After a bleak year in entertainment, science fiction fans finally have some good news with “The Expanse” starting its fifth season on Amazon. Those unfamiliar with the show may consider watching the previous seasons, and those who have seen those may want to review what happened.
After four seasons, “The Expanse” is poised to take its place among the best sci-fi on television, combining the political intrigue and complexity of “Babylon 5” with the gritty realism of “Battlestar Galactica.” While it delves into deeper themes of class, community, the limits and potential of technology, and man’s place in the universe, it has resisted the pitfalls of leftist moralizing or progressive utopianism one usually finds in popular science fiction (like most of the “Star Trek” series).
Rather, “The Expanse” portrays a fallen humanity two centuries in the future that has advanced technologically but still struggles with social ills. Mars and the asteroid belt have been colonized, leading to three distinct political states.
Earth has become a global welfare state ruled by an entrenched elite; Mars is a militaristic authoritarian congressional republic that has broken off from Earth; and the asteroid belt is a loose confederacy of penal colonies, research stations, and mining outposts seeking political autonomy. While the government on Earth nominally rules the system, it must contend with terrorists from the Belt, unrest at home, and a paranoid Mars on the rise.
This precarious situation threatens to erupt into total war during the first three seasons of the show in which an alien substance, known as the protomolecule, is discovered on one of the colonies in the belt. This alien substance not only infects and kills humans but also has the power to move whole astroids and communicate telepathically with individuals through human hosts.
As events unfold, Belters (inhabitants of the asteroid belt) see an opportunity to bargain for more benefits while high officials in the U.N. (the government of Earth) look to strengthen their hold over the colonies. Martians hope to retain their independence and maintain an edge over Earth.
As one can imagine, the show is complex with an incredibly wide scope. Fortunately, the plot lines of the major characters provide a focus for the action while gradually allowing for sufficient world-building. The plot arc of the U.N. Under Secretary Chrisjen Avasarala, played by Shohreh Aghdashloo, sets up the social and political context, while the stories of Detective Miller, played by Thomas Jane, and Jim Holden, played by Steven Strait, reveal the facts on the ground.
Each episode of the first two and half seasons is some of the best in television. The action is well-paced, characters are developed, and all the pieces come together for a satisfying climax that leaves new possibilities for the show’s progression beyond the original storyline.
Unfortunately, the show hits a lull in the second half of its third season. At this point, the alien protomolecule morphs into a massive disc in space that turns out to be a portal to different star systems. Much of the political intrigue that made the show interesting is dispensed in favor of following the drama of a Belter crew that tries to take control of the portal.
Added to this are some new characters, none of whom are very interesting or important. Holden and his crew happen to be in the middle of it all, which seems more perfunctory than natural.
The Belters are probably the worst part about “The Expanse.” They’re supposed to be the space equivalent of a third-world culture that is historically disenfranchised, oppressed, and disorganized. Yet little about them is realistic.
As a population, they live scattered across the asteroid belt and Jupiter’s moons, descended from Martians and Earthers, living in the sealed-off colonies and labor camps, barely surviving. Such conditions do not naturally translate into a politically conscious community of laborers and pirates all adopting an irritating Caribbean accent. Therefore, when the story leans heavily on Belter characters and their struggles, there tends to be little for the viewer to identify with or appreciate.
Then again, I should admit that much of my complaint with the Belters stems from my straight-laced conservatism, which instinctively recoils from their punk aesthetic and Marxist ideology. The show does offer some explanation for this.
They share common grievances against Earth’s exploitation and have been similarly affected by their environment, developing physical traits that prevent them from even functioning on Earth. They are estranged from their origins and have had two centuries to call the Belt their home. As such, the show’s depiction of their unique culture is plausible, but, at least in my view, still somewhat jarring.
The fourth reason rebounds somewhat with the story of a new planet Ilus being colonized. A conflict arises between some Belter refugees who set up camp on the new planet and a mining operation from Earth that aims to tap into the planet’s rich lithium reserves.
Avasarala, now the general secretary, has reservations about colonization and sends Holden and his crew out to report on the situation and possibly mediate a conflict. As this happens, she must run a political campaign against the upstart Nancy Gao (played by Lily Gao), a young, ambitious woman with a pro-jobs, anti-elite agenda.
If the story focused on the colony and the election, the show would have been more enjoyable, doing more world-building, handling complex moral questions, and developing some of the new characters. Some of this happens, but there is another storyline with the Belter captain Camina Drummer tracking down a Belter terrorist and finding her loyalties strained in the process. Most scenes with Drummer involve her sneering, frowning, or scowling, and play into themes that, again, don’t make much sense.
There is also a depressing storyline of discharged Martian space marine, Bobbie Draper, played by Frankie Adams, investigating a smuggling operation. With the discovery of new planets that promise easier settlement, Martian are abandoning their homes and their way of life. As such, the planet is quickly being hollowed out and picked clean by vultures and terrorists.
As the fourth season concludes, the storyline with Ilus wraps up with the planet proving to be uninhabitable, leaving Holden’s crew to regroup back at Tycho Station. Avasarala loses the election and her family while the terrorist Drummer faced is launching a major attack on Earth. Bobbie also uncovers a major smuggling operation and ends up offering to partner with Avasarala.
This leaves the new season with some interesting questions. Will there be more colonization of other worlds? Will we get details about the Ring and the alien races behind it? Will the Belters or Martians change as a result of off-world expansion? Will Gao succeed as Earth’s new leader? What will be the effect of the incoming attacks on Earth from the Belt? What are the main characters’ roles at this point?
As Joshua Lawson’s review of the season premiere explains, the main characters do a fair amount of soul searching while the world recalibrates with the changes that have just occurred. If the show can maintain its wide scope while crafting purposeful storylines, it can recover its original momentum.
If the show can address and explore the many open questions with the same intelligence and realism that has in the past, it can continue to earn its stellar reputation and, like all good science fiction, offer some much-needed perspective and insight on the challenges confronting humanity both now and in the future.