If Star Trek is a perfect gin martini, The Expanse is moonshine. If Star Trek is a Lexus, The Expanse is the War Rig that Furiosa drives in Mad Max: Fury Road. Star Trek is ballet. The Expanse will kick you in the face.
This is not to say that Star Trek does not rule, in its own specific way. (It is certainly possible to be a fan of both.) But if you’re interested in sci-fi television that pulls no punches and delivers on all the gritty details of the genre, the fan favorite drama, recently saved by Amazon after cancellation by Syfy, is very much worth checking out.
Returning for its fourth season on Friday, December 13, The Expanse features a large ensemble of characters all struggling to survive in the 23rd century, at which point humanity has begun to stretch beyond the limits of Earth. Unfortunately, that just means the political battle lines are now drawn on a planetary level, with Earth, Mars, and the Belt always on edge, especially as resources like water, food and fuel become even more necessary.
Based on the novels by James S.A. Corey, the world that’s been created in the first 36 episodes is as dense and real as any other show on television (and at times feels more grounded and real than many standard network dramas— looking at you, This Is Us). It’s a fascinating series dripping with engaging characters and true depth, and below are just a few of the (spoiler-free) reasons it stands apart from other shows of its genre.
1. Space Travel Is Hard and Scary (but Thrilling)
Like any sci-fi series, there is of course plenty of invention and imagination involved, but The Expanse is hyper-focused on embracing an approach towards space travel that emphasizes just how dangerous and difficult it can be. Human bodies are delicate things, and never is that clearer than when people brace themselves for the G-forces that come when ships flip and burn, relying on intravenous drugs to not pass out entirely. On Star Trek, starships are like luxury cruise ships with replicators instead of the midnight buffet. On The Expanse, you literally have to strap yourself to a chair so that the ship doesn’t kill you.
The stakes are quite real for everyone—it’s not uncommon for a character to lose a leg or arm, and that’s just when it comes to the space-based accidents. Because of the way the show grounds all of the space action, it means that when characters push things to their limits, the more adrenaline-fueled sequences stand out that much more. And the show’s quality effects work proves more than capable of bringing these moments to life.
2. Its Approach to Alien Life Is Truly Thought-Provoking
In a move that will please any genre nerd who’s gotten tired of “bumpy forehead” aliens (shout out to my brother Eric!), the characters of The Expanse have made first contact with an alien intelligence—but initially, they don’t even really understand what it is they’ve made contact with. The mysteries surrounding the “protomolecule” are (much like with Game of Thrones and the White Walkers) introduced early in the series, but their ultimate significance is something that gets slowly revealed over time. It’s far more Arthur C. Clarke than one might expect, bringing with it questions about how we should even define the concept of life beyond the stars.
3. Great Character Actors Doing Fictional Accents
While the main cast of The Expanse is solid, over the first three seasons the show has brought in some real acting legends for supporting roles, including alumni from The Wire (Chad L. Colman), Lost (Elizabeth Mitchell), and Battlestar Galactica (Byron Mann). And while not everyone who shows up has to do so, many roles require people to master the “Belter creole,” as witnessed by legends Jared Harris and David Strathairn in key supporting roles, who incorporate the particulars of their regional dialects into their performances like it’s Australian or Swedish, not a made-up patois.
4. Thomas Jane Wears a Great Hat
The Boogie Nights and Punisher star doesn’t appear in every season of The Expanse, but when he is on screen, he is more often than not wearing an iconic fedora. It is good.
5. TFW Chrisjen Swears
The woman playing Earth politician Chrisjen Avasarala, Shohreh Aghdashloo, is a stunning and elegant actress with an Academy Award nomination and gravitas to spare. Which is why one of the very best parts of the show is whenever her mouth opens and her character curses someone out. Just one line from Season 4, regarding a political rival: “Everyone gets a pony and a blowjob. It’s like she’s running for homecoming queen.” She never shies away from angrily texting people “Where the fuck are you?” Just one supercut cannot encapsulate just how much fun Aghdashloo is in the role, but oh, it’s a pleasure to behold.
6. This GIF of Bobbie Draper Discovering Cucumber Sandwiches
At one point in Season 2, badass Martian marine Bobbie Draper, in the process of assisting Chrisjen, discovers cucumber sandwiches. As her character grew up on Mars, it’s understandable that she might not be familiar with the traditional English tea sandwich, and her reaction is everything:
7. Also Bobbie Draper Kicks a Lot of Ass
The character established by Corey’s books presented a difficult casting challenge for the producers, based on her physical description and the requirements of the role, but Frankie Adams has been a cornerstone of the series since joining in Season 2, with a heart of gold and a mean right hook.
Bobbie is just one of the show’s many complicated, yet genuinely likable characters, because one commonality shared by most of the show’s ensemble is that while their motives are always complicated, they are very rarely evil. Instead, they’re decent people trying to make the best of how tough life can be in a tough universe—which might, in the long run, be one of the things that makes The Expanse feel as real as it does.
The first three seasons of The Expanse are streaming now on Amazon. Season 4 premieres December 13.
Liz Shannon Miller is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor, and has been talking about television on the Internet since the very beginnings of the Internet. She recently spent five years as TV Editor at Indiewire, and her work has also been published by The New York Times, Vulture, Variety, the AV Club, the Hollywood Reporter, IGN, The Verge, and Thought Catalog. She is also a produced playwright, a host of podcasts, and a repository of “X-Files” trivia. Follow her on Twitter at @lizlet.
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