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‘The Expanse’ shows how good space opera can be

Dan Webster

Above: The crew from "The Expanse." (Photo: Syfy) 

Miniseries review: "The Expanse," created by Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby, starring Steven Strait, Thomas Jane, Dominique Tipper, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Cas Anvar, Wes Chatham. Streaming on Amazon Prime.

One of the age-old artistic paradoxes involves the question of why so many movie adaptations of novels don’t seem to match the quality of the source material.

Exceptions exist, of course. What Francis Ford Coppola did with Mario Puzo’s potboiler novel “The Godfather” is probably the best example. And while most producers of science fiction films don’t really understand Philip K. Dick, several of the movie and miniseries versions of that late author’s works are quite good.

Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” is one of the better adaptations. Written by Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples, it’s a major reworking of Dick’s novel, as most films made from his books are, this one bearing the clever title “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”

The problem in most cases involves the contrasting formats. A 300-page novel requires the author to write scenes that create a visual map for the reader to follow, consisting of character, time, and place. A 100-minute movie requires the filmmaker both to portray those very visuals, which so often don’t match what a reader of the novel expects, and then to shoehorn everything – character, time and place – into event sequences so limited that important aspects of the original work are necessarily left on the cutting-room floor.

Which is why I appreciate what Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby and their production team have done with “The Expanse,” the series they crafted out of the novels of James S. A. Corey – which is the pen name used by the writers Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. Commissioned originally for the Syfy channel and broadcast beginning in late 2015, then picked up following the third season by Amazon Prime, “The Expanse” is one of the best sci-fi-themed adaptations you’re ever likely to see.

And that’s largely because Fergus and Ostby are well aware of the demands required to adapt a mammoth literary work such as that which Abraham and Franck have fashioned. It would be one thing to make a stand-alone film out of “Leviathan Wakes,” the first book in the series. But in all, Abraham and Franck have written eight “Expanse” novels, three short stories and five novellas, with a ninth novel and final novella still forthcoming – making “Leviathan Wakes” merely an introduction to the universe they seek to explore.

So “The Expanse” series now stands at four seasons, with a fifth scheduled to begin streaming on Dec. 16. I’ve seen only the first full season, which comprises 10 episodes, and the first two episodes of the second season. But I’ve seen enough to feel totally immersed in the universe that Fergus, Ostby, the various directors and the cast have realized.

“The Expanse” begins as your typical space opera, with a trio of story threads. One involves the crew of a space ice-hauler, the Canterbury, from which four of our main characters will emerge: Jim Holden (played by Steven Strait), Naomi Nagoya (Dominique Tipper), Alex Kamal (Cas Anvar) and Amos Burton (Wes Chatham).

A second concerns Chrisjen Avasarala (played by the Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo), a United Nations executive who uses her influence in an attempt to ward off a war brewing between Earth, Mars and the Outer Planet Alliance (OPA).

The third, which ties everything together, has its start on the dwarf planet Ceres, where a jaded police detective, Joe Miller (played by Thomas Jane), is assigned to a missing-persons case. His quarry: an industrialist’s renegade daughter who ends up being key to a substance that could have ties to an alien race.

As Season 1 progresses, each of the characters faces danger: the Canterbury four find themselves dodging both the Martian Navy and some mysterious stealth ships; Avasarala suspects that she is being used as a pawn and bides her time until she can figure out how to defeat her deadly Machiavellian foes; and Miller’s job evolves into a kind of romantic quest that gradually turns into a mission of revenge.

Aside from the special effects, which are superb for a television production, the cast is well-chosen, from Strait’s Holden as a man who grows into the natural-born leader he tried to avoid being, to the veteran Aghdashloo’s Avasarala as a career politician whose acumen is tested by situations she can only struggle to understand. Jane’s detective Miller is little more than a cliché, though he does add a feel of traditional noir to the mix. The British actress Tipper, meanwhile, gives Nagoya a spine reminiscent of another strong sci-fi hero, Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley.

Though I stopped reading Abraham and Franck’s novels after the third installment, I have an idea where the series produced by Fergus and Ostby is headed. Even if I didn’t, though, I’d likely still enjoy the ride. Space opera is one of my guilty pleasures, and I appreciate the fact that, for once, someone has decided to give this example of the genre all the time and effort it needs to develop correctly.

Below: The original Syfy trailer for "The Expanse."

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