Save The Expanse

expanse season 3 poster

Not too long ago, devoted fans of the Syfy series The Expanse were heartbroken when the cable channel announced that the third season of the show would be its last. Cancelling favorite TV shows isn’t anything new, nor are the efforts to save shows. The original Star Trek is the best example. Sadly, most attempts to save cancelled TV shows are doomed, however, there are the rare occasions where the shows find new life. This happened last year when NBC un-cancelled the time-travel show Timeless and renewed it for a second season. And now it seems as if the beloved sci-fi show may get a reprieve elsewhere. But let’s not celebrate yet.

For anyone who has not watched it yet (and shame on you if you haven’t even sampled it), The Expanse is based on a series of books by James S.A. Corey about a divided humanity two hundred years from now in the settled solar system. Humans still haven’t discovered FTL yet, but space travel tech has advanced enough to allow humans to settle on Mars, several moons and on space stations. A delicate balance of power exists as Earth, Mars and the Belt (the inhabited regions of the asteroid belt, the gas giant moons and orbital stations) as each side vies for dominance.

The Expanse follows the lives of several characters from all levels of life either throughout the system and how they are impacted by a conspiracy that threatens everyone. An extra-solar substance called protomolecule is discovered and it is able to alter all life. What is worse is that devious government and business leaders are trying to weaponize it. As this goes on, unlikely heroes from diverse paths cross paths and try to prevent the spread of the protomolecule and war itself.

hybrid protomolecule

In the third season of The Expanse, these efforts are failing as not only is the protomolecule spreading and appears to be sentient, but war breaks out between Earth and Mars. During the fog of war, many of the heroes do their best to contain the protomolecule and end the war.

This TV show is a true gem in a network supposedly dedicated to science fiction. It is smart, well produced, has wonderful production values, and is captivating thanks to its engaging stories and characters. Ever since its debut three years ago, The Expanse has lived up to its promise of being an intelligent, hard sci-fi show, scoring huge with critics. It even won the Hugo Award in 2017 for Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form. At the same time, it takes great pains to keep a balance between story and character. In the past two seasons, the show explored what life is like for the downtrodden in the Belt. This season, however, focused more on the ragtag crew of the stolen Martian ship Rocinante and rescued passengers as they’re targeted by both warring sides. The Rocinante crew have to struggle between helping the passengers put an end to the war, stopping the protomolecule infestation, and a personal mission to rescue a young girl threatened by the alien substance. What made this season unique is that it had many diverse characters featured separately in the past meeting each other and uniting under common causes.

All this sounds great but remember this series is based on several books and there are many tales left to present. Sadly, The Expanse will not have the chance to finish telling all the stories from Corey’s books. Citing low ratings and complicated distribution issues with other parties like Netflix and Amazon Prime, Syfy pulled the plug. However, it turns out that the show has a devoted fan base. To date an online petition garnered over 100,000 signatures, and high profile fans like George R. R. Martin, Patton Oswalt and Wil Wheaton are throwing their support to the campaign. #SaveTheExpanse

save the expanse

Alcon Television Group, the studio that produces the show, is actively shopping it around. Currently, there are talks between Alcon and Amazon Studios to distribute a fourth season. The main contention in the talks has to do with Streaming or Subscription Video on Demand (SVOD) rights. One thing the show has going for it is that it is popular on streaming/digital demand, and Amazon is looking to add more original content for its subscribers. Streaming and digital services are becoming a haven not just for original programs but for cancelled shows that are given new life in their services. Let’s hope that The Expanse will find new life there or elsewhere because it deserves to be reprieved.

UPDATE: Amazon has saved The Expanse and the fourth season will stream on Amazon Prime. Sometimes our beloved shows have a secind chance. 😀

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The Golden Age of Sci-Fi TV

In the previous post, a review of Altered Carbon, it was stated that we are living through the Golden Age of Sci-Fi TV. That may be a bit of hyperbole to some, but with all the quality science fiction TV shows out now or coming soon, it cannot be denied.

Not too long ago, sci-fi TV shows were the laughing stock of television land. Of course, there were the few classic nuggets like Star Trek and The Twilight Zone, which showed the potential of high-quality science fiction tales in the TV medium. However, most sci-fi TV shows were at best pedestrian or at worst embarrassing. Galactica 1980, anyone? Most of these shows had zero budgets, which made them look cheap and amateurish. Having a high budget is critical for many sci-fi programs, but not vital. What crippled many of these shows were the lack of faith from networks and the showrunners themselves who treated their shows like children’s fare and did not take them seriously.

Whenever a science fiction TV show that showed promise debuted, TV networks living by the ratings dogma were too quick to cancel them. The television graveyard of stillborn TV shows is littered with diamonds-in-the-rough like the original Battlestar Galactica, Alien Nation, and Space: Above and Beyond. It was an anomaly to see a genuinely good sci-fi TV show thrive in the competitive television landscape.

alien nationEven with the Sci-Fi Channel (now known as Syfy), high-quality science fiction TV shows could barely be found. Think about that, a cable network supposedly dedicated to this genre had a spotty record for airing good, original sci-fi television. Yes, the channel did air re-runs of past classics, but when it came to original programming, Syfy usually failed. In short, the genre was not respected by studios and the general public.

Thankfully, all that has changed. It didn’t happen overnight and it was a series of baby steps, but now science fiction is a viable and respected genre in television. This turnaround came with the success of the Star Trek spinoffs. Then in the 1990s, The X-Files, the paranormal thriller about aliens and other ghoulies became a bonafide hit and a cultural phenomenon. Other shows in the 1990s and the 2000s made their impact like Babylon 5, Syfy’s Battlestar Galactica reboot, Farscape, Doctor Who (which came back after being cancelled in the 1980s), Fringe and Lost (which won an Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series).Battlestar-Galactica-2003-Cast-PictureToday, there are more and more science fiction TV shows competing for our attention and ratings. There are still the goofy TV shows and guilty pleasures but it has gotten to the point that we can pick and choose what to watch as the threshold for quality has increased tenfold. Just look at what is coming out next month: The Expanse (in its third season), the critically acclaimed Westworld, a new version of Lost in Space that looks stunning, and The Handmaid’s Tale. The latter show also won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series, and as much as we complain about science fiction films not ever winning an Oscar for Best Picture (though The Shape of Water can be arguably science fiction), it is refreshing to see the genre recognized for excellence. What has brought about this reverence has been the stellar quality of the scripts, production design, directing, FX and acting.Handmaid's TaleThe success and acclaim for Westworld and The Handmaid’s Tale, among others, shows how respected science fiction has become on TV. These TV shows like The Handmaid’s Tale are resonating with viewers who can relate to the themes and characters that shine through the fantastical trappings. This is why we fans are living through a Golden Age of Sci-Fi TV , let’s hope it lasts for a long time.

Lewis T. Grove

 

The Expanse Pushes Beyond Its Horizon

As its second season draws to a close, it is very clear that The Expanse, arguably the flagship TV series on Syfy, has thrived and become must-see TV.

Based on James S.A. Corey’s series of novels, The Expanse tells several related stories that take place two centuries from now in our solar system as it has been colonized by humanity. From Earth to the the asteroid belt to Jupiter’s moons we see how life is for humans living under different conditions. People living in the Belt deal with harsh conditions and are stigmatized, while those on Mars appear war-like and disdainful of everyone else, especially Earthers. Meanwhile, life on Earth isn’t exactly a picnic from the few glimpses we’ve been shown as it seems that the citizens live under a severe dichotomy where most people are unemployed and destitute while the privileged few control the planet under luxurious conditions.

protomolecule julie mao and miller

The Expanse has many interesting characters with segments devoted to their diverse locales. Tying everything together is the mystery of the protomolecule. It’s an extra-terrestrial substance discovered on Saturn’s moon Phoebe by an Earth-based company called Protogen. It interacts with living tissue and radically alters it, and of course, the company tries to weaponize it. What happens is that the protomolecule is difficult to contain and quickly threatens humanity as it infects anyone that comes into contact with the substance.

Rocinante Crew

There are roughly three storylines devoted to the impact of the protomolecule. Out in the Belt and Jupiter’s moons, we follow the story of the crew of the Rocinante, who try to contain the spread of the protomolecule. The best way to think of them is to look at Firefly, meaning the characters are supposed to be your average joes who live in space in a hard-scrabble existence. The crew is made up of citizens from different planets such as the Rocinante’s Earth captain James Holden (Steven Strait), his lover and ship’s Belter engineer Naomi Nagata (Dominique Tipper), Martian pilot Alex Kamal (Cas Anvar), and Amos Burton (Wes Chatham), the ship’s Earther mechanic. The four have distinct personalities ranging from easy going (Alex), to brutish (Amos). In the first season, the protomolecule overran a colony on Eros and nearly consumed the Rocinante crew. Now, they’re on an unsanctioned mission to hunt down all traces of the protomolecule elsewhere and to destroy it. Thanks to their likable nature and heroism the crew are effectively the heart of The Expanse.

Bobbie Draper

We also follow the story of a tough-as-nails Martian marine, Bobbie Draper (Frankie Adams). Introduced in the beginning of the second season, she came off as an unlikable thug who was itching for any opportunity to fight Earthers. But she saw firsthand the destructive nature of the protomolecule as a solider intentionally altered by the substance wiped out her team on Ganymede. This incident nearly starts a war between Earth and Mars as the two powers are bitter rivals. This experience has a profound impact on Draper and she starts to question her way of life. Out of all the characters in The Expanse, hers is the one that has grown the most and her development has made Draper a quick fan favorite.

Chrisjen Avarsarala

The other storyline is devoted to the United Nations assistant secretary Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo), who is trying to get to the bottom of the protomolecule and to prevent a war from breaking out between her planet and Mars. Aghdashloo easily provides the best acting in the show and presents a mature, regal presence that is so captivating to watch thanks in part to her husky, hypnotic voice that vaguely recalls Lauren Bacall. While the Rocinante crew are the show’s heart, and Draper the soul, Chrisjen Avarsarala represents its mind as her scintillating dialogue  with diplomats and corporate heads provide much needed food for thought.

The Expanse has another distinguishing element and that is its adherence to hard science. Although we still hear the sounds of spaceships flying about great pains are taken to show life under microgravity. We see the perils and fragility of life outside of Earth where being able to breath can be a life-or-death situation. There is time-delayed communications between colonies and Earth. One interesting segment had a group of Martians (including Bobbie Draper) arriving on Earth and having to deal with life under alien conditions. The gravity was hard on them, the sun was too bright for their eyes and they needed medication to be able to breath Earth’s air. These were nice, realistic touches. It’s not always accurate but kudos to the producers for trying their best.

martian marines on ganymede

Syfy should be applauded for championing The Expanse early on and allowing it to prosper in its second season. It has pushed the envelope in its story and given us fascinating characters. On a side note, it is regrettable that Thomas Jane’s hard-boiled detective Joseph Miller died this season but his final actions helped save Earth from being infected by the protomolecule. On the other hand, The Expanse’s second season has introduced interesting new characters that have kept its momentum. Add terrific scripts and superb production and special effects and it is easy to see why The Expanse is the best science fiction TV show airing right now.

Lewis T. Grove and José Soto

Syfy’s Brave New Worlds Of The Expanse

expanse poster

The latest TV show on the Syfy channel, The Expanse, is that channel’s most ambitious and intriguing series since their re-imagining of Battlestar Galactica. Easily one of the best TV shows ever done from Syfy, The Expanse has been described as a Game of Thrones in outer space. It’s an easy hook to bring in viewers, and one that doesn’t do the TV show justice.

expanse cast

Based on a series of books by James S.A. Corey, The Expanse takes place in the 23rd century where humanity has colonized Mars and the asteroid belt, as well as the moons of the outer planets. A fragile state of cold war exists between Earth, Mars and the colonists living in the Belt, with Earth and Mars being the two superpowers that rely on the resources mined from the Belt. Those living on the Belt, principally on the dwarf planet Ceres, are called Belters and live a hardscrabble existence. Looked down upon by the rest of humanity, these Belters disdain non-Belters and are on the verge of open rebellion. A group called  the Outer Planets Alliance (OPA) has emerged and become a major thorn for Earth and Mars, which considers them to be a terrorist organization.

The Expanse has three peripherally linked storylines; miller investigatesone takes place on Ceres and details the investigation by a gumshoe-like detective called Josephus Miller (Thomas Jane), who dresses the part and has a combover from hell. He gets an assignment to track this missing rich girl from Earth called Julie Mao (Florence Faivre). During his investigations which take him into the seediest corners of the station, Miller begins uncovering a huge conspiracy that threatens to upset the balance of power in the solar system.

expanse EVA

At the same time, The Expanse chronicles the odyssey of James Holden (Steven Strait), the first officer on the Canterbury, an ice freighter on its way back to Ceres. After answering a bogus distress call from a ship that was the last known location of Julie Mao, the Canterbury is destroyed by an unknown party. Only Holden and a handful of his crew manage to escape in a shuttle. As they struggle to make it back to Ceres, they witness first hand elements of the same conspiracy that threatens to ignite a war.

Meanwhile, on Earth, United Nations diplomat Chrisjen Avasarala (Shoreh Aghdashloo), suspicious of the OPA, becomes aware of the machinations to foment a war between her world and Mars, and tries to uncover the truth before it’s too late.

expanse earth

The Expanse has so many nice touches in its depictions of what life in the 23rd century might be like. It’s very commendable that the showrunners often go out of their way to depict environments with low to zero gravity, people griping about paying for air, how much of a paradise Earth seems nyc future(the future skyline of New York City was simply stunning) compared to the cramped, squalid neo ghettoes of Ceres, the strange mishmash dialect of the Belters, and so on. The meticulous production values are worthy of awards and envelop viewers into an imaginative, all-encompassing future that’s reminiscent of sci-fi classics like Blade Runner.

Fortunately, the show also makes the effort to develop the storyline. Watching The Expanse is a lot like peeling an onion. At its core, is a mystery, and we the viewers are forced to figure it out along with the main characters. During the scenes at Ceres, again echoing Blade Runner, we’re presented with a future noir atmosphere that is colder than the space outside the fragile habitats that is hard to look away from. It may be clichĂ© but it’s still effective. The Expanse - Season 1Then the plight of the former Canterbury crew as they witness realistic space battles and life in outer space evoke the grounded grittiness of the Battlestar Galactica reboot only it’s less cluttered with the former show’s ponderousness about lofty themes. At the same time, we’re plunged into this completely immersive and realistically rendered future. The result is a gratifying and involving viewing experience.

The characters are mostly interesting, though some could use more development. They’re all well played with exceptions given to Thomas Jane whose portrayal of Miller would fit perfectly in a Mickey Spillane story and Shoreh Aghdashloo’s dignified performance. However, her scenes often get the short shift in many episodes and many times feel superfluous. For that matter, aside from seeing militaristic Martian crew, we have little to go on how Mars is like except for some spoken descriptions. The red planet and more of Earth are definitely worth exploring in greater detail in future episodes.

naming ship

Showing some wise patience, Syfy has already renewed The Expanse for a second season. Personally, I haven’t read the books this show is based on (something that will be rectified soon), but I hope that the answers to the core mystery will pay off well. In the meantime, I eagerly look forward to the next episode of one of the best sci-fi shows in recent memory.

Lewis T. Grove

12 Monkeys Is A Worthwhile TV Adaptation

12 monkeys

12 Monkeys is the latest sci-fi TV show from Syfy and an adaptation of the classic Terry Gilliam time travel classic film from 1995 (which itself was a remake of an obscure French short film called La jetée).

The TV show follows the same premise as the original film. Mankind has been driven nearly to extinction by a deadly virus that begins in the near future and a few decades from now, scientists send back in time a lone man to learn how the calamity started so that it can be undone. But there are many differences, many of which were done to fit a serialized TV format.

pallid man torturesThe time traveler, James Cole (Aaron Stanford), isn’t a prisoner forced to volunteer, but a drifter willingly recruited by a scientific group to undergo the temporal jumps. In the original film, when he voyaged to contemporary times the film had us guessing if he was insane. Not so here. In fact, he is quickly able to convince his present-day comrade, virologist Dr. Cassandra Railly (Amanda Schull) that he is a time traveler. In the course of the series, Cole and Cassandra track a doomsday cult called the Army of the Twelve Monkeys, who are responsible for unleashing the virus. That differs significantly from the film and as with these TV shows finding the cause of the virus and stopping it isn’t accomplished within two hours like in a film.

time traveler

In each episode, Cole uncovers an important facet of the virus or the army and goes back to 2043 to report his findings. Of course, this hampers the TV show because if he is successful then the virus is stopped, humanity is saved, his timeline is erased and the show ends. However, to its credit 12 Monkeys has explored the headaches of time travel and it impacts on future timeline for better or for worse. For this reason, scenes that take place in the present aren’t nearly as interesting as those set in the future. It’s a well realized post-apocalyptic future with barren and broken buildings and roving armies of scavengers. One of the best episodes to date called “Atari” largely took place in the future and explored Cole’s tortured past.

2043

The piecemeal revelation that Cole wasn’t exactly a good person in the past is a good twist and makes him a more interesting character. It’s fascinating to see some of his morally questionable acts and why he decided to help change the future in the episodes. A lot of that has to do with his close friend in 2043, Ramse (Kirk Acevedo), who acts as Cole’s conscious. Ramse is so well played by Acevedo that we have to wonder why he wasn’t chosen to play Cole. After all, with his bald head he looks more like Cole as portrayed by Bruce Willis in the original film and is a better actor to boot.

going backThe other characters are hit or miss. Jennifer Goines (Emily Hampshire), an insane math whiz whose father is believed responsible for the virus, is overdone with her Hollywood crazy method acting. Meanwhile, Katarina Jones (Barbara Sukowa), the enigmatic creator of the time machine, is a mysterious, though sympathetic character that is quietly desperate to change time.

On the whole, 12 Monkeys seems at times to be your standard time travel show, but it is still generally entertaining despite its faults. It’s not in any way up to the level of the original film, but it’s a worthwhile adaptation.

Lewis T. Grove