An exceptional, diverse cast in a thoroughly plausible space future
December 10th marks the premiere of the sixth season of The Expanse, a serial science fiction television drama on Amazon Prime with a convoluted production history yet fairly straightforward storytelling. The Expanse has its origins in the 2011 novel of the same title, the first of a nine-book series set to end in 2022. The seasons roughly adapt the content of the adjacent novels, though the sixth season will be the last on Amazon. The exact reason why Amazon isn’t producing the next three seasons is unclear but the showrunners insist that they haven’t canceled The Expanse, and that they will adapt the remaining books to screen.
This isn’t the first time The Expanse has run into backstage chaos. Originally the TV show aired on the SyFy channel, beginning in 2015. The ambitious move seemed to be an attempt by the SyFy channel to position themselves as a source for prestige science fiction, in the vein of the 2004 Battlestar Gallactica remake, and a move away from goofy TV movies like Sharknado and reality TV like Ghost Hunters. And well…the numbers added up in such a way that despite The Expanse being profitable, SyFy decided to stick to their existing brand. A devoted revival campaign that involved crowdfunding a sky banner above Amazon headquarters begging the then-nascent streaming platform to take up the show succeeded, and within days crew had stopped talking about scrapping the sets and selling them to Star Trek: Discovery and confirmed that the show will continue.
So just what is it about The Expanse that has created such powerful dedication from fans? Especially given its surprising absence in the discourse? Well, counterintuitive though this may sound, its the lack of ambition, and its innate distrust of the very authority figures who manage the discourse to begin with, that makes The Expanse a fan favorite.
The lead character of The Expanse, James Holden, is a long-haul ice transporter working on a big ship with a big crew of people with their own reasons for wanting a job that involves being away from civilization for extended periods of time. The hard science setting of The Expanse has Mars and the asteroid belt heavily colonized–and both of these locations desperately need lots of water to keep functioning. The political situation in The Expanse hinges a lot on material realities. Mars is, at this point in the future, a distinct political entity from Earth, with a determined population living a multigenerational dream to terraform their home into a livable planet. And the asteroid belt, whose population the show refers to colloquially as Belters, is undergoing a similar separatist revolution.
Belters do all the hard work to maintain the lifestyle of the Inners (of Earth, Luna, and Mars) who, among other things, have the advantage of a lifetime’s worth of strong enough gravity to prevent their bones from turning to brittle when moving at high speeds through space. The Inners, with superior populations and weaponry, can easily bully the Belters into doing whatever they want. And the Belters themselves are heavily fragmented among a large number of factions. They metaphorically gravitate away from centralized authority much as they literally gravitate away from one another in space–even as they metaphorically and literally are nowhere near the orbit of the Inners.
The Expanse packs all of this information into tightly-crafted worldbuilding that it releases drips throughout the series. It contains no clumsy infodumps or expositions; new information comes up only when it’s relevant. And there’s remarkable patience shown when it comes to this pacing. It’s not until the fifth season, for example, that the show fully explains political situation in the asteroid belt in regards to the factions, even though fragments of the issues came up when relevant in the previous seasons.
None of this even gets into the constant plot twists, which are critical enough to The Expanse that I’m reluctant to spoil even so much as the first episode of the first season. In short, in the first three seasons Holden and his crew find themselves at the mercy of a massive political conspiracy for quite some time, and then are the only people in position to fight back. Not because they’re main characters in the conspiracy, but because space is huge and it takes a long time to move ships around. Starting in the fourth season, or the second trilogy, action moves away from space and onto planetary gravity. Holden and crew again find themselves dealing with anomalous events that their experiences in the previous seasons unfortunately connected them to.
A critical recurring theme of all these seasons is the innate mistrust Holden has for institutions; he’s a former soldier who knows that the Inners do indeed murder the Belters on shady pretexts to no meaningful punishment. Alex, his pilot, is ex-Martian military with a more positive outlook on his own background but…well, a lot happens. Naomi, the engineer, is a Belter under constant suspicion for her past involvement in terrorist groups. Bobbie is a Martian marine who learns that she can’t trust authority figures, and authority figures themselves don’t give off a lot of confidence. Juliette Mao is a corporate powerhouse who gets away with what he thinks he can get away with, which is a lot. Chrisjen Avasarala is a United Nations Secretary General who doesn’t expect anyone to trust her, and Camina Drummer is a charismatic Belter thrust into an awkward leadership role.
That big old list of credited leads has a surprise. POCs portray all of them, and you might have trouble guessing which kind, since neither the marketing nor the performances do much to play this up. It’s no exaggeration to say that The Expanse may well be the most diversely casted show airing today. And the show didn’t do this for cynical woke reasons, but pragmatic ones. This is a fantastic cast, and the production clearly focused on merit rather than branding to throw as wide a net as possible to get the best possible actors for the roles. The Expanse has evaded the culture war entirely simply by expecting viewers to treat it on its own merits as exceptional television.
It’s an ironic position for a science fiction television show to be in, given the latest competition. Rather than imagining new, remarkable, and frightening futures, science fiction increasingly just revisions the past. New versions of Star Trek, Foundation, and even Lost in Space expect to wow on brand name alone. Much of the rest is just convoluted dystopias and hero’s journeys, ripped from young adult novels that are more speculative metaphor than current reality. The Expanse is a much more subtle reflection of our era–neither heroes nor anti-heroes. Just people.