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The Expanse: SyFy’s Darkness Between the Stars

Space seems to be calling us right now.

Movies are going crazy for space operas. Take the pair of Star Trek reboots, the surprise success of Guardians of the Galaxy, and now a Star Wars for a new generation. Video games are mixing exploration with the genre with titles like Star Citizen, Elite Dangerous, Kerbal Space Program, and Rebel Galaxy. So a show like The Expanse seems inevitable… though its execution is startlingly unlike much of what we’ve seen before.

Unlike other Space Race era styled science fiction, The Expanse’s success is due to how small its scale is. There are no FTL drives, no force fields. No one gets beamed up, feels a disturbance, or rides a giant arthropod as a means of being elected to local government.

Instead, SyFy’s show takes place not just in our solar system, but in shorter distances than Voyager traveled. There are police who investigate vandalism, murder, and political rallies. Battles are fought with bullets, not blasters. There are the Haves (who can buy the police, military, and politicians) and there are the Have Not’s (who have brutal, menial jobs that buy them nothing). This is a universe with section 8 housing, flop motels, and trash-strewn streets.

In short, this is outer space without alien worlds.

And it is precisely this familiarity and dedication to minutiae that keeps the viewer comfortable while the show’s larger story seems to wait in the eaves, too imposing even with the reduced scale of human terms. Seen this close up, Earth feels like a waning Rome, trying to use politics to hold together an aging and collapsing seat of power while upstart Mars sitting hungry but still too immature to act. Both planets are locked in a cold war over water, provided by the Belters (exploited miners who harvest ice from the asteroid belt, thus keeping a fragile peace in system).

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The show does a good job of conveying this complicated peace and the sci-fi elements that surround it, managing between overt dialog to catch viewers up and subtle references to keep fans interested. Though that’s not without difficulty; like any hard sci-fi, the show has to balance to make sure it doesn’t fall too far into exposition or if it’s being too clever by half. As an illustration of that latter half, take the heroes’ ship, the Rocinante, a somewhat obscure reference to  Don Quixote’s struggling war horse of the same name. To complicate things further, the reference is used ironically; “Rocinante” literally means “previously a work horse,” but that’s what the show’s warship is attempting to become (echoing the protagonists’ struggles to change from soldiers into something else). None of this — the Spanish lit lesson, the translation, or the meaning — are ever explained to the viewer.

If the show has a short-coming, it’s that nothing about the first few episodes is immediately apparent and it takes some time for the characters to become accessible. Much like the plot of the show, it’s as though story and viewer have to grow to trust each other.

The writers and actors have flipped seemingly every expectation, right down to the characters.

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The “noble captain” archetype is inverted by Jim Holden (Steven Strait), an officer who’s disregard for orders caused a disaster that gave him an unexpected command. Now he’s in a position to make orders for his crew to disregard. It doesn’t help that his first act was to lie to them. But he’s not trying to save himself, his crew, or even the solar system; he’s recklessly bent on doing whatever he feels is the right thing. It’s Holden’s disregard for everything but himself and his own sense of ideals that drives the crew into danger and finally lands all of them, himself, and even those he’s just met into a situation that appears both fruitless and fatal (particularly for Holden himself).

 

 

 

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The classic role of “logical but spontaneous chief engineer” is split in two. On the one hand, Naomi Nagata (Dominique Tipper) has the official title, but plays the character with a hint of tragedy as you begin to learn she’s consumed by fixing a ship to avoid realizing how broken she is inside. Her technical prowess may save the ship multiple times through the season, but none are as moving or as high-stakes as watching her struggle with the human difficulties in expressing her fear of her own protectors.

 

 

 

 

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On the other hand there is Amos Burton (Wes Catham). More like a chopshop mechanic than a gearhead, Amos is the naked show of force to Naomi’s fragile strength. Amos acts out of a protective love of his ship and Naomi, while she’s afraid of both her transport and the bully beside her. By the end of the show, Amos struggles to beautifully in writing the broken war machine he’s become and finding a utility and purpose to the volatility within himself that he cannot seem to escape.

 

 

 

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The “wisecracking pilot who’s course is always straight and true” is instead Alex Kamal (Cas Anver). With a personality as affected as his accent, what guides him guides the ship. And everyone on board, including Alex, is afraid of what that might mean. By the end, Alex clearly fears it may divorce him entirely from the only place left that he belongs.

 

 

 

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The crown of “wise and benevolent ruler” is stolen masterfully by Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Agbashloo). She is ruthless, underhanded, and has a viper’s charm she uses to manipulate people into pawns to do her bidding. But under that is the fear that the Earth, lead by the U.N. world government, is facing both a loss of political might in the solar system but is also facing a two-sided war from those who would depose the planet. By the final scenes of the season, Christian looks in dismay that every false move she’s made has brought power to someone else and taken away friends she didn’t realize she needed.

 

 

 

 

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Lastly is the seemingly straightforward “hard-boiled detective” Joe Miller (Thomas Jane) who’s anything but. Miller is a turncoat of the very worst proportions, having grown from a poor Belter who had to steal to survive who becomes a Police officer working for the oppressive Earth regime who would keep the Belt without any political power or rights of its own. His hat and career an insult to his fellow natives, his morally flexible behavior and dereliction of duty an affront to other officers, Joe feels like a man apart. Too tired to fight, at turns too contrary or too bitter to do anything else, he seems at first to have no higher calling than stubborn animal need. Any nobility seems almost an act of defiance against himself and ultimately self-destruction.

 

 

Make no mistake, the story is what drives the characters in the beginning of this show, not the other way around. Narrative pressures form these characters along their arcs and shapes them into something all the more captivating: realistic protagonists.

Modern Sci-Fi – which is to say post NASA and JFK Sci-Fi – has largely been a Joseph Conrad-esque morality play, full of idealized characters we could idolize but seldom (if ever) relate to. They were the Peace Corps in space, or literal white knights, or even Messiah figures. They reflected the heroes of the moon shot era, and their protagonists reflect the way we talked about the men and women behind those first Apollo missions; more “ideal” than “person.”

What the Expanse does is put the humanity back in human achievement. Where other space operas created ships and religions that made the impossible seem possible, The Expanse – through its use of the real over the ideal – has created characters and a story that make the a future seem possible.

Where classic books, tv shows, and films of the genre were named after ships, planets, or even the stars themselves, The Expanse is named after the cold, black spaces between. The emptiness that cradles and moves those stars.

Whenever humanity goes into deep space, we will be the same humans who looked up at the night sky from the mouths of caves. The darkness of our jealousies, angers and suspicions will still rim and frame the fragile lights of our courage, ingenuity and sacrifice.

Whenever humanity goes into deep space, we will be the same humans who looked up at the night sky from the mouths of caves. The darkness of our jealousies, angers and suspicions will still rim and frame the fragile lights of our courage, ingenuity and sacrifice.

 

For more Expanse fun, check out this video of thier booth from CES 2016

 

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John doesn't really know what he does for a living, but chances are you've played a video game he's worked, on own an article of clothing he had some hand in bringing to market, or heard his words come out of some creative director or chief executive's mouth. You've for sure read his writing, unless you got to this bio by accident. As a kid, John used to tell people he wanted to grow up to be a giant spider, and lately he's starting to consider that a viable career change. But he's afraid he doesn't have the right degree for it. John lives on the South Side of Chicago with one very wonderful wife, two horribly manipulative felines, and about a bajillion comic books, screen prints, and gaming accessories.
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    The Expanse: SyFy’s Darkness Between the Stars

    Space seems to be calling us right now. Movies are going crazy for space operas. Take the pair of Star Trek ...
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