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Shedding the cowboy antics of Star Wars and the utopian idealism of Star Trek, Amazon Prime Video's The Expanse highlights how royally we can screw things up, which is made only worse by being in the vacuum of space.
Rather than slick spaceships and operatic overtones, The Expanse takes a hard, cold look at what colonizing the solar system could look like in the next few centuries.
I'll admit I'm only a couple of seasons in so far, but I haven't been able to watch anything else since I started. It's so damn watchable.
The story centres around Jim Holden (Steven Strait) and his crew of misfits as they bounce from one crisis to another in the colonized solar system. Things go from bad, to worse and then much worse.
Holden is a reluctant, but capable leader. Alex Kamal (Cas Anvar), Naomi Nagata (Dominique Tipper) and Amos Burton (Wes Chatham) make up the rest of the team, each with their own can't-help-but-root-for-them attitudes.
Luckily, they have each other (for the most part) and a relatively stable moral centre.
The expanded cast includes some fantastic performances from Thomas Jane, who plays a hard-done-by detective and Jared Harris as a gang/rebel leader with an impossible accent.
But the highlight is easily Shohreh Aghdashloo as Chrisjen Avasarala, a powerful diplomat looking after Earth's interests. She doesn't suffer fools lightly, performing delicately when she needs to, but able to flip the switch to badass in an instant.
The series, based on novels of the same name by James S. A. Corey, is set during a solar system-spanning Cold War. On one side is Earth, governed by the decadent UN, and the other is Mars, a militaristic but fragile state which is bound in a tenuous peace. However, one little provocation and that could all come crashing down, along with all of human civilization.
Originally released on American channel Syfy, the series was picked up by Amazon after it was cancelled following its third season. Prime released the fourth season in 2019 and announced a fifth is already in the works.
And thank goodness Amazon scooped it up. The mystery surrounding an unusual and dangerous alien substance that can alter matter (being experimented on with the most Machiavellian way imaginable) is the main throughline for the plot.
A whole new world
But The Expanse is about much more than this existential threat, it's about the incredible world it's set in.
This isn't the idealized universe of Star Trek, where money and hunger have gone the way of the dodo, in The Expanse, water has become more precious than gold. It's a world full of greed, corruption and inequality. It is capitalism gone mad in the far reaches of space.
People have inhabited asteroids in the belt, which is being taken advantage of by the dominant planets in the system, Mars and Earth.
Mars, with the know-how to turn their rusty-red planet into a garden, is low on resources because of their spending on the military, just in case there's a war.
And Earth, after years of degradation and sea-level rise is changed (but all too familiar) with an elite pulling the strings for selfish ends.
One also has to admire the writers’ (both screen and novel) restraint when it comes to the technology. Yes, humans have been able to reach the other planets and stellar rocks in the solar system, but the ships people use are definitely built for speed, not comfort. They're blocky, with wires and scaffolding unceremoniously strapped to their sides.
New languages and phrases seem so natural. Yes, a group of people living on asteroids probably would develop their own culture and a sizeable chip on their shoulders.
Differences in gravity, resources, time, it's all taken into account and given its due. Sometimes I'll pause an episode just to remark, “wow, they've thought of everything.”
It also doesn't hide the audience from the cruelty and inequalities, and it doesn't pull away from the atrocities that could happen. It's a warning of what we could become.
It's science fiction without the utopia, and although somewhat depressing, it adds a layer of realism that is so compelling to watch.
Other sci-fi worth exploring:
Needing an escape from planet Earth? I get it. Here are some other sci-fi shows worth checking out I haven't already recommended (like The Mandalorian, Star Trek Discovery and Picard).
· Battlestar Galactica (remake), available on Amazon Prime Video. A deep, though sometimes convoluted plot that touches on humanity and artificial intelligence. An excellent musical score that reverberates throughout.
· Westworld, available on Crave (with HBO add-on). A theme park made for the elite with no limits, the characters within the fantasy are highly intelligent robots, what could go wrong?
· Space Force, available on Netflix on May 29. Needing something a little lighter? Steve Carell is tasked with forming the Space Force (an actual real thing), a new branch of the American Armed Forces with no idea of what it's supposed to be. Hopefully, it will be a sufficient replacement for The Office for the streaming giant.
· For All Mankind, available on Apple TV Plus.What if the Soviets landed on the moon first? This alternate history drama takes a look at what could have been and what it would mean for America's psyche.