If shows like “The Sopranos” spawned countless imitators and gave us series like “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad,” one of the greatest tragedies of the Golden Age of Television is that “Battlestar Galactica,” a brilliant reboot of a much-derided warhorse, didn’t prompt a similarly fruitful science fiction revolution. Tonight, SyFy premieres “The Expanse,” a science fiction epic set 200 years in our future, that has the ambitions, but not quite the juice, to follow “Battlestar Galactica.” But if “The Expanse” isn’t as immediately compelling as “Battlestar Galactica,” it’s a useful illustration of how little television actually trusts genre fiction to be interesting on its own without world-ending stakes.
The world of “The Expanse” is undeniably fascinating.
People born on Earth, Mars or the stations and asteroids of the Belt have started to develop different physiques after generations in space, and they’re divided by sharply different cultures. “Ceres was once covered in ice. Enough water for 1,000 generations. Until Earth and Mars stripped it away for themselves,” a space station preacher declares in the pilot. “The immense wealth that flowed through our gates was never meant for us.”
In a later episode, a crewman on a Martian military ship tells a man born on Earth how inexplicable he finds that planet’s approach to its natural resources. “When you spend the whole life living under a dome, even the idea of an ocean seems impossible to imagine,” he says of Mars’s efforts to terraform its surface. “I could never understand you people, why when the universe has bestowed so much upon you, you seem to care so little for it.”
Mormons living in the belt are building a massive ship, the Nauvoo (named after one of the church’s first significant settlements on Earth), intended to take members of the Latter Day Saints on a hundred-year journey to settle on a planet orbiting a new sun. Members of the United Nations are taking ruthless action to stop an organization of Belt residents they’ve deemed terrorists, and water restrictions are feeding that unrest. And private corporations provide policing in the Belt, balancing dual missions to preserve law and order and private assignments to find missing people.
I’d happily spend a great deal of time kicking around this universe, and in fact, I’m working my way through the series of interlinked books on which the series is based. But “The Expanse” has a problem common to lots of genre fiction — heck, to lots of franchises of all sorts. Rather than trusting us to be fascinated by the worldbuilding and giving us human-size stories, “The Expanse” is yet another story in which the universe is in imminent peril.
In this case, the trouble’s clear from the very first moments of the series when a young woman (Florence Faivre) escapes from a holding cell and discovers that the ship around her is abandoned — except for a man on the bridge, to whom something very bad has happened. Things only get worse when Holden (Steven Strait), a recently promoted executive officer on an ice-hauling vessel named the Canterbury, is sent with a small crew to investigate a distress call along their route. While they’re off the Canterbury, the ship is destroyed by a mysterious and highly lethal vessel. Holden sends a message blaming Mars, setting off an international incident.
All of this is fine, technically, and more than fine; the events pull all the parts of the world of “The Expanse” into play, just as the Cylon attack at the beginning of “Battlestar Galactica” does for that series.
But there are no characters as immediately indelible as the self-destructive pilot Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff) or the weak-willed but charismatic scientist Gaius Baltar (James Callis) from “Battlestar Galactica” — instead, we have Thomas Jane in a fedora as space station-based Detective Miller, who is basically a Sam Spade clone in space. And there are no relationships as complex as the ones between Admiral William Adama (Edward James Olmos) and his son Lee (Jamie Bamber), no transition as remarkable as Laura Roslin’s (Mary McDonnell) elevation from education secretary to president.
There are moments when “The Expanse” shows glimmers of engagement, like in the scenes where Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo), a United Nations functionary, alternates between talking to her grandchildren about the risks asteroids posed to the dinosaurs and using gravity as an enhanced interrogation tool. But too much of the time, it’s just characters talking in tense voices about how bad things can get, or new, creative ways to be violent in space.
And in the absence of those emotional throughlines, “The Expanse” awakens my apocalypse fatigue. It diminishes great world-building and concept design to simply deploy them in service of the same stakes over and over again. And it makes it hard for me to get invested in the events of “The Expanse” when Hollywood keeps telling us that the world is in peril but that everything will be fine. The gutsiest things a series like “The Expanse” could do would be to forswear such stakes and trust us to be interested in a world that’s not our own anyway. Failing that, maybe SyFy will be brave enough to give us an unhappy ending.