Those of you lamenting the lack of space based science fiction on tv should be very pleased about SyFy's latest series The Expanse which is adapted from a series of books by James S. A. Corey (actually a pen name for Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) because we're firmly in Space Opera territory here. While the story is set within our solar system we're looking at a (partially) terraformed Mars and assorted space stations.
The reason you don't see shows like this on TV very much is that even with modern CGI, doing them convincingly is expensive. People have become so used to movie style special effects that they are not at all forgiving of less convincing ones. Which is probably why SyFy is only giving us ten episodes in this first season.
It's also why, if you don't watch it, they won't do a second season. They've clearly put more budget behind it than most of their shows and the fact that they've done this early online release of the first episode (ahead of the actual December 14th premiere) shows that they've making an effort with this one.
So What's It All About?
Having read all the books in the series so far (five and counting) it's about a lot, but let's stick to the basics. It's set 200 years in the future and follows two primary plot threads: Detective Miller (Thomas Jayne) on Ceres Station as he tries to track down missing heiress Julie Mau and newly appointed XO Jim Holden (Steven Strait) on board the ice hauler Canterbury as they intercept a distress signal from another ship. Suffice to say things end up much more complicated than either one expects. Based on just this first episode it seems their going to stay fairly close to the plot of the first book.
This is space opera with a gritty coating. No phasers or teleporters. People have to do things the slow, difficult way. Even accelerating the ships requires the crew to be injected with a cocktail of drugs so they can survive. Belters, those who are born and work on the space stations in the asteroid belt have a different physiology as a result of spending all their time in zero-g and there are tensions between Earth, Mars and the belt.
It's Like Now, Only in the Future!
One of the things that science fiction can do is take current situations and examine them through the lens of the future. The tensions between the planets and the belters falls into that category. There's even a militant terrorist organization in the form of the OPA (Outer Planets Alliance). On the surface this may sound similar to series like Dark Matter or Killjoys but it wont (just) be about greedy corporations and there's a lot more depth to the politics and realpolitik of The Expanse.
I've seen some comments that the belters don't look very different to earthers in the pilot. Well, to be fair, they can only cast from earth born humans so that is a limitation. But in the first episode it was noticeable that they were picking tall and skinny actors as much as possible to try and emphasize the physical differences. They also didn't back away from belter slang which can make it challenging to follow some of the dialogue, at least until you start to recognize words and accents.
As you might expect from a space station the cast are about as diverse as you'll see anywhere on tv both in skin tones and accents. I find that quite refreshing and as far as I can tell it's mostly consistent with the books. I must admit I never bother picturing characters when I read about them so I don't have a "visual" to contradict except perhaps that I thought Miller was older.
Special and Not So Special Effects
This is a tv series not a $200 million movie. So if you're looking for effects on par with Interstellar or Star Wars: The Force Awakens you will be disappointed. They do, however, range from passable to good. There's a few iffy zero gravity scenes (particularly the sex scene) but for the most part they don't intrude on your enjoyment of the episode and in places they do evoke that all important sensawunda.
The sets are good, being suitably dirty and claustrophobic or impressively large depending on where the characters are. They feel real, even when they are not. If you remember Babylon 5 fondly, I think you will be impressed by how far TV space stations have come.
The other thing worth noting is the camera which floats and spins around, perfectly emphasising the zero-g nature of the environments or zooms in uncomfortably close to the characters faces, forcing you to feel their claustrophobia. It adds a lot to the atmosphere of the show.
It's a Matter of Character
Right now, going only from what has aired I think the characters are the weakest part of The Expanse. With the advantage of knowing what is to come, I fully expect that to change.
The actors seem at least solid in their roles but most of them haven't really had much screen time yet. Basically if you're not Holden or Miller you've only got to say a few lines if anything. And even those two feel pretty cliched. Yup, it's a cynical and world weary detective, whose ever seen one of those before!
All I can really say is give it time. Those characters will get deeper as the story unravels. There's a certain pulp feel to the source material but they are far more than the one note they've had a chance to play so far.
Should I Watch This?
If you like space based scifi then yes you absolutely should watch this. The show is not without flaws, but it has enormous potential and I enjoyed it.