Two centuries into the future, humanity has spread throughout the inner Solar System. Mars is a thriving colony with a powerful navy intent on challenging the dominance of an overpopulated and declining Earth. The newer colonies in the Belt, who are supplying Earth’s raw materials and Mars’ water, are trying to assert their independence against these two powers effectively locked in Cold War. Against this background, an incident at the fringe of human space threatens to ignite tensions into a full blown interplanetary conflict: the ice hauler Canterbury is destroyed near the rings of Saturn and the survivors publicly blame it on the nearby Mars Navy ship who rescues them. On Ceres, the local detective Joe Miller is on the trail of a missing rich girl from Earth and soon runs into the Belter Resistance. Meanwhile on Earth, UN Deputy Undersecretary Chrisjen Avasarala is trying to prevent the war by any means necessary – including torture and betraying old friends.
I picked up the first season of The Expanse as it recently became available worldwide on Netflix and ended up completely underwhelmed. I’ve read many praises and comparisons with the recent Battlestar: Galactica but I didn’t see any convincing evidence of similar quality. The scenes starring Chrisjen have real depth, a sense of intrigue and impending threat that must be dealt with. But otherwise detective Miller is running around in the Ceres tunnels beating the crap out of criminals, getting wasted and making enemies. Jim Holden and the other survivors of the Cant are jumping from one tense situation to the next with barely a scratch and manage to get hold of a new state-of-the-art ship in the process. Some of the scenes showing critical events in the past or other parts of the solar system can be confusing, as it’s not very clear how they relate to current characters. Unfortunately, we’re spending too much time following Miller and Holden and much less with Chrisjen.
The plot enfolds very slowly until the last two or three episodes. The background world is interesting, but, as I remarked in my review of Red Mars, it’s a little implausible to reach such massive space-based development in a relatively short time – especially Mars being on the same technological level as Earth in a little under two centuries stretches belief. Some of the technology looks familiar and natural, for example the way Miller flicks videocalls from his ‘smartphone’ to his ‘desktop’ when in his room. But many others look forced in the interest of advancing the plot or simplified filming. Travel times between asteroids and planets are flat out ignored, a nice convenience to keep things short, but for which the show offers no real explanation – it would have been relatively easy to mention improved drive technology. At some point, Miller recovers a data chip from a dead body, remarking its high level of encryption, but in the next episode he is shown accessing the data without any outside assistance. I take issue with the size of the Martian rescue-ship that later becomes the Rocinante – I have to wonder how large the original warship was to hold such a spacious lifeboat.
The way the show decided to portray movement in a zero-g environment is also distracting: people move around as if under normal gravity most of the time, until they detach their magnetic boots and start slowly floating in front of the others. It makes for some cool shots of suspended blood drops at some point, but otherwise a poor decision. A more realistic scene shows Chrisjen torturing a Belter spy by simply keeping him under normal Earth gravity and air pressure – being born in a lower gravity, this puts his body and lungs under tremendous stress.
The first season has its high points, but overall I found it too flat and unimpressive. Clearly, I’m a minority opinion here, since it was already renewed for a second season. I might watch it despite my poor impression so far just so I don’t have to read the books – a choice I made with Game of Thrones as well.