James SA Corey’s The Expanse is one of those book series that sneaks up on you. It started in 2011 with Leviathan Wakes and since then has expanded to include five novel and five novellas. It’s also recently made the jump to TV to huge acclaim. The second season is nearly ready for launching in the States, while the first series has finally hit the UK for your bingewatching pleasure thanks to Netflix so now’s a perfect time to catch up with the Rocinante and find out just what’s waiting for us out there…
When Is It Set?
Two hundred years in the future, the asteroid belt and Mars have both been colonises and humanity is now three distinct, and not at all tranquil, groups. The system is still ostensibly run from Earth but the Belters, who mine the water and minerals the planet needs, are getting sick of being exploited. The air and water they need to live is rationed even as they send everything else back “home” and something is going to give. Soon.
Meanwhile, Mars has become a silent and increasingly intimidating military power. Every Martian is dedicated to terraforming the planet and holding it as their own. Their Navy is huge, highly advanced and belligerent.
Earth wants the status quo maintained.
The Belters want vengeance and independence. In that order in some cases.
Mars wants to live.
No one trusts anyone.
But, somehow, an uneasy peace is maintained.
Until an ice freighter picks up a distress call, and a cop takes a missing person case no one wants solved…
What’s It About?
The lazy answer is Game Of Thrones in space with way less unnecessary sexual violence.
The fun answer?
Holden and his crew of likeable assholes stumble onto the worst thing anyone has ever done and are immediately almost killed for it. Four times. Their desperate struggle to if not win then at least not be the last people to survive that thing drives most of their plot line. That and working out just what the Rocinante, the vessel they end up with, can actually do.
Meanwhile, on the dwarf planet CeresMiller is a down-on-his-luck detective who cares about the wrong case. He pursues the disappearance of Julie Mao long after anyone else would and discovers a trail off evidence that leads him to the same place as Holden and his crew.
On Earth, UN Assistant Undersecretary of Executive Administration Chrisjen Avasarala is working very hard to prevent a war. The OPA – the Belter separatists – are sniffing around Earth, Mars is apparently building stealth vessels and Ceres Station is a powder keg. Her investigations into why lead her to Holden who, apparently, is behind it all. But as she digs deeper she realises just how little he knows, how little she knows and just how much trouble everyone is in.
These three plots wrap around each other incredibly well to create a show that balances full contact and brutal space warfare with character, heart and intelligence. Holden and the Roci crew are front and centre but everyone earns their place and Chrisjen’s plot in particular is increasingly chilling as the implications dig in.
Who Are The Lead Characters?
On The Rocinante:
- James Holden (Steven Strait) is the reluctant third officer of an ice freighter. Holden is ex-Earth navy and, honestly, kind of a jerk. He’s equal parts reluctant hero and scruffy dropout and one of the central themes of the book is Holden’s slow transformation into a smart, compassionate and troubled leader.
- Naomi Nagata (Dominique Tipper), born in the belt, is Holden’s chief engineer. Naomi is frequently the designated adult, a woman whose incredible intelligence and talent is matched by fierce loyalty to her circle of friends.
- Especially Amos Burton (Wes Chatham). Amos is quiet, polite, very strong and inconceivably skilled at violence. He’s the ship attack dog, a man absolutely at peace with the constant possibility of imminent death and who, on some level, is aware of the horrific emotional damage he’s carrying. Amos is one of the two characters you will want to hug and tell everything will be okay.
- And Alex Kamal is the other. Played with glorious, scruffy charm by Cas Anvar , Alex is the Roci’s pilot. He’s from Mariner Valley on Mars, where the overriding culture is Texan and calls everyone “hoss”. It, and the backstory we gradually get for him, is adorable.
On Ceres Station:
- Detective Josephus Miller (Thomas Jane) is a cop on Ceres Station, one of the largest facilities in the Belt. Holden is a Belter but he’s viewed as a traitor by many because of his work. He’s a near alcoholic, quietly mournful man who is slowly realising that he has really, really screwed up. The only people who will give him the time of day are his partner Havelock (Jay Hernandez) and contemporary Octavia Muss (Athena Karkanis). They’re not the only three honest cops on Ceres, but they’re pretty close. And then, Miller is given a missing persons case that no one wants solved and does the one thing he shouldn’t: cares.
- Dmitri Havelock (Jay Hernandez) is Miller’s partner. He’s a stand-up guy, a good cop and he’s from Earth. And on Ceres, that last one is all anyone will care about.
- Octavia Muss is a good, dedicated cop who has no Earthly clue why she cares about Miller. But, despite her best instincts, she keeps helping the hot mess of a detective out. She’s played by Athena Karkanis.
In The Belt:
- Fred Johnson (Chad Coleman) is, officially, a project manager. He’s the man leading the team building the largest starship in human history for the Church of the Latter Day Saints to become the first ever interstellar missionaries. In reality, Fred is closely associated with the OPA, the Belter freedom movement. And Fred has very good, very dark, reasons for being on that side…
- Anderson Dawes (Jared Harris) is the Ceres Station OPA spokesperson. He’s also articulate, jovial and completely willing to commit murder to get the job done. And he wants to help Miller solve his case…
- Juliet Andromeda Mao (Florence Faivre) is a talented pilot and OPA recruit who vanished under mysterious circumstances. Miller has been hired to find her. Holden and his crew have stumbled onto her trail. None of them have the slightest idea of what’s waiting for them when they find her.
- Chrisjen Avasrala (Shoreh Aghdashloo) is, officially, the Undersecretary of Executive Administration for the UN. In reality she’s a spymaster the likes of which you have never seen before. A grandmother, she balances tremendous compassion and warmth with the ruthless brutality she needs to do her job.
Very nearly everything. The cast are uniformly great with Shoreh Agdashloo, Wes Chatham and Cas Anvar all standing out. Agdashloo, who’s regularly parachuted into projects to add a little gravitas, revels in her screen time and the show gives her some great stuff to work with. Plus, having your George Smiley analogue be an Indian grandmother is about as bold a statement to make about diversity as it’s possible to make. Likewise Arrivar’s adorable Space Texan and the genuinely sweet way he begins to revel in being given a real ship to play with is huge fun to watch.
Finally, Chatham’s zen pit bull has one of the best scenes in the entire series. It involves him, Holden and an airlock. And if you’re thinking a certain Firefly moment you’re in non-spoiler but thematically correct territory. All three raise every scene they’re in, but there isn’t a weak link in the cast. (Oh, and keep an eye on Elias Toufexis’s Kenzo Gabriel… more on him below)
Likewise the pacing is top-notch. You will get a big reveal every episode or so and the disparate plots come together pleasingly quickly. Plus there’s a real sense of mounting dread as the series continues and episode 10 in particular has an extended, “OH DEAR GOD!” moment that’s not only lifted straight from the books but actually lands a little better when you can see it instead of imagine it.
The effects and design work impress too. The show has an understanding of orbital dynamics that will please anyone who cares about such things and it also doesn’t let that get in the way of the action. There’s an extended naval engagement a few episodes in that’s gripping and, bluntly, terrifying in spots precisely because of those physics. Nothing feels forgiving or safe and the ships all have a pleasing scale and lack of aesthetically pleasing nonsense too them. This is a universe where spacecraft work for a living, and even the Roci is kind off ugly in a really cool way. If you’ve read the books, she really does look like an upside down coffee cup stuck to an angry chisel. It’s great.
What’s Not So Great?
Leviathan Wakes’ problem was how long it took Miller’s plot to go anywhere and that’s handled far better here. Likewise the Belter slang, which is hard work to read on the page turns into a really interesting set of accents here that neatly mark the Belters out as a separate group. Jared Harris in particular does great work with an accent that’s equal parts cockney, Jamaican and middle European, on purpose too.
However, Holden is noticeably less interesting. It’s not Steven Strait’s fault either, who brings a rumpled and surprisingly young charm to the owner of the solar system’s absolute worst luck. Rather it’s that this version of Holden is far more a straight ahead hero than the reluctant merchant seaman of the books. He’s going to be great but he’s not quite there yet.
Is It Different From The Books?
Hell yes! Chrisjen’s entire plot is parachuted in from later parts of the series and really helps ground the series with a sense of what’s going on behind the scenes back on Earth. Likewise, we get a lot more detail on just what Fred did at Anderson Station.
Then there’s Kenzo. Kenzo is a spy and an entirely new character written for the series. He’s a wonderfully scrappy, bad tempered fast talker who arrives in exactly the wrong place at exactly the wrong time. To say much more about Kenzo would be both spoilers and speculation so we’ll leave it at the fact that he’s played by Elias Toufexis. If you’re a Deus Ex fan, you will end up imagining in Adam Jensen on the Roci, but that’s fine. It actually works very well and Toufexis is huge fun, especially every scene he has with Amos.
Anyone We Know In There?
EVERYONE. In order:
- Thomas Jane (Miller) has been a genre stalwart for years, most noticeably as an incarnation of the Punisher and as part of one of our favourite shark movies, Deep Blue Sea.
- Shoreh Agdashloo appeared most recently as Commodore Paris in Star Trek Beyond. She can also be seen in The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Lakehouse and 24.
- Steven Strait was the lead in 10,000BC which contains the best weaponised mammoth scene in cinema history. He was also Warren Peace in Sky High, the single best superhero movie you probably haven’t seen.
- Dominique Tapper was in Vampire Academy and Noel Clarke’s underrated Fast Girls.
- Cas Anvar was in Source Code, or as we like to think of it, darkest timeline Quantum Leap. He also appeared in the excellent Room, The Vatican Tapes and Argo.
- Wes Chatham was Castor in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay movies and also appeared in underrated horror flick The Town That Dreaded Sundown. To us, he’ll always be Sam McBride from The Unit though.
- Chad Coleman voiced Coach in Left 4 Dead 2 but is most recently known for playing Tyreese on The Walking Dead. And we still miss you there, big guy.
- Athena Karkanis appeared in Saw IV and Saw VI as well as George A Romero’s Survival Of The Dead.
- Jared Harris is near ubiquitous, especially after his career making turns in Mad Men and Fringe respectively. He’s also done excellent work in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, The Quiet Ones, Poltergeist and others.
- Jay Hernandez is known for his turns in Hostel, Hostel Part II and Crazy/Beautiful. However you’ve seen him most recently turning in excellent, and unrecognisable, work under El Diablo’s tattoos in Suicide Squad.
What’s Next For It?
The second season will continue to fold together Leviathan Wakes and Caliban’s War. Expect a major cast addition in the form of fan favourite, Bobbie Draper. Played by Frankie Adams, Bobbie is a Martian marine who has the worst day of her career at the top of book two and the consequences of that impact everyone we’ve come to know and like.