Note: while I don’t directly outline the story, it can be argued that reading anything about a topic can influence the reader. So read on at your own risk. (I don’t think there are any major spoilers, but maybe my definition of a spoiler is different to yours.)
When the Internet loves something, it REALLY loves something. It’s a strange phenomenon, really — a couple of websites reach a consensus as to something they like, and then BAM… suddenly everyone likes it, and it starts to get praised like the second coming of the Spaghetti Monster. It happened with Stranger Things (a great show, don’t get me wrong), and it has happened again with The Expanse.
Now, I’m not going to bury the lede — The Expanse is great, and definitely worth watching, but I really don’t think it’s going to appeal to everyone, and in my opinion, there are some issues that keep it from being truly great. In other words, it’s pretty damned good, but don’t believe the hype.
Many articles I’ve read have suggested that anyone interested should start watching without any prior knowledge — just start watching and you’ll be hooked. While I agree with this to an extent (the first episode is likely to hook most viewers), I DEFINITELY needed some more info before I started watching.
For example, try making sense of the Netflix trailer. As someone who has watched the first season, it makes complete sense to me, but before I started, I was just confused. What kind of show is this — pure sci-fi, sci-fi horror, western sci-fi… Just what is it? And how political is it? Am I going to be bored by dull monologue, or is there action and intrigue? The trailer, at least in my opinion, doesn’t do a great job of introducing the show and the characters.
Across these first 10 episodes, The Expanse feels like it crosses a number of different genres, but ultimately, it is true sci-fi in the spirit of Philip K Dick — dark, gritty, and full of high conceptual devices that are complex, yet believable. Later in the series, things tend closer to the horrific, but the story still stays within the realm of science fiction. Space has it’s beautiful places (for the rich and beautiful people), but for the most part, it’s a rough and tough life to lead.
The story follows three main threads: a detective searching for a lost rich girl on a space station in the Asteroid Belt, a politician on Earth, and an ice miner doing his job out in deep space (as both air and water are the most important resources in space, understandably). While the detective and the ice miner are the critical characters, the impact of the political storyline is key to the progression of the story, and never gets overly played out.
Briefly, and without spoiling anything that isn’t explained in the first 10 minutes of episode one, humans have colonised Mars, and have established a major colony in the Asteroid Belt (and there are some smaller colonies on what they refer to as the “Outer Planets” but are never clearly defined). Over time, and given the very different way of life that is experienced at each of these locations, tensions have arisen between the governing forces, and at the time of the first episode, are starting to peak.
Storywise, things progress relatively quickly. Seemingly important characters die. Mysterious forces antagonise. Deception and intrigue develop around every corner. The conclusion to the main story itself is both anti-climactic AND climactic, which is hard to explain without completely ruining the story, but suffice it to say that one aspect of the main story thread feels unfulfilling at its resolution, but in doing so, it kicks off something new.
As you can probably tell, by the time I came to the end of Season 1, I was a fan, but there were a number of things that irritated me.
- The crazy language spoken in the belt. It’s a great concept, and it makes perfect sense — over time, the belters (as they are wont to call themselves) have developed their own culture and their own language (and are also otherwise abnormal, developmentally — weirdos). However, the language itself sounds somewhat unwieldy, and at times, extremely unnatural. I guess it’s hard for an actor to pretend to be natively speaking a language they’ve never spoken before, but sometimes it’s portrayed perfectly, and other times, it’s clumsy. It ended up becoming a distraction.
- Casting. For the most part, the casting is pretty good — the main characters play their roles well, but I have one gripe, and again, it’s more of a distraction than an issue… The actress portraying the Earthen politician (Shohreh Aghdashloo) has a very distinctive voice, making her an interesting casting choice. On one hand, her distinctive tone makes her sound somewhat authoritative, but on the other, it feels a little out of place. It also felt at times that she was putting emphasis in (what I felt were) the wrong places, but hey — everyone’s a critic.
- Technology. In many cases, the technology was believable. It’s not a huge stretch of the imagination to consider that future mobile devices would potentially look like the devices used by characters in The Expanse. It’s also not that much of a stretch to believe that users will be able to talk to these devices like they are talking to another person, but at times it felt a little forced. In contrast, the fact that characters carried around bargaining chips as stand-ins for cash just didn’t make much sense to me, nor did the existence of a pachinko parlour at one point (a pachinko parlour that looks exactly like they do today REALLY stood out in this particular episode).
- The detective’s hair. GodDAMN it annoyed me. Far more than it probably should have. The long strands that often hung down one side of his face were exceedingly distracting. It looked just fine when it was brushed back, but when it fell forward, I kept thinking to myself “why isn’t he getting that greasy shit out of his eyes???”
- The Martians. Mars plays a very major role in the storyline, but every time a Martian is on screen, they are portrayed as highly militant, and in some ways, felt like the bad guys. The role that Earthers play in this world is very clear, as is that of the belters, but the Martians were really undeveloped and unclear. I hope that is rectified in Season 2.
I guess it’s not terribly easy to get a lot of this exactly right — especially in a TV show with limited time and budget. Overall, they did a great job, and it’s likely that much of the technology, language, and history is probably explained quite well in the books that the series is based on (which I now feel compelled to read) — and this deep backstory never translates well to film.
My recommendation is to watch The Expanse if you have any interest in sci-fi — it’s worth watching for the suspense and intrigue alone, even if the conclusion feels a little conflicting. Realistically, the conclusion leads viewers towards what is likely to be a killer Season 2 and I’m keen to see where this is going to go… If you’re not a fan of sci-fi, or don’t care either way, I’d still suggest giving the first episode a watch. There’s enough there to hook you if you are going to be hooked, and if not, well, you only wasted 40 minutes of your life, stop complaining.