for now.
Official page for the show at syfy.com. (Wonder how long that will be available?)
Now that the show is on Amazon I've created a new page for Season 4 (and beyond...S5 is already in production.)
My reviews of the books, #1 Leviathan Wakes - #5 Nemesis Games.
New page starting with book #6 Babylon's Ashes.
The Expanse Wiki - concerning both the books and the TV series.
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