Depending on where you stand on the sci-fi spectrum, humanity is either bound for a glorious Star Trek-ian future of gleaming cities, equity for all and peace throughout the galaxy, or it’s doomed for a gritty Blade Runner-esque world where cities lies in filthy ruin, climate change has run amuck and possibly a stray zombie or two is shambling throughout the landscape.
What isn’t always given a lot of attention is the middle road where human civilisation acts pretty as it always has with all the Machiavellian maneuvres and rampant self-interest that define us as a species but with slick technological updates and an odd penchant for androgynous fashions.
syfy’s latest space epic, The Expanse, based on the books of James S. A. Corey, firmly occupies that latter space, in a galaxy where humanity has colonised Mars and the inner planets and mines dwarf planets like Ceres that sit in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
Much as the Earth today is split between nation/states and a host of other commercial, political and religious interests, so this brave new world of solar system settlement is riven by rivalries between a UN-controlled Earth, an independent militarily-powerful Mars and the Belters, who occupy the main space stations and settlements littering the belt.
There is peace yes but it is fractious, and barely in place, one match strike away from igniting into a system-wide conflagration.
So pretty much 21st century business-as-usual but with 23rd century spaceships, gleaming cities and space stations orbiting any planetary object with any mining value of any kind.
Into this powder keg situation come two very people, an ice freighter officer Jim “James” Holden (Steven Strait) who learns firsthand when his ship the Canterbury is blown to kingdom come that there are machinations in place that could well spell the end of any peace, tenuous though it may be, and disillusioned, barely-high functioning alcoholic Detective Joe Miller (Thomas Jane) who finds out fairly quickly that a simply case to find a missing woman, Julie Mao (Florence Faivre) is far deadlier and loaded with catastrophic consequence than he could have ever imagined.
The solar system is about to become to become a far more unfriendly place, and these two men, and millions of other vulnerable souls, are sitting right in the firing line.
It’s quite the premise and Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby, who adapted the books for television have done a masterful job of bringing a dense though accessible space opera series to the small screen with its soul intact and the premise very much well-utilised.
What we are presented with in The Expanse, which comes with an initial 10-episode season to be followed by a longer 13 episode tranche in early 2017 – there are five very thick books in the series and counting so there’s no shortage of source material to support the TV series – is a gritty world where humanity has not learnt the lessons of the past and slowly but surely walks towards the precipice of war and destruction once again.
Where the series excels is letting this all unfold with the same languor and intrigue as the books themselves.
Sure quite a bit of the detail is edited since adapting the books chapter for chapter would require far more televisual time than anyone has really got, but the essence of the books remain even as new characters are added and a different slant on proceedings is provided by events on Earth that aren’t given as much of a voice as in the book.
Even with all these necessary changes, the pace remains relaxed but purposeful with events not sped up and the drums of war beating slowly and surely out of the earshot of most of the characters.
The world-building is impressive, too.
Within the first episode we gain a strong sense of what life is like on Ceres Station with its water shortages and social stratification, and in the Belt generally and how the people who live a precarious existence far from their ancestral home feel aggrieved and hard done by, all their hard work simply going to line the pockets of corporate interests on Earth in the main.
Earth is shown too as a largely prosperous world but one where the same old political dynamics of centuries past play out albeit on a vast solar system tableau.
Key to all this world-building and creating a sense that we are in the future that is still blemished by the same old human fallibilities is the CGI which is thankfully top notch, executed in a way that shows like Dark Matter can only dream about.
This attention to special effects detail is very much in keeping with the overall look and feel of the show which has gone to a great deal of trouble to craft taut, well-told episodic stories, cast people with the acting chops to bring them to life in a believable fashion and hew close to the source material without feeling utterly beholding to it.
If you like your TV space opera, big, epic and yet quietly intriguing then The Expanse will suit down too-much-gravity-for-Belters ground, a gloriously well realised adaptation that reminds us at every turn that the more things change in the future, the more they, and humanity, will stay very much the same.