Based on the James S.A. Corey (Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) series of the same name, The Expanse is set some hundreds of years in humanity’s future, at a point where humans have colonized Mars and all but mastered space travel. Still, for all that humanity has achieved in the show’s world, for all the technological innovation that has given humankind command over space—space!—The Expanse doesn’t for one second pretend that this means our instinct to tribalize, to villainize the Other as an existential threat is going to just disappear. Insecure over their continued dependence on Earth as they continue the long, painful process of terraforming, Martians have evolved into a highly militarized society, whose brinksmanship with the United Nations-controlled Earth has resulted in a precariously balanced Cold War. The Belters, meanwhile, feel even less independent and more dismissed, way out in the dark of the asteroid belt, with overcrowded stations that never have enough food, medicine, or gravitational therapy, and thus have, in their turn, begun to form guerrilla OPA (Outer Planet Alliance) cells of rebellion with more than a shade of Ireland’s IRA. In the meantime, a mysterious cabal of mercenary capitalists have discovered and begun tests to weaponize a sentient alien protomolecule, because, duh, if it can be weaponized, man will find a way.
Navigating this complex web of political, martial, and existential intrigue are a rogue collection of freelancers-turned-outcasts aboard the stolen Martian gunship Rocinante—including Earther captain Jim Holden (Steven Strait), Belter engineer Naomi Nagata (Dominique Tipper), Earther mechanic/muscle Amos Burton (Wes Chatham), Martian pilot/ex-Marine Alex Kamal (Cas Anvar), and, as of halfway through season two, Belter botanist Dr. Prax Meng (Terry Chen), one of the few survivors of the devastation of Ganymede station—who stumble into the role of vigilante heroes early in the first season and remain on the run from all authorities thereafter. On Earth, U.N. Undersecretaries Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and Sadavir Errinwright (Shawn Doyle) and Avasarala’s personal spy, Cotyar (Nick E. Tarabay), negotiate and scheme in equal measure, while Gunnery Sergeant Bobbie Draper represents the Martian agenda and Drummer (Cara Gee), Anderson Dawes (Jared Harris), and Fred Johnson (Chad L. Coleman) take up the triumverate approach to the Outer Planets’ cause out in the Belt. Their arc is finished, but in the first two seasons, Belter detective Joe Miller (Thomas Jane) gumshoes his way after missing Earther heiress/revolutionary, Julie Mao (Florence Faivre).
It is, in two words, A Lot. In the wrong hands, it might even be Too Much. But under the watchful eye of series creators Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby (Iron Man, Children of Men), and with both members of James S.A. Corey’s real-life writing team heading up the writers room, as well as SyFy’s full support (and budget) behind it, The Expanse is not just spectacular, but, in the most literal sense, epic.
To render the complexity of the nine-novels-and-counting story, the creative team has gone all in on the visual style. Every shot on The Expanse is artful. Every sequence in low- or zero-grav, a meticulously crafted ballet. While the series is shot in a washed-out cool blue, it is overlaid with a rich, moody pallet of deep blue, purple, red, green, and blinding white that fills the dark frames of sunless ships and stations and subterranean lunar corridors with vibrant life, reflecting the richness of the human experience even in the dead vacuum of space. Planet-side, this richness is condensed in the lush wardrobe and ostentatiously over-large jewels of humanity’s greatest defender, the pirate-mouthed Avasarala. The protomolecule’s eerie cerulean luminescence, meanwhile, is just as vibrant, but stands out in stark contrast to the warmer tones humanity is surrounded by. Not one frame on The Expanse passes without asking you to take note of what it’s doing, and what, in the long run, it means.
And this is critical, because the show is doing a lot, and aiming to mean just as much. As season three opened, the extra-solar alien protomolecule that dogged Mars, Earth, and the crew of the Roci has broken free of Pandora’s lunar box. Mars and Earth are micrometers from war. The scrappy, far-flung Belter revolutionaries are suddenly armed to the nuclear teeth. Jim Holden and the Rocinante crew are more dumbly heroic and hunted than ever. Avasarala and Bobbie Draper are finding common ground. Everything is coming to a head.
Seriously, if you’re not already watching this heart-pounding, deeply human show, you’re going to want to set aside a weekend to get caught up. It is only going to get more compelling—and more epically stunning—as the complexity mounts.
The Expanse airs on SyFy on Wednesdays at 9pm ET. Seasons one and two are available streaming on Amazon Prime.