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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 from Space Race era science fiction.

Ironically, The Expanse’s success is due to how small its scale is in comparison to other titles in the genre. The action takes place in a distance less than a single light year. Battles are fought with conventional weapons. No one gets beamed up, feels a disturbance in anything, and no one has – as of yet – ridden a giant arthropod as a means of being elected to local government.

Instead, SyFy’s show has police who investigate graffiti, murder, and political rallies. There are the Haves who can buy those police and military, as well as the politicians to whom they report; there are the Have Not’s who toil in menial jobs, struggling to gain an ounce of relief from the institutional boots that hold them down. There are flop hotels, section 8 tenements, and trash-lined avenues carved beneath the surfaces of dwarf planets.

These touches add a comforting series of grounding elements to a story that seems to wait in the eaves, too big for our heroes to handle. Earth feels like a waning Rome, trying to use politics to hold together an aging and collapsing seat of power while upstart Mars siting hungry but still too young to have the confidence to act. Both planets are locked in a cold war with water, and the Belters who mine it from the asteroid belt, being the only only thing keeping peace between neighboring worlds.

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The show can be overt in the way this tension is handled, with dialogue careful to produce facts without suffering too greatly from exposition. Other times, the show can be more subtle, such as the ship our protagonists flying being named for Don Quixote’s horse. In Cervantes’ classic tale, Rocinante literally means “previously a work horse” and shows how the creature struggles with his role as a warrior. In the show, however, the ship Rocinante is ironically named, as was always meant for war and the vessel – like its occupants – must struggle to fit in a new role.

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. As though we all have to grow to trust each other.

The writers and actors have made sure that there are few template archetypes that go without subversion in the first half of the season.

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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 this show, not the other way around. Its that narrative pressure that forms 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 plausible, The Expanse – through its use of the real over the ideal – has created characters and a story that make the future seem possible.

Where classics 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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