Syfy wasn’t kidding about wanting to get back into geeks’ good graces: if the pilot episode of December’s The Expanse is any indication, they’re bound and determined to give us the successor to Battlestar Galactica we’ve been clamoring for since the abrupt cancelation of Stargate Universe. The slick new space opera, based on the book series by “James S.A. Corey” (the team of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck), hosted an exclusive sneak preview at San Diego Comic-Con, and it might just be the show of our dreams: a smart, complex, character-focused drama that doesn’t skimp on the SF bells and whistles (or the CGI budget).
The pilot is jammed with plot, characters, and world-building on an epic scale, but it will all be familiar to fans of the books—judging by what we’ve seen, there’s no question the show is closely following the text, despite a few new twists. We follow three main characters through three very different storylines, each providing us a different window onto a future in which we’ve managed to colonize our own solar system, but still haven’t figured out how to treat each other like human beings. Tensions are running high between the governments of Earth and Mars, and father out, there is unrest among the “Belters,” people born out in space, where the lesser gravity has altered their physiology; many Belters feel they are being exploited and treated as slave labor by the inner planets.
Miller (Thomas Jane) is a world-weary detective on Ceres Station, an overcrowded Belter asteroid habitat where many of the citizens live in poverty and at the expense of corrupt officials. Elsewhere, James Holden (Steven Strait) is the aloof second-officer on the Canterbury, a rickety ice freighter operating at the edges of the system, more interested in an easy payday than advancing his career. Chrisjen Avarsala (Shohreh Aghdashloo), a U.N. Ambassador on Earth who seems to be tasked with preventing Belter terrorist attacks, gets a lot less screen time in the pilot (understandable, as she doesn’t appear until the second book in the series; producers have promised an entirely fresh storyline for her), but promises to be a pivotal player in a looming political plot to trigger a war between Earth and Mars and the Outer Planets Alliance (OPA).
All of these plots seem to have something to do with one missing girl: Julie Mao (Florence Faivre), the black sheep daughter of a powerful Earther family who fled her home on the moon to join the OPA. Miller is hired to locate her, but viewers know from the opening sequence that he’s not going to have much luck on Ceres: we see Julie in a very bad way on a damaged freighter in deep space, where she seems to be the only person left alive—at least until Holden and a rag-tag crew of ice jockeys, including pilot Alex (Cas Anvar), mechanic Amos (Wes Chatham), and engineer Naomi (Dominique Tipper), receive her distress call and head off to investigate.
Fans of the books can probably guess the shocker that closes out the first episode—like Game of Thrones, this seems to be a series that will shift storylines around when it needs to while still honoring the overarching plot of the novels. We’re clearly playing around in James S.A. Corey’s world here, and it’s heartening to see the show has preserved everything that makes the books so compelling. This is a TV series we haven’t really seen before, set in a future where we’ve developed advanced space travel and colonized other worlds but are still confined to our own solar system, and are apparently the only intelligent life in the universe. Inequality, injustice, and racial tension are as big a problem as ever, only now we’ve managed to spread them out across a few additional planets, space stations, and assorted colonies.
The initial casting announcements surprised some fans of the books, particularly for Holden and his crew, who seem to be quite a bit younger than their counterparts on the page, but any fears dissipate once you get to see them all working together. Thomas Jane stands out as the cynical detective who still seems to have a moral compass under that (ok, slightly silly) space fedora, pushing him to do the right thing (eventually). Shohreh Aghdashloo is the definition of perfect casting, warm and loving in scenes she shares with Avisarala’s family, and hard as steel when she’s questioning a suspected terrorists (what we wouldn’t give to put her in a room with Laura Roslin and let them glare it out). Among the fresher faces, we were particularly enamored with Dominique Tipper’s sarcastic, spunky take on Naomi, definitely a favorite character from the books.
But just as impressive as the cast is the production itself—this show was clearly not cheap, and every penny spent makes it onscreen. The sets (which are mostly practical, and only enhanced with CGI flourishes) are impressive in their scope and detail, believably creating multiple ships and stations. The eye candy effects—ships swinging through space and flipping around to ignite their engines and burn hard in the opposite direction—aren’t far off from what you’d see in a big-budget movie. This is an ambitious story, and the production meets it head-on.
We already loved James S.A. Corey’s books, but by the end of 42 minutes, we’re sold on The Expanse as a show, too. We can’t wait until everyone else can see the first episode (and we can see more). Mark your calendars, and make plans to watch a little TV after that screening of The Force Awakens. This one is going to be big.