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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

The Expanse: The Syfy Channel Is Going Big

By Phil Plait

For the past few years—basically since Stargate Universe was canceled—I have been seriously jonesing for a TV show featuring spaceships and intrigue. It’s been a long dry spell.

But it’s over now. Monday, Syfy premiers The Expanse, a new series that will fill that awful void in your soul. It’s incredible.*

I received the press kit containing the first four episodes of The Expanse, and I’m not exaggerating when I say I was completely blown away by what I saw.

There are two trailers online for the show: Trailer 1 and Trailer 2, to give you an excellent feel to the show.

Spoiler-free synopsis: A couple of centuries from now, humanity has colonized Mars, the asteroid belt, and a few gas giant moons. Mars and Earth have an uneasy relationship at best, and the Belt is in the middle, hauling ice mined from asteroids to both planets. A Belter ship is attacked, sparking what may turn into full-out interplanetary war.

Now, summing up the plot that way is like saying Citizen Kane is about a guy who misses his sled (spoiler alert), so don’t read too much or too little into it. The series is based on the book series The Expanse (the first season looks to be based on the first book, Leviathan Wakes, which I’m actually reading right now and is quite good), so there’s a lot of foundational source material to build on.

I won’t go into the plotting because I won’t spoil the show. But so far, it’s really good, with lots of subterfuge, subtlety, and tight action. The acting is excellent, and the special effects are superb. I mean really extraordinary. It’s also beautifully lit and directed.

Now look, I know. When most folks think Syfy they think Sharknado. The Expanse will change that. Syfy has clearly dropped a lot of cash into this, and a lot of creative power. The idea is that instead of cranking out one-off silly spectacles ripe for tweet-mocking, they want to make thoughtful, powerful anchor shows that are clearly designed for the long haul. The Expanse is the most expensive show they’ve ever made, and it shows.

The natural comparison is to Battlestar Galactica, but I strongly suspect this will be even better. I’ll note here this is not a show for little kids; it’s very adult. In some places, really very adult. And it’s very, very smart. Let me make two quick points (a very minor spoiler follows):

1) Whenever a scene takes place on Earth, there’s a brief establishing shot: a house, a city, that sort of thing. When they show the U.N. building in future New York City, you can only see the top few floors above a massive seawall (the Statue of Liberty has one as well). At least in the first four episodes I saw, there is no mention, no reference to this. Nothing. And you only see it for a few seconds. But the implication is that global warming caused sea level rise, so a huge seawall was built to keep the East River from flooding the city. I love that this was added; that sort of attention to detail adds huge depth to a story, especially upon rewatching.

2) In a critical scene, two Belters are on a ship that’s under thrust, and they’re running across a gantry. The thrust provides an artificial gravity, so their magnetic boots are off. But the drive cuts out, and they immediately start floating up and away from the gantry. One of the Belters grabs the other, attaches his tether to her, and kicks her up, away from the gantry. I was baffled for a second—I thought he was trying to kill her—then realized what he was doing: She went up, but he went down, to the gantry. Once he hit it, he switched on his mag boots, got his footing, and then used the tether to drag her down.

I almost whooped with joy! That scene was scientifically right on the mark. Perfect. I was talking to Ty Franck, one of the authors of the books, and he told me that Naren Shankar, an executive producer on the show, has a Ph.D. in physics, and he’ll start drawing diagrams as he discusses a scene, explaining how the forces work and why things go a certain way. When Ty told me that I may have blacked out for a second or two. I think my heart exploded.

Finally, I remember thinking.

I could go on and on. One thing: In a couple of scenes near the beginning it’s a little difficult to follow the dialogue. Part of that is due to the accents, some background noise, and also because they’re speaking Belter patois, which is a combination of many languages. However, don’t let it bug you; it gets better, and everything gets explained; you just have to be a little patient. This is a very minor complaint on my part, and really the only one I have.

Let that sink in for a sec.

So I strongly recommend this show. And if you don’t believe me, give my dear friends A Kovacs and Scott Sigler a listen; on their weekly podcast they praise it as well. They also make an excellent point about the Bechdel test in the show, a point I independently arrived at myself while watching. Io9 and ScriptPhD praised it as well.

Seriously. This is the show to watch. Go watch it.

*Full disclosure: This will sound funny, but I want to be fully up front with y’all here, so here goes: The senior vice president of Syfy is a friend of mine (from long before she was with the network). I also know the authors of The Expanse book series (I was on a panel at Phoenix Comicon with Ty Franck). Finally, I was part of a paid promotional campaign for The Expanse on social media (see here and here). That campaign absolutely does not extend to this blog, where I am free (and quite apt) to praise or condemn whatever I want. Having said that, I only agreed to promote the show because holy cow, it really is that great.

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