Almost 6 years since the finale of Battlestar Galactica, the SyFy channel may have finally found a new flagship show that will transcend the network’s usual lineup of shark-infested b-movies and low-budget science fiction serials. The Expanse, based on the 2011 Hugo award-nominated series by James S. A. Corey, enables the network to rip recent headlines from the resurgence of NASA’s deep space exploration program and Elon Musk’s lofty plans to colonize (and nuke?) Mars.
When Star Trek premiered in 1966, Gene Roddenberry’s vision portrayed a utopian future based on the space ambitions that arose during the cold war. Humanity was just entering orbit and NASA was given the order to send Astronauts to the Moon. Star Trek portrayed a future where disease, poverty and war has been replaced with peace, prosperity and exploration.The Expanse uses today’s roadmap for future exploration of space in the same fashion but paints a completely different outcome.
The Expanse has all the earmarks of a dystopian science fiction universe and the series sets a tone of emptiness and desperation by opening its pilot episode “Dulcinea” with a young distressed woman fighting for survival on a damaged spaceship. The story picks up two centuries from the present-day in a future where a United Nations controlled Earth, the Independently militarized Mars, and the dwellers or “Belters” of the Asteroid belt are on the brink of war. The setting is based on some pretty real prospects for humanity’s reach and future in space.
In the universe of The Expanse, New York City is still a bustling metropolis with a few towering additions to the lower-Manhattan skyline. Familiar imagery like the Statue of Liberty and One World Trade Center are featured in the series’ first visit to Earth. However, there’s a notable difference and if you blink you’ll miss it; a submerged structure surrounds Liberty and Manhattan island indicating that sea levels have risen dramatically -probably from global warming. Here, we are introduced to the aging and seemingly benevolent United Nations Deputy Undersecretary Chrisjen Avasarala.
The Deputy Undersecretary is quickly helicoptered to a ‘black site’ in East Hampton, Long Island where she oversees the interrogation of a captured Belter. Avasarala goes from peaceful moments of levity with her grandson to the ugly torture of this prisoner in the hopes of preventing war.
The Belters are a generation born and raised in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. The story is focused on the largest celestial body in that region -a world named Ceres. The dwarf planet has made headlines recently as NASA’s Dawn Spacecraft sent back mysterious images from its surface. Scientists and researchers have been trying to determine the origin of bright spots emitting from Ceres and this month they determined that those anomalies are ice and salts just beneath the planet’s surface. This discovery ties neatly into the universe of The Expanse as we are introduced to a Ceres-orbiting space station where a corporate asteroid-mining industry is based and whose main operation is collecting ice.
Coincidentally, President Obama has just signed the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act into law. This states that private space companies who will eventually mine the resources of an asteroid have full ownership rights to those resources. “A hundred years from now, humanity will look at this period in time as the point in which we were able to establish a permanent foothold in space” said Peter H. Diamandis, Co-Founder of Planetary Resources, Inc. “In history, there has never been a more rapid rate of progress than right now.”
SyFy could not have dreamed of a better marketing plug for The Expanse.
A corporate entity that will one day take advantage of this very law looms over the survival of Ceres station’s Belters while order is kept by a private police force that includes Tom Jane’s Detective Miller. Miller, the show’s lead and anti-hero, is a corrupt-enough-to-still-be-likable cop or “badge” who doesn’t (but secretly does) give a damn about the Belters on the station.
We are introduced to Miller while a radicalized Belter is giving a potent dose of exposition in the form of a demonstration. A crowd gathers as the protester illegally sheds light on the injustice affecting many who dwell in the asteroid belt but Detective Miller opts not to arrest him for “inciting”. Miller’s commanding officer later gives him a high-priority assignment to find Juliette Mao, the missing daughter of a corporate tycoon and central figure in what will become a widespread conspiracy that spans the first season. Mao is the young woman in distress during the episode’s opener and is central to the plot of the first book in The Expanse series, Leviathan Wakes. The urgency of Mao’s story gets muddled in the many character intros and noise of universe building that is squeezed into the premiere episode.
Miller’s world serves as a dark setting for his new case. Many are sick or starving, Water is rationed, bribes are taken (by Miller himself) so safety violations can be overlooked, and there is a degree of racism towards the Belters who noticeably stand out from their Earth-born or “Earther” counterparts. Those originating from the asteroid belt have different physical traits formed by their “alien” environment which mainly include longer limbs and deformities caused by lack of air and gravity. Detective Miller’s perceived apathy towards the Belter’s suffering on Ceres station may lead you to believe that he is an Earther but hidden protrusions on his neck reveal that he was born in the asteroid belt.
Back on Earth, one of these Belters suffers at the hands of Undersecretary Avasarala. As an accused spy and terrorist, the Belter is hung on hooks inside the secret black site while the Earth’s gravity –far too heavy for Belters– crushes his frail body. The Undersecretary’s interrogation provides clues to the what may be the Mcguffin of season 1 -mysterious technology that may tip the scales of war when conflict between the solar system’s powers break out.
As for the coming war, the heavy hitter will be Mars. References are made to the red planet’s military might and advances in weapons development. Tensions between Earth and Mars are initially due to the race for the valuable resources in the asteroid belt but will certainly grow more complex when the story’s mysterious technology comes into play.
The military prowess of Mars is seen through the eyes of a rag-tag group of asteroid-mining contractors who pilot a shuttle craft away from their massive industrial vessel near Saturn, The Canterbury, to investigate a derelict spacecraft. They are led by the unwilling James Holden who initially shuns his responsibilities and would rather engage in zero-gravity sex and continue his search of the solar system for a decent cup of coffee.
Holden’s hasty promotion to first officer of the Canterbury follows a complete breakdown of the mining ship’s second-in-command played by Breaking Bad’s Jonathan Banks. His character is far from the beloved “Mike” he portrayed on AMC’s hit show and in the few moments we are introduced to the character, Banks portrays a crying, disillusioned man who is desperate to return to Earth. He has resorted to conversing with his plants and shooting up the fake window display in his tight quarters before being taken away by medical personnel. Sounds like he’s been smoking that good Heisenberg crystal.
As the mining vessel’s new first officer, James Holden leads an away team on their dusty shuttle to the Scopuli, a beacon-emitting, abandoned spacecraft adrift in deep space and the same vessel occupied by Juliette Mao in the opening scene. During the crew’s search of the ship, a Mars-originated military ship suddenly appears on radar and without warning, destroys The Canterbury while stranding Holden’s away team. This event ties the three main storylines together as Detective Miller’s search for Juliette Mao will now lead him to Holden and his crew while this attack will effectively undermine The United Nation’s Undersecretary apparent efforts to prevent an all out war.