My cousin recently informed me that she was enjoying my hot takes here on Sandboxx covering music, television, books, and film. After thanking her profusely for her encouragement — I do very much enjoy churning out these reviews, and pretending like my opinion matters, and might even sway one person to check out a cool song, show, book, or movie — she hit me with the true purpose of her (still welcome) praise: she wanted me to watch “The Expanse” on Amazon Prime Video and fire out a hot take on the show.
Now, I don’t always get to all of the recommendations sent my way. There are, after all, only so many hours in the day. But I went ahead and committed to this one, I am a big science fiction nerd, I had already read some of the books on which the show is based, and, more importantly, because I trust my cousin’s opinion (aside: this is the same logic that will compel me to read a book on Jesuit leadership recommended to me by yet another cousin).
Long story short, she picked a winner! I launched into the show and have made my way past the point I reached in the James S.A. Corey books on which it is based, and have almost exhausted all of the episodes released to this point. It is great and satisfying sci-fi, and well worth your time to watch.
“The Expanse” is what we in sci-fi fandom know as “hard” science-fiction. Hard sci-fi is juxtaposed against the soft variety based on its general adherence to actual science, to function as a fixed boundary inside of which the story-telling takes place. For example, the Star Wars saga is soft sci-fi: there are lots of aliens, in a galaxy far, far away, where engines and lasers roar and make laser sounds in the vacuum of space. There’s nary a mention of the laws of physics, gravity, or physiology in regulating human existence in space, and so on. It is brilliant fun, but is it based in reality? Not so much.
“The Expanse,” on the other hand, is firmly rooted in the reality of space travel, the laws of physics, and human physiology in the zero-gravity vacuum of space. Does it take liberties to expand the size of the storytelling palette? Of course it does — especially in the form of the Protomolecule, a mysterious alien substance that might be alive and which effects the heretofore mentioned laws of science — but those few short-cuts are as firmly rooted in real science as is possible, while still allowing for humanity to reach beyond the current boundaries constraining us from far-flung galactic exploration, and to make the story fun.
The viewer witnesses this adherence to science demonstrated throughout the show in a number of ways. Those who have spent most of their lives in space exhibit dramatic physiological changes to their bodies (in muscle mass, organ development, etc). One of the harshest punishments meted out is “spacing,” in which a person is kicked off of a spacecraft through the airlock, to die in the vacuum of space. The show explores the ways in which gravity, mass, and acceleration affect existence and travel in space. “The Expanse” shows devotion to astrophysics and astronautical science in plotting courses, fighting battles in space, and generally existing in the non-planetoid universe.
Not only does the show deal in the reality of space travel, but in the reality of human politics, as well. In the show, humanity has spread out to colonize the Moon (“Luna”), Mars, and the asteroid belt that sits between Mars and Jupiter. With the expansion of humanity has come the expansion, complexity, and strife of its politics. Earth and Luna are together ruled by a world government (the United Nations — I know, that grates on the nerves), Mars has its own elected government, and the residents of the Asteroid Belt (called “Belters”) are essentially Wild West-like settlers and prospectors, hardly ruled at all by various factions of explorers and scavengers.
Earthers hate Martians, they both hate Belters, and the latter trust neither of the former to treat them as more than the slaves who provide much-needed natural space-mined resources. Leaving the vacuum of space to descend to a planet is called “going down the gravity well,” and Belters mock planet-based “inners” when they come up to space (and vice versa). And, of course, war and conflict is always on the table, and never far from breaking out.
In other words, “The Expanse’s” creators — using Corey’s books as the starting point — have drawn a richly-textured universe in which the action unfolds. However, that is hardly ever enough to ensure a good story. After all, the larger scene in which a story is set — no matter how intriguing — is not always sufficient to guarantee that the story itself will be compelling. Flops like “Waterworld,” “After Earth,” and “John Carter” are legion, and illustrative of this potential failing. Thankfully, in “The Expanse,” we are provided with characters and a plot that inspire the viewer’s emotional loyalty and desire to keep coming back to find out what happens.
One such main character is Amos Burton (played by Wes Chatham), an Earther who is one of the four crew members of the hijacked Martian military vessel known (eventually) as the “Rocinante.” The Roci and its crew both serve as the primary vessel (pun intended) around which the show’s other many characters and events develop and unfold. Crewing the Roci with Amos are Captain James Holden (the show’s main character, who is equal parts Earther and Belter), engineer Naomi Nagata (a Belter), and pilot Alex Kamal (a retired Martian Navy pilot). All have their own unique backgrounds, stories, prejudices, and motivations, which only serve to enrich the larger plot as the drama plays out in each individual episode.
Amos starts the show as a one-dimensional, stoic, bearded gun-head, in the vein of one of the Marines in the original “Alien” movie (which is to say, he is pretty boring at the outset). Who needs to see the story arc of another mindless killing machine who keeps the more pacifistic characters safe through his reckless courage and military acumen? Yawn.
Lo and behold, though, Amos’ more textured personality is revealed slowly, piece by piece, over the course of the show, and he grows into a lovingly delightful (if still slightly psychotic) figure, with a fully-formed inner complexity. His initial lack of apparent empathy and depth plays in entertaining and stark contrast to his eventually-revealed brutal honesty, acute self-awareness, and dry wit as the story progresses. Amos is like a sci-fi space-bound version of “Hawk,” the unforgettable sidekick to private detective Spenser, in the classic Robert B. Parker books (and the less well-done 1980s TV show, “Spenser for Hire.”)
Another compelling recurring character — who is almost as ruthless in her own way as Amos — is U.N. politician Chrisjen Avasarala, who again starts the story as thoroughly unlikeable. She is portrayed masterfully by Iranian-American actress Shohreh Aghdashloo as an unsavory, deceitful, conniving political operative, at least initially.
While she could easily have continued in that vein and met her fate in some satisfying (to the viewer) end, she instead follows an intriguing and more complicated story arc that never diminishes her wit, intelligence, and cunning, but yet which also is begrudgingly admirable and thoroughly enjoyable to watch. Her cutting and often hilariously short-tempered dialogue is one of the more satisfying aspects of the show.
There are plenty of other characters who make the show great, including a towering and tough female Martian Marine, an aging pirate Belter who oozes wisdom and temperance, and a not-quite-ghost-like police detective who might or might not be animated by the mysterious Protomolecule to communicate with Captain Holden as the action unfolds.
It is hard to reveal too much about the plot without giving away important details, but picture for yourself a hard science-fiction political drama, centered around a mysterious extra-galactic substance that somehow makes its way into our solar system, all sprinkled throughout with a healthy dose of human side-drama that makes you actually care about the characters and their motivations. “The Expanse” is a rollicking good space adventure story that might make you forget about the drama playing out here on Earth, at least for a time.
Feature photo from Legendary Television