TV goes space opera…

While genre titles on TV have been growing at a steady rate in recent years, it’s only occasionally that some manage to enjoy a level of success that takes them beyond the niche fanbases that they usually occupy. Game Of Thrones is probably the best example of this – and also the most unlikely candidate when you step back and consider the level of success that fantasy shows had enjoyed prior to George RR Martin’s gripping story.

But Game Of Thrones is probably indicative of changing trends in genre TV generally. Marvel’s unprecedented success with big screen outings for superheroes has also been reflected in their TV cousins, notably the likes of Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. On that basis, it’s often frustrating to see quality titles not achieving the same measure of success as their contemporaries – or worse, facing cancellation. In a world where The Big Bang Theory is regularly renewed, this is all the more galling.

The Expanse is a sci-fi series currently into its 3rd season on the Syfy network which lays out an engaging narrative that encompasses a lot of storytelling concepts (politics, conflict, action, the human condition etc). In fact it’s probably easier to describe The Expanse as being the equivalent of Game Of Thrones, but set in space.

Adapting the books by James S. A. Corey (actually the pen name used by writing partners Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck), The Expanse was certainly an ambitious endeavour. A series of novels that explored a future in which humanity has colonised the solar system – and which involved large elements of space opera – would be a risky enterprise at any point in time.

As with the Culture series by Iain M Banks, The Expanse sets its story against a broad background with diverse locations, a large cast of characters and a generous helping of spaceship action.

Set 200 years in the future, the plot switches between 3 separate viewpoints before eventually bringing the disparate strings together. In the asteroid belt (now colonised and occupied by ‘Belters’, responsible for much of the tough manual labour) police detective Josephus Miller (Thomas Jane) is assigned to find Julie Mao (Florence Faivre).

Elsewhere, the ice hauling spaceship Canterbury responds to a distress call that results in a tragic incident that threatens to bring war between Earth, Mars and the Belt. James Holden (Steven Strait) is one of the Canterbury’s crew who manages to escape with a handful of crew.

Back on Earth, Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo), the UN Deputy Undersecretary, works to prevent war between Earth and Mars by any means necessary.

Although the 3 incidents at first appear to be unrelated, it’s later revealed that these events are part of a greater conspiracy that threatens all humanity. Holden and his crew, consisting of Alex Kamal (Cas Anvar), Naomi Nagata (Dominque Tipper) and Amos Burton (Wes Chatham), eventually wind up in command of a Mars warship which they christen the Rocinante.

The rest of the cast is filled out by Fred Johnson (Chad L Coleman), a former UN Marine working with the Belters and Sadavir Errinwright (Shawn Doyle) as the UN Undersecretary of Executive Administration.

Season 1 took the characters through a consistent series of dramas that saw the destruction of both the Canterbury as well as the Martian warship the Donnager. Holden and his crew come into possession of a Martian cruiser (the aforementioned Rocinante) and are forced to entrust Fred Johnson who runs the Tycho Station shipyards and also leads the Outer Planets Alliance, a militant Belter group.

From there, they slowly learn the truth of a greater threat than war consisting of a bizarre replicating ‘proto-molecule’ which appears to be alien in origin. Holden and his crew set out to eradicate this threat, while every other power in the solar system attempts to weaponise it.

The appeal of The Expanse comes in several flavours. For a start it looks magnificent. From the set design to the special effects, it breathes big budget movie. The aesthetic is a combination of Alien and Blade Runner, which gives a combination of gritty practical spaceship interiors through to the noir-esque elements of the narrative. The dialogue also comes across as authentic and raw at times, particularly the odd patois used by the Belters.

Thematically, The Expanse seems to reflect a lot of the style and concepts of fan favourites such as Battlestar Galactica and Firefly. There’s a much more authentic military feel to the hardware and the battles with a (mostly) hard science backdrop to it.

While the first season acted as a world building exercise as much as laying down the tracks for the story, by the second season the stakes have got much higher. It also sees the introduction of Bobbie Draper, a Martian marine who gets caught up in the political machinations and is forced to carve her own path.

The show knows how to pace itself and there’s rarely any point at which it feels like its dragging, even in the dialogue-heavy scenes. A lot of this is due to characters such as Avasarala, whose political manoeuvrings and talent for big speeches are every bit as engaging as the many space battles that The Expanse employs.

Meanwhile, the foundations of the story draw a convincing picture of the desperate position humanity is in due to the conflicts between the 3 major powers. Mars can’t complete its terraforming operations because it’s had to spend time and resources building a military force. The Belters are being crippled by being beholden to Earth and Mars for vital supplies, such as air and water. Meanwhile, Earth draws quite a few analogies with present-day super powers adopting a care-free attitude to foreign relationships with little concern for the consequences. All this is very timely for our current political climate.

Despite a steady growth in viewers (and a 100% rating by Rotten Tomatoes), the Syfy network recently announced that The Expanse would not be picked up for a 4th season. This doesn’t necessarily mean it’s game over for the series as its production company is busy shopping around for a new home for the show. Some hopes are pegged on Netflix, which features The Expanse as part of its line-up.

Meanwhile, fans of The Expanse have decided to take the fight forward with a petition to demonstrate interest. The petition has raised 15,000 signatures in the past few days alone and demonstrates that an audience is out there.

It’s perhaps tough for any series to survive in an increasingly busy market saturated with genre shows bidding for attention. However, The Expanse is possibly one of the most gripping titles currently screening on television at the moment and it would be tragic if its momentum was cut off before its prime.