The Expanse: Like Game of Thrones but set in space
Described by one critic as “the best sci-fi show you’re not watching”, The Expanse presents a realistic view of a potential future that we witness through the eyes of two reluctant protagonists.
James Holden (Steven Strait) is a deadbeat but unusually principled hauler and Josephus Miller (Thomas Jane) is a washed-up cop riddled with all the character foibles associated with the profession, but with a touch of the mystical for good measure.
Much like Game of Thrones, The Expanse is based on a series of novels, written by James SA Corey, the pen name of Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham, the latter of whom is a long-time collaborator with a certain George RR Martin.
As with GoT, The Expanse does not cut any corners in its world building, which includes well-crafted mythologies, a complex set of alliances, and a realistic rendering of what the solar system might look in the 23rd Century.
Neither Holden nor Miller are at home in a world of political intrigue, but this is the world of The Expanse, in which humans have settled on Mars and transformed it into a superpower, and where working class “Belters” grind out a living in the solar system.
The world of the Belters is particularly compelling. Millions of them are born, live, and die in space – and will never set foot on Earth or any other planet. It has a distinctive “third world” feel to it, and Belters speak a creole English with a Caribbean-type intonation, a London accent, and a hodgepodge of words borrowed from Spanish and various other languages that adds a remarkable authenticity to The Expanse.
While efforts to build an authentic world are key to The Expanse’s charm, the show’s brilliance lies in large part in its ability to seamlessly weave disparate storylines into coherent whole.
First there is Holden and his crew, which as Holden says, “look like terrorists” because they witness two events that bring Earth, Mars, and the Outer Planetary Alliance (OPA), a militant organisation to some and a liberation movement to others, to the brink of war, despite the best efforts of diplomats from Earth and Mars.
Meanwhile Miller, who is infatuated with Julie Mao, the subject of a missing person case, finds his way to Eros where he runs into Holden. Both are anti-establishment loners with few friends and even fewer allies, and The Expanse becomes a force when the paths of these two unlikely heroes cross.
Mao’s disappearance, Miller’s mystic intuitions about the case, and the deaths of thousands of innocent people are all inextricably linked to a mystifying substance that is at the heart of a gruesome mystery that spans the known universe, and in later seasons, beyond it.
The dynamic between the steely Strait and eccentric Jane is worth watching in and of itself, while the storylines are brilliantly transposed onto television from the source material.
The Expanse also boasts some exquisite cinematography.
A standout moment centres around the Ganymede Incident, during which fighting between Earth and Mars results in the destruction of orbital mirrors above one of Jupiter’s moons, the shards of which fall moonwards like beautiful but deadly raindrops.
Although special effects are important, the mark of good science fiction lies both in its ability to imagine a future world – which The Expanse achieves to wondrous effect – and in situating the past and present within those imaginings.
The dialogue between Franklin Degraaf (Kenneth Welsh), an ambassador, and Earth politician Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo), underscores the show’s ability to get this right.
“You know what I love most about Mars? They still dream. We gave up. They’re an entire culture dedicated to a common goal, working together as one to turn a lifeless rock into a garden. We had a garden and we paved it,” Degraaf says.
Avasarala’s response is pointed and profound given the looming climate catastrophe that we face on our planet.
“They couldn’t do any of that without the knowledge of centuries from Earth. Earth must come first.”
With dialogue like this on top of richly textured characters, intersecting narratives and resonant political commentary, The Expanse could easily be the best sci-fi show you are watching, and perhaps the best show you are watching, full stop.