Syfy’s upcoming television series The Expanse is the best science fiction series since Battlestar Galactica. Adapted from the bestselling novel series by James S.A. Corey, it marks the return of what fans have been looking for from the genre-focused network: hard hitting science fiction. The Expanse is that, and more.
I had the opportunity to visit the set of the show while researching the development of the novels (which you can read here), and I was very impressed with the level of detail I witnessed. Now that I’ve seen the first four episodes of the show, I’m even more impressed.
Light spoilers ahead for episodes 1-4.
George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire unlocked genre adaptation gold rush, followed by the likes of Stephen King’s Under the Dome, Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, and now, James S.A. Corey’s Leviathan Wakes. It’s an almost perfect fit for TV: fast, exciting, and ambitious, with a whole host of diverse characters.
What’s even more exciting is the authors’ involvement in the series: Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham (who write collectively as “James S.A. Corey”) work on the show as writers and executive producers. Having the authors involved so closely is rare, and has raised hopes that the series will be good.
Oh, it is. From the first couple of shots, it’s clear that all of the effort Syfy put into this thing is evident onscreen. We had a chance to catch the first four episodes, and if they’re any indication, The Expanse is a textbook example of how to bring a complicated book series to television.
The premiere episode opens just like the book, with a young woman named Julie Mao locked in a closet aboard a space vessel called the Scapuli, before we jet off to meet Holden, a crewman onboard the ice hauler Canterbury; Detective Miller, a resident of Ceres Station; and Chrisjen Avasarala, a U.N. official on Earth. Tensions are rising between the governments of Earth, Mars and, the Belt, and each of our viewpoint characters is caught up in a different part of the intrigue.
Readers will note that Avasarala doesn’t show up on the page until book two, Caliban’s War. Her appearance here is all new material, and it’s but the first of a bunch of changes designed to translate the story to a new medium while keeping its spirit intact.
This isn’t a literal adaptation of the books, although it’s very close. Novels and television are very different beasts, and over the course of these four episodes, there are some significant, but not earth-shattering, alterations. Bits are tightened up; character drama take a different form than in the novel, and action that takes place much later is foreshadowed.
That’s okay by me: if translated scene-for-scene, there would sometimes be entire episodes with little to no action, and with only ten episodes for per season, there’s no time to waste. What I didn’t expect is at how much it feels both like a tightly plotted novel-for-TV like Game of Thrones, but also a great weekly television show like Battlestar, each episode contained stories and character arcs. It’s a really nice blend of the two forms.
The casting absolutely nails the characters: Shohreh Aghdashloo, Cas Anvar and Dominique Tipper are utterly perfect as Chrisjen Avasarala, Alex Kamal and, Naomi Nagata, respectively, while Steven Strait and Thomas Jane own their roles as Holden and Miller.
While the leads steal the show, everyone does fantastic work building this world. Everywhere you look, each person in the frame feels like they belong, from the Belters to the Martian military: there’s slang, body language, and more makes this universe feel inhabited. Early on in the production, there was some chatter about how the Belters weren’t going match the appearance of their literary counterparts (a feat that would require extensive special effects work); despite that, the differences are 100 percent clear.
Any fans of the books will recognize where the showrunners are taking the story, and what’s set up in the first four episodes is a grand, solar-system-wide drama of tension between the rich inner planets and the poor outer inhabitants. It’s a major part of the books, but the show really drives the politics home. It’s rife, even in throwaway moments: Miller coming across a slumlord who’s depriving people of clean air filters; scenes of people stealing water. I can’t think of a show that tackles wealth inequality and racism to the same extent.
Indeed, The Expanse stands apart from just about all other major science fiction shows. It’s not about the exploring the universe or the wonders of technological innovation in space. It’s about people, and how when we leave Earth, we take our problems with us. Even hundreds of years from now, we’ll all still be human.
The Expanse premieres December 14, but you can view the pilot episode online now.