Television, whether traditional broadcast or contemporary streaming, has not been one of my main past times for a long while. The last legacy TV show I watched and followed in earnest was likely 24, some 15-20 years ago. That was back when a season truly referred to a season, as in 24 to 26 episodes, literally a half year’s worth of weekly entertainment. I am sure my perspective is outmoded given this ancient context. Entering the modern era of 10-episode seasons, I did follow religiously the 21st century’s reboot of one of my all-time favorites, Doctor Who, until my interest in The Doctor’s fate waned.
Within the past decade, I have watched several shows on probably two streaming services. Nothing catches my attention to the point I am enamored such that I binge-watch consecutive shows in one setting, or that I look forward with delightful anticipation for the start of a new season. The last time I did so was as a kid, when I fretted the entire summer on whether Commander Riker was truly going to fire at and kill Locutus nee Captain Jean-Luc Picard, effectively a lifetime ago.
(And for the record, the last time I was all-in waiting for a movie’s debut was 1994’s Star Trek Generations. If you felt the anticipation too, you likely also appreciate the subsequent disappointment and understand why I stopped anticipating movies thereafter.)
Currently I only have Amazon Prime Video as a default, bundled choice, and you probably do as well, at the least. Within the past three to four years, I have watched a handful of shows dedicated to that service. They come and they go with their brief seasons lasting the aforementioned 10 episodes, and sometimes getting up to a whopping 13. This is a mixed bag. While these seasons are short by historical standards, it may be better to have a more concise narrative than one necessarily drawn out to fill a mandated elongation.
And within that handful of Amazon-delivered shows I had the opportunity to watch over the past year-and-a-half were the six seasons of The Expanse. It caught my interest being a sci-fi-ish space show, perhaps like a modern-day Star Trek, I thought. And so I began watching, and with the apparent final show having recently aired on Amazon, decided to take a moment to discuss the show in total, with focus on how it used our Solar System as its principle location.
Genres in Question
Before continuing, a refresher on the differences among science-fiction, “sci-fi,” and fantasy is in order:
- Science fiction: to make the impossible possible, with a rational and believable explanation for how something of fancy could become reality. The novels of H.G. Wells are the best classic examples, as his extraordinary stories always carried with them a fictitious or even semi-plausible reasoning for how the circumstances of the story came about. His Martians, Moon travel, invisible man, and giant humans did not simply come about but were founded is a reasonable understanding of what could potentially be achieved through the knowledge of science.
- Fantasy: to make the possible impossible. A story of fantasy does not hinge upon explanations within their narrative. Magic and dragons are remedial examples. There is no reason to know why Bilbo Baggins goes on an adventure to find a terrible fire-breathing dragon, or how the dragon came about. Normally there are some bounds around fantasy, to prevent characters from being omnipotent, but they never require the rigor of a science fiction explanation.
- “Sci-fi”: A term for genres focused on the extraordinary and bizarre for their pulp entertainment value. Monsters and aliens in space, and space battles with lots of explosions, are common examples. Think Starship Troopers.
Early in its run, The Expanse was firmly encroached with sound science fiction directives. The foundation of a populated Solar System with a means to transverse it was then implanted with the story’s fantasy arc, the hunt for and ultimate manifestation of an alien technology that had been discovered within the Solar System. Through its strongest seasons, the show kept the “sci-fi” aspects to a minimum, but unfortunately ended its tenure devolving into intra-stellar bickering capped off by melodramatic space combat.
I was initially drawn to keep watching the show by how our Solar System, in this fictitious future, was leveraged in its entirety for story placement. While it is a somewhat depressing future, it was nevertheless believable, in an era where space propulsion makes traveling the inner planets akin to continental railroad in the 19th century, and journeying to the asteroid belt and the giant planets beyond like global navigation during that same century. Though time was not kept as precise in any form in the this television series (perhaps it was more accurate in the foundation novels), I got the impression that inner planet travel could be as little as days depending on planetary alignment, with Earth-to-outter planets taking weeks if not months. Perhaps a few weeks to Jupiter from Earth, with the proper alignment. A better comparison to Jupiter may be of Lewis and Clark reaching the Mississippi on their way to the Pacific, and to Uranus, if you had any reason to travel so far, by making it past the Rocky Mountains.
The State of the Solar System
In the universe of The Expanse, Earth is obviously the mother planet, but it seems horribly overpopulated. And though it is not directly conveyed, this overpopulation primarily exists off of the welfare of the global state, to simply exist for existence sake. Earth may be the most developed planet, but it is no longer innovative, surviving by the gresse of civilization forged through centuries, now with no clear direction or purpose beyond sustaining the masses.
The Moon’s political placement in this future is unclear. Earth’s natural satellite is fully developed, colonized, and populated, and yet not independent from Earth – not a colony but more of an appendage. The Moon’s most obvious function in The Expanse was as a safe haven for Earth’s elite when things went bad on the Terran surface.
Mercury and Venus are not populated at all, for reasons that are obvious today. They are simply too inhospitable to support life, even in bio-domes. This is where Mars fits in, as the only other planet besides Earth with the potential to support life. Humans living on Mars consider themselves Martians, and the government and its people have a singular focus – to terraform Mars into a truly livable planet. The effort is enormous and may not be completed in the current generation’s lifetime. So unlike Earth which no longer espouses drive or ambition, Mars clearly has a planetary mission that pushes its ingenuity. In this future, Martian technology is superior to Earth’s, which fosters a planetary-wide superiority complex against the rest of the Solar System.
Beyond the four inner planets is “The Belt,” or as we know it today, the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. It’s obvious from the beginning of the show that this region of the Solar System is the true frontier of its time. Littered with Earth’s colonies for profitable mining operations, there are many similarities to America’s Old West. Though ostensibly under the control of Earth, degrees of lawlessness and criminal activity thrive by the nature of The Belt’s remoteness and isolated provincial authorities. An interesting facet of Belters, as the residents of The Belt are known, is that since they spend their lives in no or low gravity, they are physically incapable of setting foot on Earth because they cannot handle the planet’s natural gravity (without, possibly, medical assistance, which as we learn later, is feeble and brief at best).
Past The Belt are the outer planets, the distant region of the Solar System occupied by Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Within the initial story context, little is revealed about this area, though it becomes more prominent as the seasons of The Expanse progress. Noteworthy and without spoilers is that Ganymede, one of Jupiter’s four Galilean moons, is an agricultural colony and key supplier of food for The Belt.
What I am getting at with these location descriptions is that the story telling of The Expanse did a marvelous job using the map of our Solar System to create this futuristic drama. Anyone who watches the first several seasons will gain an understanding at least of the names of a number of the planets and major asteroids. If you had never heard of Ceres, you will surely know about it by the end of season one.
The Dangers of Space Travel
Working in concert with the state of this futuristic Solar System is the means by which humans transverse these enormous distances. Following true science fiction form, there is a sound explanation, revealed as the show unfolds, for the extraordinary propulsion means that allows travel to even the outer planets in reasonable time. But unlike most fictional space travel which always seems no less risky than commercial air travel, the extreme attainable speeds in The Expanse come at the cost of extreme gravitational forces. Travel too fast and the g-forces on humans may become unbearable, and can even be fatal, as shown on several occasions.
The high speeds and gravitational forces manifest their risks most acutely in space combat, where abrupt changes in spacecraft direction, whether through intentional navigation or collisions, create a pearl for humans which is both chilling and believable. And continuing to be as true to the real dangers as possible, The Expanse offers up a secondary dilemma – the risk of decompression. There are no energy shields ala the starship Enterprise. In fact, it is entirely believable that the ships of The Expanse of all sizes small and large, are constructed in principle no differently than an Apollo lunar capsule or a space shuttle, made of some metal alloy, albeit unassumingly harder than what is presently available in the 21st century. But harder hulls only have to be pierced by even harder bullets.
In our times, we are learning more about the tenable risks of space travel, which can explain in part why it is taking so long to finally send a manned expedition to Mars (among a variety of factors). Fast forward into future combat, and it becomes entirely reasonable to expect crews to don spacesuits due to the risk of bullets breaching their ship and creating vacuum. And to add to the burden, a spacesuit is only as good as the luck which would prevent a bullet from penetrating one’s spacesuit.
Combined with high g-forces, the myriad of problems created by the possibility of decompression help to lend sincere appreciation to the ever-present complications of life for those of The Expanse.
All core science principles aside, the key story driver for The Expanse is clearly in the fantasy realm. From the start of the show, a hunt begins for the mysterious alien technology known as the protomolecule. I do not wish to discuss the depths of this story line, as it plays an integral part to most episodes, and I wish to keep this article mostly spoiler-free. I will note a couple of facets of the protomolecule story line. First is that it gels extremely well with all other story subplots through the first four seasons. The second is that this alien technology is eventually responsible for a major Solar System disruption event, which significantly alters the balance of civilization and power I allude to above.
The protomolecule is fantasy because it is unexplained. There is no contemporary understanding of science which would explain its existence or its powers. The desire to explain the workings of the protomolecle is a key driver for the early subplots. These drives for understanding are mostly abandoned in later seasons; it would have been interesting if the threads of discovery continued and were integrated more fully into the latter stories and ultimate resolutions in the apparent final season. For after the major disruption event, the show did start down the track I though made the most logical sense, that of continuing the hunt for protomolecule understanding beyond the Solar System. But the fantasy aspect, though kept alive in a disjointed manner, ultimately seems to have no relevance or bearing to the conclusion of The Expanse.
Early Impressions for Beginners
If you have not watched The Expanse but are interested in watching its six seasons, I would describe the early general premise as a takeoff on Blakes 7 or Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda. The general notion here is of a ragtag band gaining possession of an all-powerful ship and what they decide to make of the opportunity. A key difference from Roj Blake’s Liberator and Captain Dillon Hunt’s Andromeda, both enormous and imposing ships in their universes, is that the powerful ship of The Expanse, the Rocinante, is a comparatively small Martian gunner, in relative and absolute terms. But the Rocinante‘s description I give here is key, that of being of superior Martian design and of being a gunner ship. Remember from above that bullets in space are a continual worry for all space travelers, so a small, nimble ship that can quickly enter a fight spewing hundreds of bullets poses an amazing danger to its enemies. The danger is so great, I wondered what the point was of making large capital ships in this universe, which are simply a nice easy target for said gunners.
And as alluded above, the show really shines in seasons two through four. I almost stopped watching during the first season, where I found both the storytelling and characters flat, almost as if it were an experimental pilot. At times I would nod off, and I never had a vested interest in the plethora of characters that were routinely killed off horribly unexpectedly. The only notable character from season one is the ostensible main one, James Holden, who ends up as the default captain of the Rocinante. Holden is a prime example of my lack of character interest, because there is no clear reason why he becomes a de facto good guy, as his backstory is never explored in any significant way. He is neither a Roj Blake, an idealistic freedom fighter made criminal by the ruthless and evil Federation, nor a Captain Hunt, last surviving high-guard officer who believes it his sworn duty to restore his destroyed Commonwealth. I could understand the motivations of these two classic heroes, and could invest my interest in them as their shows progressed. But after six seasons of The Expanse, I still don’t know what motivated Holden at his core.
Despite season one’s flatness, or perhaps because of it, something changed for season two, when the characters became far more dynamic and emotional, making me want to follow their stories and become interested in an least some of their fates. These changes in direction helped carry the show through its best seasons. I recommend that if you are like me and get bored with season one, persevere and make it to at least the second season.
Finally, I found the last two seasons, five and six, to be lackluster, especially the latter. As mentioned before, I felt the show had an incredible chance to develop its fantasy angle beyond the Solar System, but instead the attention turned inward toward a renegade Belter faction and interplanetary terrorism. This was unfortunate and executed blandly. This entire story thread could have been cover in a half dozen episodes, not two seasons.
If you are still reading at this point, I thank you, and I appreciate you making it this far. I am not sure if I will do further “reviews,” but thing particular show was closely related to the hobbies and interest and this blogger.
Do you agree with my assessments, if you have already watched The Expanse? Let me know your thoughts, or your own opinions, or impressions of this review, in the comments section.