NPR logo 'The Expanse:' Best Science-Fiction Show In A Decade


'The Expanse:' Best Science-Fiction Show In A Decade

A screen grab of the transport that takes Detective Josephus Miller from dwarf planet Ceres to astroid Eros in SyFy's Expanse. Courtesy of SyFy hide caption

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Courtesy of SyFy

A screen grab of the transport that takes Detective Josephus Miller from dwarf planet Ceres to astroid Eros in SyFy's Expanse.

Courtesy of SyFy

The smoke has now cleared on the first season of SyFy's ambitious adaptation of The Expanse books.

Just before the series aired, I wrote a post pleading to the gods of science fiction to please, please, please not let television destroy this thing of beauty I love so dearly. With the final credits rolled up, it's time to answer that all-important question.

Did it suck?

The answer, as we will see, tells us not just about the success or failure of a particular show but also about the nature of fandom in a world awash in stories.

So, let's start with the answer to the suck question. I am happy, so happy, to report that SyFy's The Expanse did not suck. In fact, it did not suck so much that it was the best and most important piece of science fiction to appear on the small screen in a decade.

To unpack the assessment, let's start with a little background. The Expanse is not your ordinary sci-fi story. There are no warp drives and no aliens with prosthetic forehead appendages. Set in our own solar system a few hundred years in the future, the narrative stays true to what technology might allow as humanity becomes an interplanetary culture. The realism of a day-to-day world where whole populations make their homes on other solar system worlds is what sets the first books in the series apart.

Remarkably, the show delivered on the promise of that realism. What makes the The Expanse so exciting is how hard the creative team worked to bring the science's lived-reality to bear in a way that has not been seen since 2001 A Space Odyssey.

Much of the action, for example, takes place inside the asteroid Ceres, which has been hollowed out and spun-up to create a version of artificial gravity. But while spinning something allows you create a gravity-like pull (a push really), it also leaves you dealing with the Coriolis force that bends the path of falling objects (it's the same "force" that bends hurricanes into their giant swirls). So, in the show we see characters pouring a drink while holding a glass off to the side as the stream corkscrews downward.

Another example of lived scientific realism comes in the many spaceship scenes. When the engines are on and you're accelerating between planets, your feet are pinned to the floor. Thrust equals gravity as Einstein showed us. But once you cut the engines, you're back in free-fall and everything goes weightless. This leads to one particularly gruesome scene with a basketball-sized floating orb of blood that I won't go into more detail about. Bleech!

Now you might think I'm just being a nerdy physicist with all this, "Oh my God, they got the Coriolis force right!" Well, yes, I'm afraid that's true. I was, in fact, jumping up and down on my couch during that scene.

But while I might have gotten more excited about these kinds of things than your average viewer — and I did calculate the spin rate required to give Ceres 1/3 Earth gravity — there is a deeper point. It's exactly this attention to detail that made the difference for the show's world building. Without it, the internal logic of a universe where Earth and Mars are superpowers standing at the edge of war would fall apart. And without giving us a vision for the realities of a life in space, the impoverished third-world status of societies living in the asteroid belt would have become a cartoon rather than an extension of realities we know today.

So, my verdict is that the show nailed the externalities as much as the constraints of budgets and filming on Earth allowed. But that's really just half the battle. Without characters you really love or hate, getting the physics right (or right-ish) would mean nothing more than expensive sets and a lot of CGI. It was the characters that made the difference between the books and the show really interesting.

The first book of the series is really two stories that slowly converge. On the one hand, we have Josephus Miller, a hard-nosed detective on Ceres chasing down a missing persons case that smells wrong. The noir elements of Miller's ambiguous morality are one of the books' great delights and the actor Thomas Jane perfectly captures the dark, exhausted spirit of the character. From the wise cracks to owning "that ridiculous hat," Jane understood exactly how to update Sam Spade to the asteroid belt.

The second narrative involved the crew of the stolen ("salvaged") Martian war ship the Rocinate: Capt. James Holden (Steven Strait), engineer Naomi Nagata (Dominique Tipper), pilot Alex Kumar (Can Anvar) and general badass Amos Burton (Wes Chatham). In the book, these characters know each other well and already have a bond when the story starts. The show changes these relationships allowing the viewer to become familiar with them as they slowly discover and slowly learn to trust each other. The actors did an exceptional job breathing life and humanity to their characters.

Finally there's UN diplomat/security chief Chrisjen Avasarala who does not appear in the books until the second volume. The show brings her front center — and actor Shohreh Aghdashloo mixes elegance with a viper's acumen for attack and parry in her portrayal of the spy master. The only complaint one might raise is that in the book Avasarala has a potty mouth that could singe steel. Given its PG-13 approach, the show unfortunately drops her delightful profanity.

And it's here that things get interesting in a more general sense. I fell in love with the show's complex characters and their gradually converging story lines. But they were not the same as the books' characters and their narratives were not the same as the books' stories. They were close, but different. In that way, watching The Expanse was like discovering my favorite story set in a slightly parallel universe. Things were both same and different and that, for me, said a whole lot about the role our cherished stories play in modern life.

From Sherlock Holmes to Jane Austin to Batman, culture in the era of mass media has meant the evolution of a kind of "fandom" which seems like something fundamentally new. Human beings are storytellers. From early myths to Shakespeare, this is how we understand ourselves. But since the beginning of the 20th century, we have developed ever more layered ways to tell our stories.

Sherlock Holmes appears in books and then on stage and then in movies and then on TV and then back again to new books. We love his character so much that we seem to need to keep telling those stories. This includes finding new ways to tell them, adapting and altering and adding-on in the process. For some, these changes and additions can be a violation of the original's "canon" (a term of particular nerdiness). But, if done well, they allow us to revisit the stories and delight in them again, finding new and creative directions that ultimately show us why we loved the original so deeply.

So in that way and many more, SyFy's The Expanse succeeded where it could easily have failed. To the entire creative team, I bow deeply and say, simply, "thank you."

Adam Frank is a co-founder of the 13.7 blog, an astrophysics professor at the University of Rochester, a book author and a self-described "evangelist of science." You can keep up with more of what Adam is thinking on Facebook and Twitter: @adamfrank4