First look UK TV review: The Expanse Season 4
Ian Winterton | On 13, Dec 2019
Since its first episode aired on SyFy back in 2015, The Expanse has garnered a dedicated army of followers who – in true fandom tradition – campaigned to save the show in the wake of its cancellation. Jeff Bezos, apparently a fan himself, came riding in with saddle bags stuffed with cash, and The Expanse was reborn. Has his faith been rewarded? Based on the first half of Season 4, the answer is, sadly, not quite.
Season 3 ended on a stonking high, as the extra-terrestrial intelligence behind the mysterious “proto-molecule” opened up a huge wormhole – The Ring – leading to another part of the Galaxy replete with habitable planets. Humanity was to become, at last, an interstellar species. The prospect of seeing the saga’s grand themes – the angels (love, kindness, friendship) and demons (money, politics, tribalism) of our nature vying for supremacy – played out on a new and wider stage was tantalising.
Unfortunately, Season 4 doesn’t – based on the opening five episodes – come anywhere close to living up to that promise. What we get instead is a dialled-down version of The Expanse, sluggish, poorly plotted and pedestrian. The main spine of the story sees the crew of the Rocinante sent on a mission by United Nations Secretary General Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo) through The Ring to one of the 1,300 new worlds, New Terra. The intention was clearly to showcase the tensions between the various factions in one isolated spot, but the result seems to be a narrative cul-de-sac.
This is still The Expanse, though, and there are still many reasons to still tune in. Firstly, thanks to the source novels by S.A. Corey (the pen name of authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck), the socio-political backdrop remains intriguing, as we’re told there’s a blockade on The Ring, ostensibly to protect putative pioneers from the unknown alien menace – but, in the views of many of the solar system’s poor, huddled masses, to keep the planets pristine until the corporations can carve them up.
Already scratching a living on New Terra are a colony of Belters, refugees from Ganymede Station (destroyed during the first battle of the Earth-Mars war in Season 2) who name it Ilus after the mythical king and brother of Ganymede. They claim squatters rights and discover a vast deposit of lithium, which doesn’t go down well with corporation Royal Charter Energy (RCE) who hold legal mining rights to the planet. With their ship in orbit, an RCE drop-ship heads planet-wards and – BOOM! – a crash-landing kills half the crew.
Leading the RCE survivors is officious and brutal security chief Murtry (Burn Gorman, best known as Owen in Torchwood), who, suspecting Belter terrorism, begins a murderous suppression of the squatters. The Rocinante crew are stuck in the middle, of course, with Naomi (the excellent Dominique Tipper) – a Belter herself – siding with the underdog. Amos, being blessed with a childlike neutrality, starts a sexual relationship with Murty’s lieutenant, Chandra Wei (Jess Salgueiro) although he makes it clear he’ll kill anyone – even her – who threatens his crew mates.
The Belters themselves are represented by Lucia (Rosa Gilmore), a med-tech who is perhaps not as peace-loving as she at first appears. Altough Episode 1 sees Alex (Cas Anvar) flirting with Lucia, it’s Naomi with whom she bonds; both women are Belters who have, at one time or another, turned to political violence.
This developing friendship is one of the highlights of the first half of the season, as is anything involving Naomi. Tipper continues to play her brilliantly – which is a much-needed antidote to Steven Strait’s tiresome brooding-hero shtick as Holden. Particularly pleasing are the hints of her past. “I was young and in love with a boy who had a crazy plan,” she tells Lucia, before going on to detail a horrific and traumatic event in her past that – if other storylines converge – could be coming back to haunt her real soon.
While the story on Ilus unfolds with glacial slowness, one will look in vain for the other plot-lines to pep things up. Chrisjen is now facing an election which is downright dull, especially considering last season we were treated to the twists and turns of her thwarting of a deadly conspiracy; now they have her appearing on the 23rd Century equivalent of Question Time. And, while Belter rebels-turned-law-enforcement double-act Drummer (Cara Gee) and Ashford (David Strathairn) are as delightfully watchable as ever, they’re not given a lot of screen-time at this stage – although there are hints that they’ll be heading to Ilus soon.
Bobbi Draper returns too, the kick-ass Martian marine now working in a dead-end job. She’s blackmailed into working for a crime boss and… That’s it. No thrills, spills, gunfights or intrigue. Just more plodding through a series of uninspired plot points. Her whole arc of five episodes could have been achieved in Episode 1 – and then perhaps we’d get to something interesting.
This malaise is repeated throughout all the story-lines so that the first half of the season is by far the dullest The Expanse has ever been. Even the chaotic and flawed Season 2 was redeemed by its energy and good humour, but Season 4 is as dreary and uninspiring as the barren planet upon which most of it is set.
But this is still The Expanse, and much that made it great is still present and correct. As Episode 5 ends on what is – please, God – a stakes-raising plot development, here’s hoping the second half of the season rewards the faith of its loyal fans. If it doesn’t, it’ll be the biggest TV letdown since you-know-who became ruler of Westeros.
The Expanse Season 1 to 4 is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.