To those who have enjoyed its first three seasons, The Expanse has always felt like something special. It stood out among the shows on Syfy, of which there are many, but only a handful throughout history that have really deserved to break through to the collective pop culture consciousness (shows like Battlestar Galactica, Stargate, and Channel Zero). The Expanse is one of those shows, and now that it’s streaming on Amazon, it seems poised to gain the recognition it deserves.
With the greater visibility that being on Amazon brings, this show might live or die based on its upcoming fourth season, the first to debut on its new home. Luckily, The Expanse Season 4 continues the series’ upward trajectory toward the highest orbit of sci-fi television.
Season 4 sees the Rocinante’s crew on a mission to a new world. Holden (Steven Strait), Naomi (Dominique Tipper), Amos (Wes Chatham), and Alex (Cas Anvar) are taking commands from UN Secretary-General Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo), who sends them into the thorny situation developing on one of the unknown planets accessible through the “ring gates” that opened at the end of Season 3. The planet–called Ilus or New Terra, depending who you ask–was settled first by Belter refugees, but a team of researchers from an Earth-based corporation, led by security chief Adolphus Murtry (Burn Gorman), also assert a claim.
Meanwhile, on Mars, the now-disgraced Bobbie contends with civilian life in a dead-end job that eventually leads her down a dark path. Oh, and there are protomolecule structures–seemingly ancient ruins that occasionally come to life by spewing swarms of tiny, flying robots–on that new planet. And that’s all in the first episode.
If it sounds like a lot to you, well, you probably haven’t watched The Expanse’s first three seasons. This is not the type of show you can pop into halfway through after watching some recaps or getting a friend to catch you up. The Expanse takes place in a complex world of shifting alliances and realistic characters. Fantastical, alien forces mix with the mundanity of humanity’s everyday struggles–struggles that are the same in the slums of a space station in a distant asteroid belt, or on a refugee spaceship with nowhere left to turn, as they are anywhere. This is hard science fiction down to every little detail, from the specifics of space flight to the physics of low gravity warfare. The Expanse demands attention, and rewards it.
Season 4 begins to pay off storylines that started in the show’s early episodes, ranging from entire character arcs to small hints dropped in casual lines of dialogue. Readers of the books on which the series is based may already know some of what’s coming, but the show tends to diverge enough that even fans of the novels can’t guess everything that will take place. It seems like Miller’s (Thomas Jane) throughline is finally leading toward some kind of finale, though, which is a long time coming. And at least one crucial character who’s been mentioned before, but not yet introduced, will debut this season–along with a handful of new ones, mainly in the settlement on Ilus/New Terra, whose ultimate importance we won’t know until the season has run its course.
It’s unknown whether the migration to Amazon has added to the show’s budget, but the effects look as respectable as ever, which is not to say they’re outstanding. The visuals are impressive at best and serviceable at their worst–which could be much, much worse–whether you’re looking at spaceships hurtling through giant planet-sized portals or protomolecule technology reshaping alien landscapes. This season touches on themes of expansionism and manifest destiny, which are also reflected in the overall aesthetic and look. The show switches aspect ratios depending on the setting, getting significantly wider when the characters are on firm land, showcasing Ilus’s wide, natural landscapes. Much of Season 4 was shot in a quarry near Toronto, Canada, but it truly looks like another planet.
The western themes are expressed stylistically as well. Holden arrives on Ilus like a sheriff sent to mediate between unruly farmers and the oil company executives who want to take their land; the way certain scenes are shot, it’s not difficult to imagine tumbleweeds skittering by in the background. There’s even a high-noon-style showdown in one episode–although The Expanse never loses its futuristic, science fiction vibe. This isn’t The Mandalorian, which is a good thing–The Expanse remains faithful to its own look and feel, and there’s really only room for one actual space-western in this town–err, crowded TV landscape.
Amazon sent us six of The Expanse Season 4’s ten episodes, all of which will arrive on the streaming service at once on December 13. Until then, when we can watch the final four, we won’t know exactly how Season 4 will shake out–or whether we can fully embrace the show’s trajectory on its new home. But from this vantage, things are looking very, very good for The Expanse.