Though I’ve posted here and there concerning my appreciation for The Expanse, I’ve never written anything that properly explains the show and its awesomeness. But seeing as how Amazon recently released a trailer and release date for the show’s long-awaited fifth season, now seems like the perfect time to address that particular oversight.
Note: The following contains potential spoilers for the first four seasons of The Expanse. Consider yourself warned.
Based on the acclaimed series of novels by James S. A. Corey (the pen name for the duo of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck), The Expanse takes place several hundred years in the future, where humanity has spread throughout much of the solar system. But unlike the utopian vision of, say, Star Trek, humanity in The Expanse is deeply divided.
Earth is overcrowded and environmentally ruined, with the vast majority of its populace living in poverty or on government assistance. Mars, on the other hand, is slowly being terraformed, and is home to a driven, advanced, and highly militaristic society. The relationship between the two planets is testy at best: Earth considers Mars arrogant and smug whereas Mars sees Earth as weak and foolish for wasting the planet’s resources.
Caught between Earth and Mars are the “Belters,” residents of the asteroid belt located between Mars and Jupiter. Although their work as miners, manufacturers, and laborers is crucial to Earth and Mars’ economies, Belters are looked down on and treated as second class citizens by the inner planets, who refuse to recognize Belter sovereignty. This oppression has lead some Belters to engage in acts of terrorism against the “Inners.”
Tensions between Earth, Mars, and the Belt are already riding high when the series begins — and things quickly go from bad to worse when an ice hauling vessel named the Canterbury is destroyed by unknown forces.
This unprovoked attack on a defenseless ship becomes a cause célèbre throughout the solar system even as the Canterbury’s few survivors find themselves at the center of a conspiracy that threatens to not only upset the solar system’s delicate balance of power, but irrevocably change humanity’s fate, as well.
Meanwhile, a world-weary detective sets out to locate a missing socialite whose youthful rebellion belies more dangerous activities; an Earth politician tries to separate fact from fiction in order to prevent war with Mars; a Martian soldier uncovers a plot that tests her loyalties; and various Belter factions see new opportunities in their fight for independence and autonomy.
At the core of the show are the survivors of the Canterbury. Led by James Holden, a former member of Earth’s navy who left the military in disgrace, the Rocinante crew — all of them screwups in some way — form a close-knit family that’s tested by their knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Fortunately, they command a spiffy Martian gunship named the Rocinante, which helps them survive some pretty nasty scrapes and become a formidable force in their own right.
Whenever I talk about The Expanse with a fellow fan, we inevitably start and end with the characters. Everyone has their favorites. It might be the foul-mouthed Chrisjen Avasarala, a force of nature who wields obscenities like blunt objects in her political machinations. (Seriously, watching her chew out fellow politicians and dress down incompetent officials is one of the show’s great pleasures.) Or maybe it’s gunnery sergeant Bobbie Draper, a tough-as-nails Martian soldier whose unwavering sense of honor gets her in trouble more often than not.
Amos Burton also has a sense of honor, albeit a very skewed one; he’s a violence-prone sociopath, but he’s a violence-prone sociopath that you can’t help but love. Sharp-tongued Camina Drummer was once a Belter terrorist, but now she strives to help turn the Belters into a legitimate and respected nation. And Alex Kamal is a former Martian soldier on the run from his past whose peerless skills as the Rocinante’s pilot are matched only by his desire to help others and keep his “family” safe.
These colorful characters — and the many others like them — are made all the more so by the rich, vibrant world that they inhabit. From the cultures, factions, and politics to the technology and depiction of life in space, every aspect of The Expanse’s universe feels thoroughly considered and completely believable.
Arguably the best example of this is the Belter culture and specifically “Belter Creole,” the Belters’ language. Combining aspects of various languages including English, Chinese, German, and Bantu, it feels legitimate as a language spoken by a diverse society that’s grown up in space far from traditional concepts of countries and borders.
The Expanse’s approach to space travel feels similarly realistic and lived in. For starters, it takes time to explore and establish seemingly trivial details, like the practical realities of living in a zero-g environment or how non-Earthers might respond to Earth’s light, gravity, and horizon.
Additionally, you won’t hear any Star Trek-ish technobabble or see the sort of physics-defying maneuvers that abound in Star Wars. When ships want to slow down in The Expanse, they must flip end over end and fire their engines in the opposite direction, as physics dictates. Sudden maneuvers, like an emergency burn to avoid an incoming attack, require everyone to be strapped in and pumped full of drugs to withstand the massive g-forces. And forget about forcefields and deflector shields; shrapnel and stray debris can damage a spaceship and kill its occupants as easily as any weapon.
In other words, The Expanse never forgets that space is a dangerous and terrifying place where a single wrong or foolish move can quickly put an end to one’s own ship, if not one’s life. Subsequently, this “hard” approach to sci-fi means that the battles and chases in The Expanse are all the more tense, suspenseful, and thrilling, as pilots and captains must rely on strategy and skill to survive.
You can see all of these aspects — the physical stress and danger of extreme space flight, the skills necessary, the unavoidable influence of physics — in one of my favorite scenes, in which Avasarala and Draper try to escape a surprise attack by commandeering a high-speed racing vessel. (Pucker up, indeed.)
So enough background and context. What about the actual seasons themselves? The first three seasons, which all aired on the Syfy Network, tell a complete arc that builds on the storylines that I mentioned above. The first season is a bit rough around the edges, as the various characters and storylines are put in position. (That, and budgetary constraints mean that parts of it look like, well, a cable TV series.)
But about two-thirds of the way through the first season, the show starts picking up steam, and the second and third seasons continually ratchet up the tension even as their focus expands to include new characters and settings. It really becomes a masterpiece of genre storytelling, with the stakes consistently raised for our intrepid heroes who are forced to make harder and harder decisions. When the third season finally ends, it does so in a way that dramatically increases the show’s already epic scope, as humanity stands on the brink of the greatest discovery in its history.
Unfortunately, the Syfy Network cancelled The Expanse in 2018 after its third season due to distribution concerns. Fans quickly launched a campaign to save the series, even reaching out to streaming services like Amazon and Netflix to pick it up. Two weeks after Syfy’s cancellation, Amazon announced that they had purchased the series; work on season four began in earnest in October 2018.
At first blush, The Expanse’s fourth season — which premiered on December 13, 2019 — looks to be underwhelming, especially after the third season’s epic climax and finale. Its scope seems smaller and more grounded, as the Rocinante’s crew gets involved in a squabble over mineral rights on a newly discovered planet.
However, it’s no less assured than its predecessors and does what The Expanse does best: tell riveting stories about flawed-yet-fascinating characters against a cosmic backdrop. (A theme, by the way, that the series’ opening title sequence drives home in powerful and poignant fashion.) By the fourth season’s end, we’re given a glimpse of humanity at its best and worst as well as a deeper look at the inhuman forces that are inexorably shaping humanity’s future.
As I mentioned before, The Expanse never forgets to remind us that humans don’t really belong in space. Or rather, that we must take great precautions should we plan to venture out among the stars and planets. Precautions not only in terms of utilizing the proper equipment and vehicles necessary to survive and travel in a completely hostile environment, but also, in recognizing that the vastness of space contains wonders and dangers that can either help us thrive or spell our species’ doom.
In The Expanse, outer space is more than just an excuse to show off cool-looking spaceships locked in fiery battle. It ultimately becomes a mirror of human nature, of both our inventiveness and ambition, our compassion and prejudice, and our sense of wonder and sense of entitlement.
For all of the grittiness, violence, and cynicism of characters like Josephus Miller — The Expanse, by the way, is definitely not something to watch with young kids — I find it to be a deeply moral and even optimistic series. It celebrates sacrifice, diversity, community, heroism, and exploration while condemning corporate greed, political corruption and cowardice, opportunism, and prejudice.
Suffice to say, I can’t wait to rejoin the crew of the Rocinante and head back out into the big empty when The Expanse returns on December 16.