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Review: The Expanse - (mild spoilers of Episode One).

Review: The Expanse - (mild spoilers of Episode One).

10 episodes. Original date of broadcast - 23 Nov. 2015 to 2 Feb. 2016.  Second season due early 2017.

SyFy's only recent real commitment to a long-running SF drama with at least some money spent on it was formally Defiance. Never the ratings hit it needed to be and in the middle-ground between something like Battlestar and Stargate it never properly landed the audience it needed.

Someone's been paying attention though and the station has slowly been re-positioning itself - Shark Week is all very well, but if every week is Shark Week you're in trouble.  SyFy was in danger of just being the occasional "movie" made by The Asylum, and endless repeats of cheap Canadian procedurals like Continuum and Lost Girl (not a criticism - I like those shows). 

Phase One of this new attitude to programming has already come and gone, with the channel choosing to spend a bunch of cash on smaller, but hard-SF series; Killjoys (slow to start, but decent writing and good casting mean it becomes very watchable after a few episodes - made by the same outfit responsible for Lost Girl) and Dark Matter (cheaper-looking due to the larger cast and sets, writing is seriously patchy and one main actor is painfully wooden - but still reasonably entertaining with a few decent ideas).

Phase Two dropped in the US the two months over Christmas - instantly SyFy's intention to try and re-engage the BattleStar crowd was revealed, as was the question as to what they've been doing with most of their budget.

It's a testiment to the quality of the show that the characters feel as real as they do.

It's not totally unusual for good quality shows not to get picked up immediately - Orphan Black (made by BBC America!) took ages to finally wash up on UK shores and was shoved out on one of the BBC's ghetto-channels (Season 4 looks like it'll be streaming only - WTF?)

The problem here?  It's a whole year between the end of Season 1 and the start of Season 2.  So UK SyFy are almost certainly sitting on Season 1 until new episodes are closer to arriving and they can actually build an audience on the thing.

The setup is pure space-opera.  Earth and Mars have fought a war and Mars has earned its independence, at least temporarily.  An uneasy peace-treaty means that the resources (water, minerals - you name it, they don't exist anywhere else) from the asteroid belt are able to be traded to the two factions. 

The Earth is depicted as all clean lines, bright and a little sterile, the Martians are purposely kept in the background for sometime and depicted as overtly militaristic.  Finally, there's The Belt itself.  Blowing up asteroids for minerals and digging tunnels in poor conditions means many Belters (you only get that title if you were born there) die early and can't move away even if they make enough money - life in low gravity kills bone density; trying to live on a planet would be a death sentence.

Joe Miller isn't a Belter, despite the years spent there.  Seen as scum as many, he's also a cop, which means some of the more unpleasant folk on The Belt don't look too kindly on him.  He's been everywhere, done everything, seen everything and he washed up here.  He's going nowhere.  Then a missing person's case drops on his desk.

If you think that looks intense you should see the last couple of episodes.

When we're not following Joe and his investigation we're in space.  Deep space.  A woman called Julie Mao is part of a crew that seems to have ties to a militant Belter operation.  They're waiting for something, but not what actually comes.  A gunship that should have no clue where they are appears from nowhere, shoots the hell out of them and troops board.  They massacre the crew, missing a hiding Julie, and remove a mysterious cargo.  Time passes and she comes out of hiding, makes a horrifying discovery and sends out a distress call.

A freighter, The Canterbury, is passing in the general area - but it's still some distance.  Also, such pleas for help are often pirate traps.  Despite it being against company policy, there's a vote.  Screw the distress call.

The crew wakes, of course, to find themselves pretty-much parked next to the derelict ship.  Accusations fly as to who changed course, but that doesn't change anything.  The decision is made to go have a look - the thing that freaked Julie Mao out is discovered and everyone decides it's time to leave.

Then, in a repeat of the first attack, a heavily armed gunship shows up and obliterates The Canterbury.  A small number of "good"-guys escape aboard a shuttle.

It's this group that the show largely goes to when we're not following Joe Miller down his rabbit-hole on The Belt.  They careen from one untrustworthy "ally" to another gradually getting a sense of what's actually happening and how it's all so much bigger and sinister than they could have thought.  Everyone is manipulating everyone.

There are a fair number of exploding ships, Joe smacking people down, Joe catching regular beatings of his own and the occasional riot - but it's a slower, in a good way, show than you expect.  It's actually more of a three-pronged mystery; what the hell is that cargo, who do those mystery attack ships belong to and, of course, where did Julie Mao go?  And you have three separate groups trying to figure it out, each with different pieces of the puzzle.  

It's something of a slow-burner with a lot of time seemingly spent in interrogation rooms, but it's deliberate and it builds to something very solid.  Thomas Jane is either phoning in his performance or he was just born for it, as he absolutely nails the world-weary, just getting through another day, thing.  Until the story needs him to get invested.  And then he does. 

The build is worth it.  The last few episodes go places you kind of expected they would but not in a way you could have guessed - horrors glimpsed near the beginning of the Season develop into full-on levels of hell and you'll possibly, literally, be on the edge of your seat when the shit really hits the fan.  It's not all tease either - a bunch of the questions that drove the whole season get answered.  Some of it is tragic, some terrifying, but for every question finally answered there is, of course, at least a new one that pops up.

I mean, what the hell are those Mormons really up to?


Chris Coates

Images and video property of the SyFy channel.
Why Fallout: New Vegas was a narrative car-crash and why some people love it.

Why Fallout: New Vegas was a narrative car-crash and why some people love it.

Music: Covers that are better than the originals - Ma Benz by Brigitte

Music: Covers that are better than the originals - Ma Benz by Brigitte