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‘The Expanse’ Is Lapping Its Science Fiction Competition

Forget ‘Altered Carbon’ and ‘Star Trek’—the space drama you need to be watching is on Syfy

Syfy/Ringer illustration

The third season of The Expanse, Syfy’s ambitious space opera, begins on Venus. It picks up right where Season 2 left off, in the aftermath of a humanity-altering, semi-supernatural event in which a research ship is immaculately disassembled and its crew is left suspended in midair after making contact with a mysterious biological substance. The action then pans to Earth, where there’s discourse over whether recent actions by Martians (that is, humans who colonized and live on Mars) are a prelude to war. Out on Mars at the same time, similar paranoiac conversations are ongoing about “Earthers.” Finally, we see that Earth and Martian ships are also duking it out over Jupiter. Just like that, interplanetary war has begun.

The opening is a massive, solar-system-wide tour of The Expanse played out in miniature — and quite simply, it’s awesome to watch. In just two seasons — Season 3 premieres on Wednesday night — the show has quickly become one of the most compelling small-screen sci-fi shows in the past decade.

But that’s not for a lack of competition. In the past 12 months, there’s been a boom in science fiction: the debuts of Altered Carbon, Counterpart, Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams, and Star Trek: Discovery; new seasons of Black Mirror and Stranger Things; and in the next couple of weeks, Netflix’s rebooted Lost in Space and the second season of HBO’s Westworld premiere. That’s an overwhelming amount of mostly good science fiction. But hear me out: The Expanse is better than all of these shows. Need proof? Thomas Jane is in it and he has the most hideous haircut I’ve ever seen.


Need more proof than that? Fine. Here are five other ways that The Expanse excels over the rest of science-fiction television.

The World-building

The Expanse has a surprising amount in common with Game of Thrones beyond both shows’ wide-ranging political conflicts and supernatural forces that could wipe out all of humanity. (The similarities between Thrones and The Expanse are perhaps unsurprising. The Expanse is also an adaptation of a series of rich novels, James S.A. Corey’s — a pen name for writers Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham — book series of the same name that began in 2011 and is already seven books deep, with nine total books expected to be completed by 2019. Additionally, Abraham has collaborated with George R.R. Martin on several occasions, including a Thrones graphic novel.) Like Thrones, The Expanse has packed its universe with detail, and has done so with subtlety, eschewing the dreaded exposition dumps that plague most shows of its ilk for narrative-driven asides. One of the more underappreciated aspects of Thrones’ first season was Ned Stark’s trip from Winterfell to King’s Landing. Thrones not only used the voyage to develop its characters (that’s when we first realized that Joffrey was the fucking worst), but to literally traverse the world of Westeros and give the audience a better understanding of place, culture, and scale. The Expanse takes a similarly deft approach in communicating its world to the audience, explaining the physics of human space travel in Season 2, for example, with a carefully crafted subplot that has utility beyond mere exposition.

It also helps that The Expanse, like Thrones, begins small before widening its scope. While mankind has been split up into three factions — those living on Earth, those on Mars, and folks around the asteroid belt who are known as Belters — 200 years in the future, the action initially keys in on only two things: (1) a ragtag group of survivors from the Canterbury, an ice freighter that is blown up after answering a mysterious distress call, and (2) a Belter detective (Thomas Jane and the beguiling haircut) who’s attempting to solve a missing persons case that’s somehow connected to the explosion.

Focusing on the diverse Canterbury survivors and Jane’s detective Joe Miller, the show cleverly introduces you to characters that are from Earth, Mars, and the Belt, allowing you to learn about each faction on a microscopic level. From there, it lets you choose your own allegiances. Whereas sci-fi contemporaries like Altered Carbon and Star Trek: Discovery are more black and white about who the good guys and bad guys are in their stories, there’s no faction to immediately root for or against in The Expanse. Creating empathy for all sides of the conflict allows the viewer to understand their actions and behaviors — the Martians, for instance, have a militaristic background — even if you don’t necessarily agree with them. Nevertheless, you’ll most likely fall in love with the scrappy Belters and their bizarrely entertaining accents, which sound like a Die Antwoord spoken-word poem — I’ll let The Terror and Mad Men star Jared Harris take it away:

The Twists

Game of Thrones, which had a trifecta of game-changing twists at the start of its run (Ned Stark’s death, the Red and Purple weddings), led to more and more shows that live and die with their big moments. In shows as disparate as This Is Us (Jack’s death) and American Horror Story (honestly, just pick a season), the goal is to somehow shock the viewer and keep them on their toes, even if it’s at the expense of the story. The Walking Dead rigged its plot to set up a huge cliffhanger about who its new villain Negan killed at the end of its sixth season, but when the time came for the reveal, it was apparent that the show had mistakenly prioritized gratuitous shock value over character development. Television hasn’t always borrowed the best lessons from Thrones.

But The Expanse understands better than most that big, twisty moments shouldn’t make or break a story, and that when those moments do arise, they should be genuinely shocking.

The Expanse’s most surprising moments also happen to be its most subversive — a main character in Season 2, who in most shows might seem infinitely protected by plot armor, is suddenly in mortal danger and might not make it out alive. It feels as though the novels’ coauthor Abraham adopted these strategies from his collaborations with Martin — moments like Ned Stark’s death come to mind — and applied them to a space opera. Watching The Expanse when it’s firing on all cylinders and executing its twists is like witnessing J.R. Smith have one of his scorched-earth shooting runs: You can’t just look away.

The Timely Political Themes (Please Hear Me Out)

I get it: It seems like every TV show or movie is suddenly being spun as a reflection of the divisive times we live in. Not all art does, or has to, serve as a mirror for our current moment. But The Expanse has a lot to say about international relations, and it offers a compelling perspective that toes the line between hopefulness and futility.

The way the series’ antagonists want to weaponize a mysterious extraterrestrial biological substance known as the protomolecule bears some striking parallels to nuclear warfare — boiled down, it is something that would be eminently dangerous in the wrong hands. Replacing China, Russia, or North Korea with planets and interconnected asteroid belt stations, The Expanse posits that 200 years in the future, humans are no less prejudiced. Tribalism still exists, regardless of how much progress has been made in space exploration.

Rather than work together to stop the protomolecule, Earth and Mars are going to war against each other in the third season. The Belters, meanwhile, just got their hands on the protomolecule and plan to weaponize it for themselves. The Expanse is pessimistic about the id of humanity’s future (and current) leaders. But it’s also optimistic about the power of the collective. The Canterbury survivors, with a bit of help, could be just enough to save mankind from itself. Nearly every protagonist is young and every antagonistic character is from an older generation, which doesn’t feel like a coincidence. It’s up to the new generation to rescue mankind from the sins of the past. Sound familiar?

The Stunning Special Effects, Somehow

A big obstacle for The Expanse is the premise: The show jumps through multiple story lines across the solar system. Special effects are more of a necessity for a show like The Expanse than, say, a run-of-the-mill police procedural. Also — no offense! — Syfy hasn’t exactly been a haven of good visuals in recent years. Observe the wintry effects of the Syfy original series Helix at your own risk.

Yet The Expanse looks … surprisingly great? The space battles are thrilling and rooted in as much scientific fact as possible. Syfy has not disclosed how much The Expanse costs to produce, but the network appears to have spared no expense to make the series’ solar system look the best it can. The little details, such as characters in stained, strained suits and cracks on computer monitors, make the world feel lived in. One factor that certainly helps is the repetition of settings: The characters on Earth sit in the same political boardrooms, and the Canterbury survivors spend most of their time on the Rocinante, a Martian attack ship they acquired in the first season.

While there is a backdrop of war this season, The Expanse keeps the focus on the Rocinante crew, who avoid space confrontations. It makes narrative sense, and it saves on the budget, too. And when the action does arrive, it looks like this:

And this:

It might not stack up to the more lavish small-screen sci-fi productions — Altered Carbon (reportedly the most expensive Netflix series to date), Westworld, and Stranger Things — but for a show on a network with far fewer resources, The Expanse is the best you’ll get. And their best is still top-notch.

Shohreh Aghdashloo

A fact: No other sci-fi shows have Oscar-nominated actress Shohreh Aghdashloo. That’s big, because Aghdashloo is a scene stealer and plays possibly the most entertaining character on television who doesn’t go by Wags.

Aghdashloo is Chrisjen Avasarala, a member of Earth’s United Nations and a cunning political strategist. Avasarala has shades of Thrones’ Littlefinger, only she’s more likable and has a far superior wardrobe.

Jason Bell/Syfy

Avasarala’s purpose wasn’t exactly clear in the first season — on Earth, she was removed from most of the action and it felt like she was trapped in a less interesting, interplanetary version of House of Cards. But then she got wind of shadow-government conspiracies on Earth and Mars and the protomolecule, and she started threatening people while dropping F-bombs.

Every time Avasarala drops a caustic one-liner — which is, honestly, at least 75 percent of her dialogue — your soul will be nourished. Nothing will bring you greater joy than Shohreh Aghdashloo chewing up scenery and eviscerating people on The Expanse.

That is a promise, as is this: If you watch The Expanse, you won’t regret it.