The term “space opera” was coined as a way of distinguishing a particular form of science-fiction melodrama, one that could blend futuristic warfare, derring-do, and—usually—romance, all with the same elegant bombast and larger-than-life storytelling of classical entertainment like Wagner’s Ring cycle. (It’s no coincidence that one of the standard-bearers of the brand, Stephen R. Donaldson’s Gap series, is directly based on the narrative from that famous performance piece.)
Based on a series of novels by James S.A. Corey (the pen name of series writers Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck), Syfy’s The Expanse is the latest program to try to capture that elusive formula. On the genre scale, it’s roughly one-third of a success. But that’s because, at its heart, it’s only one-third of a space opera. It’s also one-third pulpy detective noir, and another third choppy political intrigue. That’s not to say that a space opera can’t encompass all of these elements; it’s only to point out that, at least for the first four episodes, this show keeps these disparate elements far away from one another, as though it’s not yet sure how to blend them together in a winning manner. As a result, it can feel like watching three different shows at once. More accurately, it feels like watching one long movie, broken into 10 parts, that has yet to bring its various moving parts together in a satisfyingly Babel-like fusion.
Set in the 23rd century, it tells the story of a solar system riven into three distinct societies. First, there’s Earth, the traditional and upper-crust-aspiring world now run by the United Nations and representative of a pluralistic but decadent culture. Then there’s Mars, having been colonized and transformed into an independent, militaristic world, focused on a more restrictive and unitary belief system and organization. Lastly, there’s the asteroid belt, which for all intents and purposes might as well be nicknamed “the proletariat”: it’s the working-class outpost upon whose industrial mining efforts, we’re assured in an opening text crawl, the inner planets depend. Frustrated at being treated like second-class citizens, the “belters” see themselves as the oppressed and hardscrabble backbone of all the societies, and a well of revolutionary fervor is bubbling up through its populace. In case that setup isn’t enough to let you know these three cultures are teetering on the precipice of war, that same opening exposition helpfully tells you so.
And because this show is enamored of its tripartite schemas, the narrative is similarly divided in three. We’re first introduced to Detective Josephus Miller (Thomas Jane, in full-on noir gumshoe mode and loving it, even with a hairdo that makes him resemble a bedraggled member of Flock Of Seagulls), a cop on the asteroid belt outpost Ceres whose moral flexibility and hard-living ways clue us in that he’ll be the guy getting in over his head when he’s assigned to locate the missing daughter of one of the solar system’s wealthiest families. Then, we leapfrog over to near Saturn, where we meet Second Officer Jim Holden, on board the Canterbury, whose crew makes the fateful decision to respond to a distress call from an out-of-the-way vessel, essentially providing an Alien-like beginning to this part of the story. The final third of The Expanse’s planet-hopping plots resides back on Earth, where we meet a cosmopolitan but willing-to-torture-suspects U.N. undersecretary named Chrisjen Avasarala, whose political maneuvering and power plays to maintain peace we know will eventually play a major role, because she’s portrayed by the perfect-voiced Shohreh Aghdashloo.
These respective storylines feel a bit disjointed in the early going, because the show has a hard time making them flow organically from one to the next, with the attempt to give each one a distinct flavor actually harming more than helping the overall pace. The Blade Runner-esque grit and grime of Miller’s Ceres-set investigation feels a million miles away from the outer space action-adventure of Holden’s small crew, and even farther from the U.N. undersecretary’s machinations, which makes for lumpen plotting, even if it does align nicely with the actual distance in space these various locations reside. The Earth-based politics get the worst of this trade-off, with the show’s momentum often grinding to a halt whenever it turns to Avasarala’s diplomatic intricacies, despite Aghdashloo’s best efforts to imbue them with some weight. And the hunt for the missing girl has intriguing possibilities, as it quickly develops connections with Holden’s deep-space dangers, but the division of labor means we don’t get enough time with either Miller, his compatriots, or the case in the first few episodes. That fleeting amount of time means each scene has a lot of heavy lifting to do, and it often sacrifices more fundamental character development for the world-building and “just the facts, ma’am” requirements of the case.
Luckily, this series eventually finds its footing. By the third episode, we’ve developed clear stakes for at least one of these narratives: Holden and his small band of tough travelers find themselves pawns in a larger battle for control among Mars, the belt, Earth, and an unknown participant in the events, whose actions seem designed to fuel a full-scale conflagration among all parties. Perhaps because this story is also traditionally the easiest to invest with urgency (when you’re in a small metal box with a few others you don’t fully trust, surrounded by the deadly void of space, every action potentially holds life-or-death ramifications), it becomes the central arc around which the other two pivot, albeit with increasing relevance and interest.
The other area in which The Expanse excels is its world-building. Like many other science fiction shows, it’s never more happy than what it’s creating the minutiae and day-to-day elements of a futuristic culture. (Certainly it takes precedence over the dialogue, which often devolves into either future-slang gobbledygook too pleased with its own cleverness, or hammering home on-the-nose character exchanges like, “Maybe what you hate about me the most is I remind you of yourself.”) The dingy atmosphere of Ceres looks great, set off as it is against the upper levels of the outpost, in which wealthier supervisors look out over picaresque greenery. And the production makes the most of its budget, using some of the same tricks as Battlestar Galactica to give a sense of epic scope and intricacy in design, even when trapped in what are essentially the equivalent of bottle-episode limitations. When the Mars culture make its first real appearance, the differentiation with the Belt’s ship is striking, looking more like something from the set of Tron than from the show.
Ultimately, the series seems frustrated by the limitations of the episodic nature of television. The places where each installment ends often appear borne more of necessity than of storytelling verve. Like Amazon’s similarly good-looking but unsteady The Man In The High Castle, The Expanse has a compelling story to tell, but is somewhat unwilling to play to the strengths of its format. But unlike that series, Syfy’s latest picks up steam as it pushes forward, gaining confidence that the audience will be along for the interplanetary ride. By the fourth episode, it’s firing on (mostly) all thrusters, with thrilling heroics, shocking deaths, and a sense of urgency building across the various narrative threads. It still can’t seem to figure out what to do with the sodden mess that is Earth, but then again, neither can the rest of us. As with most pulpy sci-fi fun, the good stuff is happening far, far away.