Home Theatre: The Expanse - Expansion into the unknown
A fortnightly column that focuses on notable content available on the streaming platforms around you, and this week it's The Expanse, streaming on Amazon Prime
For a while now, fellow sci-fi aficionados had been recommending The Expanse to me. The TV show based on the novel series, though widely acclaimed, was cancelled after three seasons leading to fans pulling out all stops to bring the beloved space drama back. Their efforts did not go in vain — Amazon picked up The Expanse for additional seasons. With Season 4 set to premiere on Amazon Prime Video this month, the time seemed right to finally catch up with the show. I breezed through the first three seasons — made available on Prime ahead of the new season — in no time and could barely contain my impatience for the new episodes to drop. The much-awaited return of the show does not disappoint though, in fairness, it takes a little while to truly get going — but more on that in due course.
If like me, you've somehow managed to not know anything about The Expanse up to now, it's basically a story set sometime in the future when humanity has colonised a lot of the solar system but has not invented the technology yet to go beyond. Earth, most of which is underwater from climate change, is administered by the UN, and Mars, which started out as a colony, is now the independent Martian Congressional Republic. Beyond Mars lies the asteroid belt (called simply 'The Belt') where the working-class people called the Belters live and work. The resources of the Belt, which also includes the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, are divided between Earth and Mars with the Belters themselves not benefiting from the wealth they mine. A network called the Outer Planetary Alliance (OPA) starts out as a union to protect the interests of the Belters, but — unsurprisingly — is viewed as a terrorist organisation by the Inners (as the people who live on the inner planets of Earth and Mars are referred to by the Belters). There exists an uneasy peace between Earth, Mars and the Belters, which gets disrupted by the discovery of something from outside the solar system.
As is true of the best of sci-fi, The Expanse acts as a commentary on our own world and contemporary politics. The xenophobia of the different factions, the oppression of the working class, the collusion of politicians with corporate interests, war used as leverage for political control - these are all issues with real-life parallels. That's at the macro level; and at the character level, there's real development for all the principal players and several of the minor ones too. Bobby Draper, for instance, starts out as a gung-ho, constantly-clamouring-for-war, insufferably nationalist Martian Marine. But she ends up switching sides when she realises what's at stake and her transformation is entirely organic. UN executive Chrisjen Avasarala's husband, Arjun, barely has a role in the first three seasons, but he still gets a deeply emotional scene with his wife at a critical juncture in Season 2. Also noteworthy is the casting of actors from across the world, including representation of rarely-seen-on-screen communities like Samoan and Ojibwe (Cara Gee, who plays Drummer, mentions in one of the After Show episodes how empowering it is to see an Ojibwe woman existing so far into the future).
An interesting aspect of the aforementioned scene between the Avarasalas is the incorporation of the communication delay between Earth and Luna (our Moon) to heighten the impact of the tender exchange. Throughout the series, the makers show a commendable dedication to keeping the science as real as can be. The production design too is quite stunning and this, despite the change of hands, carries on into the new season, which is a relief. Season 4 feels very much a part of the series so far.
This season picks up six months after the events of the last one. A new means of travel (the Ring) has been discovered to go beyond the solar system to several thousands of habitable planets in other star systems. This proves to be a paradigm shift for all of humanity. Mars, whose entire culture is built around the singular ambition of terraforming the planet, is caught unawares by this discovery of so many other ready-to-occupy worlds. Earthers, most of whom are unemployed, see an opportunity for a new life and are eager to go out and colonise. Belters, for their part, see a chance to finally live on planets with an atmosphere and native natural resources, not depending on Earth or Mars for basic necessities like air and water. This leads to new tensions and issues for each of these peoples.
The primary arc this season follows James Holden and the Roci crew as they travel to one such new world that a small group of Belter refugees has settled in after running the blockade at the Ring. At the start of the season, the secondary story threads following Bobby on Mars, the Belters dealing with an extremist in their midst, UN elections on earth, all remain disparate from the main narrative to varying degrees. This leads to some pacing issues, with the Mars portion, in particular, failing to hold our interest, given it seems to have almost nothing to do with the rest for a long while. It doesn't help that we don't really know any of the characters in that arc aside from Bobby Draper (though the supporting characters are reasonably well fleshed out). The Belter arc fares better thanks to the wonderful chemistry between Drummer and Ashford. The UN election portions are by and large tedious and don't serve much of a purpose, only saved somewhat by Shohreh Aghdashloo's performance. The primary arc suffers, on the other hand, from a bit too much of Murphy's Law. But, it still stays compelling. Slowly things start coming together and the show gets considerably better. The significance of the secondary storylines is only really revealed near the very end. But, just as it seems like we're finally going to find out more, the season ends on a tantalising cliffhanger.
Production of Season 5 of The Expanse is already underway, though there's no word yet on the actual release date. It should be a much shorter wait this time (for the older fans, that is), but I'll be awaiting it just as impatiently as last time. In the meantime, a rewatch of this season might be in order — with the knowledge of how it all ties together — and there are the books, of course.