The cult-hit space opera heads to Amazon for a bigger budget, wider scope, and a renewed sense of purpose.
We’re living in the age of the fan: Internet hype and campaigns can do more than just raise awareness now, they can move figurative mountains. If the last couple of years have taught us anything, it’s that social media and a rabid fanbase can save underappreciated shows from the jaws of network death and give them brand new life. It happened with Brooklyn Nine-Nine and One Day at a Time, both critically-acclaimed shows whose followings posted ad nauseam and shared hashtags until new networks picked them up.
The science fiction series The Expanse might well be one of the biggest success stories of this kind of guerilla fan campaign; after hearing of its cancellation by Syfy in 2018, a group of dedicated fans (who dubbed themselves the Screaming Firehawks) immediately launched a campaign to save the show, either at Syfy or somewhere else. They flew #SaveTheExpanse banners over Amazon headquarters. They even flew a model of the show’s hero ship, the Rocinante, into the atmosphere as a publicity stunt. Luckily, it worked, and Amazon picked up the show for a fourth (and confirmed fifth) season. Now, we’ve got our first taste of what the show’s tenure will look like under the watchful eye of Bezos, and I gotta say, things are looking up.
A quick primer for those inyalowda new to the show: The Expanse is based on a series of sci-fi novels from two authors who go by the pseudonym James S.A. Corey, depicting a solar system 2-300 years in our future. Humanity’s split into factions: the powerful but bloated denizens of Earth, the fiercely independent settlers of Mars, and the working-class scrubs who work and toil in the zero-g atmosphere of the asteroid belt, known as Belters. There’s no warp speed and no aliens (though a blue alien goo called the protomolecule is central to the plot), and space travel and combat is as realistic as you can get while still maintaining a sense of excitement and pace. Think Game of Thrones, but in space, and with a lot more tattoos and space Creole.
At the end of season 3, humanity unlocked the secrets to a mysterious alien ring just outside Uranus, granting them quick and easy passage to hundreds of uncharted, uninhabited worlds rife for colonization and exploration. Season 4 picks up a few months later, with the entire solar system in the midst of a new Gold Rush: hundreds of ships wait in line to pass through the Ring to stake their claim on new fortunes, and an uneasy truce prevails between Earth, Mars, and the Belt. Everyone’s worlds and priorities have changed, and some resent the Ring pulling people away from old goals and missions.
That’s certainly true for former Martian Marine Bobbie Draper (Frankie Adams), now working as a dockworker on Mars, breaking down old Martian warships now that the dream of terraforming the planet has been moved to the back burner. UN Secretary-General Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo, all piss, vinegar, and beautifully ornate sarees) struggles to keep the system from collapsing under all this demand, while Belters Camina Drummer (Cara Gee) and Klaes Ashford (David Strathairn) play intergalactic police near the Ring.
And meanwhile, tensions are rising on an alien world newly colonized by both Belters and Earthers (the Belters call it Ilus, the Earthers call it New Terra), which is itself showing traces of the deadly, mysterious protomolecule. In response, Avasarala sends James Holden (Steven Strait) and the crew of the Rocinante to Ilus/New Terra, both to calm down both sides of the conflict and to find out exactly what the protomolecule is doing there and stop it.
But just as humanity leaves the solar system, our deep, systemic problems (poverty, class, politics, and distrust) come along for the ride. That’s where The Expanse thrives, extrapolating the flaws of our present world into the high-flying intergalactic mayhem of the future. In the six episodes provided to critics, The Expanse finds space-age analogues for everything from the refugee crisis to welfare (Avasarala’s political opponent opens up questions about the fairness of the universal basic income system) to the struggles of the working class to adjust to globalization. These thematic and political underpinnings are at once in-your-face and deceptively sly; The Expanse knows exactly what it’s doing with its intriguing future world.
That’s where The Expanse thrives, extrapolating the flaws of our present world into the high-flying intergalactic mayhem of the future.
With new settings comes new characters, and unfortunately most of the season’s new players struggle to make as much of an impression as our old favorites. Many of the supporting characters on Ilus suffer from this: Lyndie Greenwood‘s Earther scientist Dr. Okoye spends much of her time playing catch-up with the Roci crew, and Rosa Gilmore’s Belter medic Lucia feels similarly beholden to the whims of the plot. Many of the new characters seem to exist mostly as foils for our existing leads, rather than characters in their own right. There are some exceptions, though: Burn Gorman is deliciously calculating as the slimy Earther security officer Adolphus Murtry, a man of violence constantly doing the math on how nice he needs to be to get what he wants. Plus, Roci crewmember Naomi Nagata’s (Dominique Tipper) old flame Marco (Keon Alexander) crosses paths with Drummer and Ashford, a deceptively charming revolutionary warning of a new Belter revolt to bring them back to their former glory.
But the old faces are back, and as a huge Expanse fan myself (hell, I named my cat after Bobbie Draper) it feels great to see them again. The Roci‘s bruiser/mechanic Amos (Wes Chatham) remains an endearingly sociopathic fly in the ointment, while Alex (Cas Anvar) slathers on the Texan charm as the Roci‘s resident helper. Naomi’s character struggles to find purpose, but her health complications on Ilus (as a Belter spending her life in zero-g, being in a gravity well is hazardous to her health) give her interesting wrinkles to play with.
And, of course, there’s Holden, the galaxy’s resident do-gooder, whose peacekeeping instincts are a great fit to play Space Sheriff against Ilus’ warring factions. Plus, now that he gets visions from Thomas Jane‘s dead Detective Miller, a protomolecule shadow using Holden as a vessel to investigate who killed the Ring-makers), his role as Protomolecule Whisperer lends a new angle for him to play. The rest of the cast on the other side of the ring is just as watchable, even if their stories are a bit too removed from the main action: Bobbie’s economic desperation gives new avenues for Adams’ world-weary toughness, and Gee and Strathairn’s clockwork chemistry carries over from season 3 as they reckon with their cushy new jobs. (I’m so glad they’re regulars now.)
Frankly, Amazon couldn’t have come along at a better time; while the show’s lush, vibrant production value was always one of its greatest strengths, the (forgive me) expansion of the show’s scope to alien worlds and unknown systems gives showrunner Naren Shankar and their crew an even bigger canvas on which to paint. While the ships and Earth/Mars maintain their made-in-Vancouver sheen, Ilus feels like a remarkably new setting for the series, a dusty, gray rock filmed in a more cinematic 2:35:1 aspect ratio which flits back to the normal 16:9 whenever we cut back to the solar system. It’s not a revolutionary aesthetic change, and you can still feel the budget straining on occasion; it’s hard not to lament that much of season 4 is spent on a dusty desert planet instead of the richly-designed sets of the show’s many space stations and ships.
But just as previous seasons of The Expanse played with genre — detective mysteries, Tom Clancy military thrillers, 2001-esque leaps into the unknown — season 4 is firmly ensconced within the rhythms of the Western. There’s a frontier town, the outlaw who shakes up the fragile peace among the residents, and the gunslingers who come in to save the day and keep the peace. Sure, you’ve also got to contend with alien spires and planet-wide earthquakes, but that’s just another day in paradise.
With season 4, The Expanse feels at once like the same show fans have grown to love and an entirely new beast, with new handlers, different worlds, and a renewed sense of purpose. Under Syfy’s management, the show never really felt like it got the love and attention it deserved; let’s see if Amazon’s high profile and deeper pocketbook can elevate the show’s reach to the genre-defining status it deserves. And to my fellow Belter beratnas: doesn’t it feel good to be back?
The Expanse goes into full burn with a seasons’ worth of grounded space adventure on Amazon Prime Video December 13th.