“In the 23rd Century, humans have colonised the solar system. The U.N. controls Earth. Mars is an independent military power. The inner planets depend on the resources of the Asteroid Belt. Belters live and work in space. In the Belt, air and water are more precious than gold. For decades, tensions have been rising. Earth, Mars and The Belt are now on the brink of war. All it will take is a single spark.”
So reads the pre-credit crawl of The Expanse, deftly laying out the show’s basic ground rules, before flinging the viewer head-first into its world(s). Agents unknown are trying to turn the Cold War between earth and Mars hot, and the key to who they are and what their game-changing plan is seems to be rich-girl-turned-revolutionary Julie Mao – now missing.
Tasked with tracking her down is grizzled detective Joe Miller (Thomas Jane), who works for corporate law enforcement on dwarf planet Ceres. “There are no laws on Ceres,” he says. “Just cops.” Which suits him fine, until his case finds him a wanted man, hunted by his former colleagues, and on the run.
Yes, it’s a little generic on paper, and the same could be said of the show’s other elements – while Miller brings to mind the sci-fi noir of Blade Runner, we have a team of interplanetary rogues in the Firefly mould, and the futuristic political machinations recall the rebooted Battlestar Galactica. But the thing is – those shows were great fun, and so is The Expanse.
There are plenty of original ideas here, too. Based on a series of novels by James S.A. Corey (in reality the pseudonym of Daniel Abraham, one of the show’s executive producers), it boasts space-faring Mormons, humans altered by a life lived in low gravity, and more future-slang than Judge Dredd and A Clockwork Orange combined.
Its depiction of the future is pleasingly pessimistic and grounded in a grimy reality. As in Alien, everything’s a bit roughed-up and broken, including society – the United Nations might be in charge, but it’s unfettered capitalism that rules, exploiting the underclass Belters to provide resources for those back on Earth. The technology isn’t outlandish, either – here you cannae break the Laws of Physics. No warp drive means humanity’s spread is slow, limited to our own solar system (although the Mormons are hatching plans to go interstellar) and there’s no mention of extra-terrestrial life – at least, not quite…
The production is lavish, never looking anything but utterly convincing, whether we’re on board spaceships, inside sweaty asteroid mines, walking the mean streets of shabby colonial city-domes, or negotiating political intrigue in the gleaming skyscrapers of 23rd century New York. A lot of nifty work has been put into making the zero-gravity scenes believable – there’s a lot of ethereally floating hair, gravity boots and, up front in Episode 1 to get the knuckle-draggers hooked, zero-g sex. (“Stand by for thrust correction,” chirps the on-board computer, sadly not voiced by Kenneth Williams.)
It doesn’t hurt that the producers have assembled a first-rate cast. Thomas Jane is on top form as Miller, sporting a so-bad-it’s-good semi-Mohawk hairstyle – sadly it’s hidden most of the time beneath an awful hat. The other narrative strands revolve around Holden (Steven Strait), moody First Officer of ill-fated Ice Trawler The Canterbury, and his ragtag crew – the standout is London-born actor Dominque Tipper as Nagata – and, on Earth, morally dubious politico Chrisjen Avasarala (Iran’s Shohreh Aghdashloo).
There’s quality support, not least from VODzilla.co favourite Jared Harris – of Mad Men And The Crown – who plays a delightfully bonkers Belter terrorist, whose accent veers wildly between South Africa and Ireland. Also popping up are Breaking Bad’s Jonathan Banks and Chad L. Coleman, better known to The Walking Dead fans as Tyreese.
But where The Expanse really scores is in its fiendishly twisty-turny plot that draws its three disparate strands across the solar system, until, come Episode 10, they converge. It’s expertly structured, with each episode ending on a stonking cliffhanger that’ll have you clicking onto the next instalment. In short, it’s a perfect 10-hour binge-watch. Exactly what VOD was made for. First produced and transmitted on SyFy in 2015, it’s been picked up for streaming by Netflix in all territories outside the US. Season 2 is due in early 2017. Bring it on.
The Expanse is available on Netflix UK, as part of a £7.49 monthly subscription.