The Expanse: Political Drama in a Sci-Fi Setting

Amazon Prime Video took the streaming entertainment industry by storm with the release of its show The Boys back in 2019. In a genre saturated by Disney/Marvel with the occasional hit-or-miss DC movie, The Boys was a welcome surprise, and made me realize that I could get more value out of my Amazon Prime membership besides free two-day shipping. That, combined with my recent interest in various science fiction works, led me to The Expanse, another show hosted on Amazon’s video streaming platform. I was a bit hesitant to give the show a try at first, as I usually do not have the patience to commit to long-running shows (especially when each episode is 45 minutes). Fortunately I did, because The Expanse is an excellent show and a must-watch for anybody who enjoys science fiction, or even just character dramas.

The interesting thing is that The Expanse is originally a book series, written by Dan Abraham and Ty Franck. It takes place in a futuristic setting, where humanity has expanded beyond Earth to the rest of the solar system. There are three major factions at play: Earth, Mars, and the Belt. Mars has been colonized and its denizens are currently undergoing a terraforming project to try and turn the planet into something as habitable as Earth. The Belt is named after the asteroid belt, and is made up of the people who live in various space stations that have been established there, with the intent of taking advantage of the abundance of resources found in asteroids like frozen water. However, not everything is fine and dandy, and relationships between the three factions are not exactly great. Earth and Mars are in a sort of cold war, and the Belt generally resents both planets, seeing them as oppressors who exploit it for its resources. There are plenty of key characters who play different roles in the story, but the central narrative focuses on the crew of the ship Rocinante, led by an Earth-born human named James Holden.

The best way to describe The Expanse would be a political character drama with science fiction elements and influences. A big part of the narrative focuses on how the cast deals with extrasolar technology, but generally less attention is focused on the technology and more on how the characters react to it, whether it be trying to shun/destroy it or trying to acquire it for their own faction. The relationships between characters and the factions of the Belt, Mars, and Earth make up the backbone of the story. Each character generally has his/her own motivations and goals, whether they are self-centered or driven by faction allegiances, and how they mix/clash with the ideals of others is the driving force behind the narrative. It is honestly a bit funny how the three main factions do not like each other; Earthers and Martians are competitors, and residents from both planets look down on Belters, who are seen as subhuman and inferior, and naturally the Belters resent them for that. One would think that given humanity’s insane scientific and technological advancements, we would be more united as a species, but in the future it would seem that we are still unable to shake our tribal natures.

With such a focus on character interactions, The Expanse is heavily dependent on competent character writing, and in that department it delivers. The show’s central characters feel authentic and realistic, and I found myself rooting for a lot of them even if sometimes their ideals cause them to come in conflict. The show spanning five seasons (with plans for a sixth) helps reinforce these characters, fleshing them out and giving them major arcs to develop them further. Take the protagonist, James Holden, for example. At the start of the story, he is a rather idealistic individual who is also very naïve, taking a stubborn approach to most situations as he believes that he is in the right. As the show progresses and his crew encounters more and more situations that are not so clear-cut, he begins to realize just how difficult it is to make the “right” choice, because the right choice is no longer clear. He never strays from his willingness to do good, but he is more accepting of other people’s reasons for doing things that he might disagree with, because he acknowledges that they’re following their own moral code just like he does. I will say that due to the show’s scale and ambition, unfortunately not all characters are given opportunities to shine, and there are a few characters in the story that I felt deserved to have a bigger role. This is not a huge criticism, as there is only so much attention the show can give to each character without getting too far off-track from the narrative, but it is one I felt like should still be addressed.

The biggest factor of enjoyment I get from The Expanse is its atmosphere and setting. Minus the alien stuff, the set-up of Earth, Mars, and the Belt feels like a very realistic future for humanity in the next few hundred years or so. Mars and the asteroid belt are still in close proximity to Earth (as far as the scale of space is concerned), so it makes the most sense for us to expand/colonize those places first. Also due to the differences in atmosphere (or lack thereof) and gravity on those places, the show also acknowledges how residents on Mars and the Belt have developed physiological differences from people on Earth. Martians and Belters generally have weaker physiques than people on Earth, as the lack of gravity compared to Earth has caused their bodies to develop that way. The people in the show are also very aware of those differences; for example, Earthers have developed a method of torture against Belters simply by chaining them up and doing nothing else to them besides letting Earth’s gravity do its work. The writers have clearly done their homework, and assuming we develop the breakthrough technologies required for space-faring, I can easily see humanity’s future going in a direction in that of The Expanse.

The toughest part of watching The Expanse is easily its length. It currently has five seasons of 10–13 episodes, scheduled for a sixth, and each episode is 45 minutes. It is also a show with a continuous narrative, so it is not something like Friends or The Office where one can turn on a random episode and enjoy it without having to know what happened in the previous episodes; it is a show that demands steady attention from the audience. That said, I consider myself someone who normally does not have the attention span for super long-running shows, but I was able to watch the show in its entirety without difficulty, because it is that good. If you happen to own an Amazon Prime subscription (I’ll assume that most people know at least someone who does), go watch it. It is one of the better pieces of media available, and it is honestly a shock that the only way I found out about it was from friend recommendations (as opposed to Amazon basically shoving The Boys down my throat).

Software engineer and gaming enthusiast, writing reviews to share quality media; check out my personal site at www.edmondwu.dev

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