The Expanse Shines as the Premiere Space Opera on TV

– By J.W. Fox –

WARNING: SPOILERS FOLLOW

If you asked someone what is the best space opera on TV, you might hear them say Star Trek Discovery, Orville, or maybe Dark Matter. They would all be wrong. The premiere space opera on TV right now is The Expanse. Hidden on the seldom watched SyFy Channel, it was scooped up by Amazon where it had to finally reach a larger audience. Now more can appreciate this gem of a show.

Based on the series written by James S.A. Corey, The Expanse got its start in 2015 with a modest budget but a dynamite cast. The source material was already popular but not necessarily mind-blowing. The producers took the very best the novels had to offer and demonstrated what 21st century space opera can be. No more Star Trek retreads or Fast & Furious in space.

Of course, the show gets a few things wrong about space travel and offworld habitats, but the effort to build a realistic environment should be appreciated when compared to the far lazier Dark Matter or Discovery. The worldbuilding places right in that awkward area in between today and the utopian future of Star Trek. We’ve colonized worlds, created new countries, but many of our 21st century problems remain.

With the release of Season 4, the show has advanced to the fourth book, Cibola Burn, bringing us to the dawn of a new age of exploration. The ring has opened up access to thousands of worlds for colonization, all without having to figure out FTL travel. The aliens did that for us. The squabbling over access and land claims has begun. Naturally the crew of the Rocinante gets in the middle of it.

Ilus

A small group of belters run the blockade and colonize one of the thousands worlds accessible from the ring. They’ve named it Ilus. On Earth, Secretary Avasrala fears the dangers of colonizing unknown worlds, not the least of which is the threat of the protomolecule. While she struggles to keep explorers and colonists outside the ring, her rivals are seizing on her unpopular blockade.

There are many mysteries and an ongoing blood feud between the Belters and Earthers that have arrived on the planet to investigate. In the middle is the crew of the Rocinante. Captain Holden once again gets to play the enlightened peacemaker, who is always dropping truth bombs on the shortsighted rivals. Despite Holden’s track record of being right and having perfect insight on the aliens, most don’t believe him.

This plot line has great moments but was flawed. For example, the infantilization of the Belters is growing problem for the show. They are portrayed as ignorant space rednecks who seem to get themselves killed in a myriad of ways. Makes one wonder how they’ve managed to survive in space for so long. The tension between Belters and Earthers exploding into violence was predictable. The miraculous truce in the middle of the season was difficult to buy. Earth Security Chief Murtry was a bit cartoonish as the villainous sociopath ready to slaughter his Belter enemies, just needing a pretext.

What worked extremely well was the secondary characters among the Belters and Earthers. Murtry’s second in command begins a fling with Amos, generating some interesting conflicts in loyalty. Naomi’s adjustment to being on-world, was interesting to watch and something other space operas skip over entirely. Having grown up in space, she has never felt the constant pull of a planet’s gravity. Her connection with Lucia and her daughter was a touching moment, especially when they discover a means of saving their disabled ships from falling to the surface.

Holden’s saintly leadership and wisdom are pushing ever closer to Mary Sue/Marty Stu territory. While the plot doesn’t necessarily bend to him, he is steadily becoming too good to be true. Amos is also starting to veer in what feels like a less than authentic direction. The cold sociopath is gone. This Amos feels stuff, and more often than you’d think. Despite this, he and Alex are probably my favorite characters.

Not the Rocinante’s best season but I still love this crew.

The Belt

The anarchical tribalism of the Belt is cool in a way but a little goofy in others. Their accents and ethnicity all tie them almost to the post-colonial experience. Putting them in space and separating them politically and culturally from Earth is something that feels very authentic and real, as if that is exactly what is going to happen. How will we be able to maintain the ties that bind us together when separated by vast distances? Earth is closely connected now. People, products, and information can cross the globe in a week or less. Getting from Earth to the Belt ought to take months, even with the propulsion system invented by the authors.

As discussed above, the Belter plot is troubled with its primitive, even tribal social organizations. It is as if people will move backwards by centuries or millennia. The trial of Marco, the division of Belters in to factions or tribes headed by warlords, the code of honor, their incredibly poor and reckless decisions all paint picture of a people who won’t survive long in space. Yet, they are described as survivors, who have mastered life and work in space.

Some of it is extraordinary threats and the direct attack from Earth and Mars, but if anyone was equipped to adapt to the threat it should be the Belters. Out of all of them, the Rocinante and a few others are the only ones that have been able to adapt.

The exceptions are Drummer and Ashford. Both are fully-developed characters and keen. They see the big picture while no one else around them does. Ashford entered the show as a likely new antagonist but is more of a foil who sits atop the fence between the good guys and the bad guys. He isn’t, or wasn’t, a villain like Mao, Errinwright, or Marco. Drummer is someone never meant for command that is growing into the role. She is a commanding presence and also a favorite character of mine.

If only her Belter brethren weren’t reduced to being such morons.

Mars

Bobbi Draper’s adjustment to civilian life in a post Cold War era was compelling to watch, and on Mars no less. They could not simulate low-g habitats so you just had to ignore the fact that everyone seems to be moving in 1g. The career soldier takes a job dismantling the Martian military industrial complex. Lacking a life purpose, she drones and sees a Mars that is much changed. Corruption is on the rise and the regard for military service is in decline. After saving her nephew from being pulled into drugs, she finds herself caught up in a secret weapons smuggling ring.

Her rejection of Avasarala’s job offer and the tense moment at the summit were some of the best moments of the season. Her story was much more personal but the season ends with her connecting the dots of where the Martian weapons are going leading us to the next great conflict. This really highlights one of the best qualities of this show. Not only do characters change but the world around them changes as well. The dynamic environment and story of The Expanse is on full display in this plot line.

Earth

The grandma with the dirty mouth finds herself in a political position for the first time in her career, General Secretary of the UN. Facing her first election battle, she struggles with balancing her role as protector of Earth with needing to be a good politician to get elected.

Yet again, The Expanse ventures into new territory: Earth politics. While it wasn’t perfectly executed it is still better than any other science fiction or fantasy TV show when it comes to portraying political struggle. The only exception may be Game of Thrones, which obviously didn’t have any elections. Avasarala is a unique character and Shoreh Aghdashloo plays her beautifully. The election strains her relationship with her husband, which played a much bigger role this season.

This is the first time we’ve seen Avasarala completely taken off the board. She no longer has a role in the Earth government and her influence is almost entirely spent. The only thing she has going for her is her vast intelligence network and friends on all sides.

What Isn’t Working

I’ve hit on it twice but it bears repeating: reducing Belters to ignorant space rednecks needs to be pulled back. For several seasons now, Holden has had to save Belters from their own stupidity. Their shortsightedness, immaturity, and paranoid nature comes through in most episodes. There were only a few examples of where they seem to rise above it, although this didn’t always work. When a character has been an idiot all season, it is difficult to accept they have a moment of insight and clarity like some kind of miracle.

The Belters are an excellent contrast to the bureaucratic regime of Earth and the more militaristic Martian society. However, just because a bunch of people want to live on their own in the belt does not mean they’re society will revert to something out of the Middle Ages.

The truth bombs from Holden could also be pulled back. It is his defining feature but for the hero to always have all the answers and do the right thing in all situations is a bit much. Earlier seasons saw Holden making mistakes, just like any person would in his position. There’s no need to make him a saint.

There needs to be some consistency in how Amos is treated. Either he is a sociopath that feels bonded to the Rocinante or he isn’t. One could argue Holden is having an influence on him but his unique character traits are not things that go away easily, if at all. That doesn’t mean he needs to be a serial killer or a constant problem. There is s genuine connection to the Rocinante and crew but there were moments of emotional connection to strangers, which didn’t feel right. The drama and tension of Amos going too far has great potential conflict.

It also makes more sense that it is Naomi that is his anchor more so than Holden, but that is probably just a matter of opinion.

Avasarala needs to grow from her political defeat. The fowl-mouthed grandma has hit a major turning point in her life. It would be a shame to find some deus ex machina way of getting her back her old job. Please don’t do it Amazon.

What Comes Next

The Expanse grows and evolves with every season like no other sci-fi show. Most are far less ambitious and don’t venture too far from the pilot. It can be incredibly insightful at times but it isn’t heavy-handed with social commentary. Holden comes off as a bit of a lecturer but on the whole, the show isn’t a morality tale either. It is about regular people in extraordinary situations. There is a greater mystery unfolding as well, which I hope begins reveal a little more of who the aliens were and what it means for humanity.

By comparison, Dark Matter and Killjoys are both decent shows but are nowhere near as ambitious in plot and lack the casting and production values of Expanse. They are much more pulpy, which doesn’t mean they’re bad. Only that they their ceiling isn’t that high.

Star Trek Discovery doesn’t deserve to have Star Trek in the name. It relies on fan nostalgia combined with the mistaken belief that what people really want from Star Trek is more violence and sex. Granted, it has improved on season 2 but it makes no attempt at plausibility or remaining faithful to its source. It’s philosophical and social commentary are woefully third-rate and, again, rely so much on retreading on issues already explored in previous Star Trek shows.

Orville cannot seem to decide if its a parody or a serious space opera. In many episodes it is as thought-provoking as the original Star Trek that inspired it. In others it is nothing but sophomoric jokes that have built Seth McFarlane’s career. It also tends to rely on homages and guest appearances to keep things lively. One has to wonder how the show would do if Rob Lowe, Charlize Theron, and Jason Alexander didn’t have cameos.

There is a lot of anticipation for Star Trek Picard, but for now The Expanse is the best space opera on TV and arguably the best science fiction show overall.

As in previous seasons, the show gives us a glimpse of things to come. Stealth asteroids are heading towards Earth, sent there by Naomi’s former lover Marco. We learn she has a son that fights alongside his terrorist father. We’ve lost the colorful Ashford, but we know that Drummer and other OPA factions will be gearing up for revenge. Avasarala lost the election and is out of a job but an operator like her will find a way to get back in the game.

Then there’s always the protomolecule.