Larger than Life: A review of Syfy’s The Expanse

expanse-julie

If there’s one thing you can say about Syfy’s new show The Expanse (broadcast on Space for us lucky Canadians, eh), it’s that it doesn’t mess around with the title.

This show is big. It’s huge!

The premise behind the latest sci-fi adventure to hit our view-screens is that by the twenty-third century, mankind has expanded beyond Earth and has colonized the moon (now called Luna), Mars, and the asteroid belt just past Mars (known simply as “The Belt”).

This isn’t your happy-go-lucky brand of aggressive interstellar settlement; rather, these territories have been divided into factions, and as you can expect, these factions don’t exactly get along. At the outset of the show, the United Nations, who control Earth and Luna, find themselves on the brink of war with the highly militarized Mars. Meanwhile, poor working-class ‘Belters’ struggle for basic necessities in the Belt, while simultaneously supplying these necessities to anyone who is bigger and stronger than them (which is everyone).

So yeah, it’s big, and it gets bigger. After all, you learn all of the above in the show’s first thirty seconds.

Over the course of the first episode, “Dulcinea”, we are introduced to a stunning array of characters—so many that zero-gravity isn’t the only thing that makes your head spin. Cast is one place where this show seems to overstep its bounds, becoming a little too large for its own good. With settings bustling with activity, the viewer very quickly gets the feeling of impersonality, reminiscent of promenade scenes in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

This can be a good thing, if that’s the effect a show is trying to achieve. However, many scenes, including the opening of this episode, seem to evoke a more personal feel akin to shows like Firefly, in which a single down-to-earth crew deals with down-to-earth problems, albeit in a fantastic universe.

The contrast between the show’s attempts to create a grand space opera and the moments when it tries to focus more on the intricate workings of its world(s) can be a little jarring.

Fortunately, the show does focus down onto a small handful of main protagonists.

The first we meet is Detective Miller (Thomas Jane) of the massive metropolitan space station Ceres in the Belt. He’s your classic morally grey veteran, police officer, and tough guy, and he seems to be pissed off by at least one person at all times. It’s a trope that’s been done to death, but if you’re anything like me, it’s still nice to see grumpus over there almost flush a smooth-talking sleazeball out an airlock for “not holding up his end of the bargain.” There’s still a lot of potential with this character, especially considering the setting in which the show has placed him, and Jane does a decent job of giving the character depth through his acting. If the show was just about Detective Miller, it would probably be a pretty good show.

Next we’re introduced to the strapping Jim Holden (Steven Strait), the second of our gruff ‘manly man’ characters. Eye candy with a slacker attitude, he serves as a deck officer on the Canterbury, an ice freighter travelling around the Belt in a very Firefly-esque struggle for a solid day’s earnings. Again, his character is one we’ve seen before, but the show does a decent job of making him someone that you can at least imagine caring about. Over the course of the episode, we see him and his crew reluctantly explore a distress beacon, only to find more mystery and tragedy than any of them wanted. If this show was just about Jim Holden and the crew of the Canterbury, it would probably be a pretty good show.

Finally, we’re star-struck by UN Deputy Undersecretary Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo), a family woman who seems to have some much more sinister pastimes than babysitting her grandson. Our first female protagonist, most of her appeal comes from her enigmatic qualities. I wouldn’t go as far as to call her a female Frank Underwood in space, but it’s not exactly a leap. However, just because we’ve seen similar characters before, doesn’t mean she’s any less interesting. Aghdashloo’s acting is wonderful, and the character herself spawns questions galore for the show to expound in future episodes. If this show was just about UN Deputy Undersecretary Avasarala, it would probably be a pretty good show.

Both the promise and the problem of this show stem from its combination of all these stories.

Like I said, this show is big, and part of the reason it’s big is because it explores so many corners of its universe. However, in a universe as diverse as the one we see here, these corners can look very different.

As I’ve already mentioned, there isn’t all that much new here; we’ve seen both the characters and the premises before. In order for it to be a truly great show, the goal for the series should be to connect these very diverse stories in a way that viewers haven’t seen before—which is quite a task.

It makes a good start as this first episode progresses, adding unique elements and subtle connections that allow us to see these characters as all existing together somehow, but it is still to be seen how this idea will play out over the series.

Unfortunately, we see when the show gets too big more than once, showing that a ‘shoot for the stars, land on the moon’ mentality isn’t always the right one. The special effects, though passable, leave a lot to be desired, and the pace is slow enough at points to be unmemorable. When you factor this into the already large issue of trying to capture too many parts of this massive universe into one comprehensible story, it all proves quite daunting.

Is the show good? That really remains to be seen. The first episode was good. It wasn’t terrible, and it wasn’t revolutionary—it was good. It played on old tropes and familiar concepts, but kept them fresh enough to make me (literally) scream for more when the credits rolled. It was good.

Yes, it’s big, and big isn’t always good—but at least it has potential.

The Expanse premiered on Space Channel on Monday, December 14 at 10pm and broadcasts weekly on Tuesdays at 7pm. Episodes are also available for streaming at Space.ca.

-Contributed by Stephan Goslinski

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