The race to become the science fiction version of Game of Thrones has begun in earnest. Syfy's The Expanse, the network's main entrant in that particular sweepstakes, wants so badly for you to describe it to a friend as, "Y'know, like Game of Thrones but in space!" that it's sort of endearing.
When the opening credits swoop past Earth and the moon and Mars and depict civilization settling in across the solar system, it's not hard to recall a certain other geography-based opening sequence. And when the series spends its first four episodes of 10 total (all I've seen) keeping its main characters so far apart they're on different planets, it's tempting to think about how Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen still haven't met up — and probably won't for another season at least.
Oh, and The Expanse, too, is based on an epic, still-unfinished book series.
But The Expanse has also borrowed from Game of Thrones in ways far more subtle, and that's the reason this series could have some staying power, once it gets past its early growing pains. Let's look at a few of them.
1) The Expanse isn't just set in several different locations — it's set in several different genres
Broadly speaking, The Expanse breaks down into one part outer space series, one part detective drama, and one part political drama. And the first two are really solid! (The third ... we'll get to.)
Set 200 years in the future, when humanity has begun colonizing the solar system in earnest, the show segregates its three genres by setting their respective plots in three separate locations. The story of Detective Miller (Thomas Jane, ridiculously haired but obviously having fun) searching for the missing daughter of a business magnate is confined to a working-class mining colony on the asteroid Ceres. Meanwhile, all of the outer space action comes courtesy of the spaceship Canterbury and its workaday crew. Finally, we head to Earth, where a high-ranking United Nations official (Shohreh Aghdashloo) tries to avoid war with Mars.
One of the crucial keys to Game of Thrones' success has always been that if you don't like one element of its genre gumbo — say, high fantasy — you only have to wait around another few scenes before the series veers off toward political intrigue or straightforward action-adventure. The Expanse isn't quite as fleet as Game of Thrones — it's constantly reminding you that it's set in the future!!! — but it's still a kick to watch these vastly different genres rubbing shoulders with each other.
2) The production values are high
Granted, they're nowhere near as high as those on Game of Thrones, but Game of Thrones is almost certainly the TV series with the highest budget in the history of the medium.
No, The Expanse's visual effects and action staging can be a little clumsy here and there — a few important moments in an otherwise riveting action sequence in episode four are ruined because of weird camera placement — but they mostly speak highly for Syfy's willingness to invest in this project.
Plus, a genre series doesn't need high production values to be good. Syfy also airs the highly enjoyable, obviously low-budget summer series Killjoys, and that hits many of the same notes as The Expanse does with similar skill. But it's still nice to have something so handsome to look at, and The Expanse's relatively convincing aping of zero gravity gives it an added visual verve whenever the artificial gravity machines conk out.
3) The series boasts a talented, far-flung cast of mostly unknowns
This is a really solid cast of people you probably haven't seen before. In particular, Steven Strait and Dominique Tipper are great as Canterbury crew members who butt heads but ultimately have to work together, and Florence Faivre makes a strong impression in a handful of scenes as the missing girl.
Of course, Jane is the main draw here, and for fans of his previous work in projects as far-flung as the super-smart-shark movie Deep Blue Sea, Arrested Development, and HBO's "guy with a big penis" series Hung, he just might prove a goofy revelation. A big part of what makes The Expanse work is that it's not afraid to be just a little ridiculous, and a big part of what makes that approach work is Jane, who at one point shares a soulful moment with a CGI bird right before taking off an omnipresent hat to reveal a truly terrible hairstyle.
This cast isn't without its weak links. As Canterbury crew member Alex, Cas Anvar never manages to convey some of the character's more emotionally wrenching moments, and while Aghdashloo is a tremendous actress, she sometimes seems to be waiting around for her story to kick into gear. (As of episode four, the series has yet to give its political storyline any of the urgency of the other two.)
4) It carefully builds out its world with little bits and pieces
I haven't read the books on which The Expanse is based (though the show makes me want to). But I can tell the series has a literary progenitor simply because of how easily it fleshes out its world.
By the show's third episode, which deals with the political fallout from a crucial decision made late in episode two, I was surprised at how invested I was in the way that characters' choices rippled throughout the show's larger universe. Tensions rise between Earth, Mars, and the "Belters" (the name for those who live and work in the rough-hewn asteroid belt), and The Expanse generally has a good sense of when to explain something and when to simply let it be a little Easter egg that's (presumably) explained in the books, like a pill that people can swallow to seemingly turn one of their eyes into a camera for recording interrogations. The pill thing is never explained and is mostly a throwaway detail, but it adds so much.
The show overexplains here and there — especially in the first episode — but after some early jitters, it settles in and simply lets its world be. That's harder to do than you might think, and that The Expanse is figuring it out so early is a good sign for the future.
5) The Expanse isn't afraid to be topical and relevant
This might seem like a weird crossover with Game of Thrones, but think of how many think pieces that show has driven with its portrayal of a medieval society that doesn't value the lives of women or anyone who's not a nobleman. It offers a funhouse-mirror version of how far we've come from that era — but also how far we have to go.
The Expanse posits that as humans spread throughout the solar system, they'll bring all of the things that make them human right along with them, from darkly sardonic senses of humor to systems of economic inequality and oppression. There are hints of Star Trek's gleaming future here and there — but they're mostly reserved for the rich and powerful. Everybody else has to live and work in Alien.
Granted, this isn't the main point of The Expanse; it mostly just wants to tell a ripping yarn. But the fact that it doesn't shy away from reflecting the world we live in right now is another good sign. Game of Thrones has long understood that it's using a fantasy world to tell a story about this one; The Expanse is using the spaceships and strange societies of science fiction to do the same. And imperfect though it may be, it's essential for anyone who's a fan of the genre.
The Expanse launched Monday, December 14, at 10 pm Eastern on Syfy. Episode two airs Tuesday, December 15, at 10 pm Eastern, before the series settles into its normal time slot of Tuesdays at 10. Watch previous episodes on Hulu.
Correction: This article originally stated that The Expanse regularly airs on Mondays, instead of Tuesdays. It's been corrected.