Column: ‘The Expanse’ and the return of sci-fi to Syfy

On Tuesday night, Syfy will air the two-hour season finale of its flagship science fiction series “The Expanse,” an epic tale of mystery and interplanetary conflict set 200 years in the future after the colonization of the Solar System.

Yes, you read that right. Syfy has finally decided to start doing sci-fi again – and it’s about damn time.

“The Expanse” is at the helm of Syfy’s burgeoning effort to return to its roots in science fiction, to an era before the rebranding and reprogramming of July 2009 that changed the name of the network from “Sci-Fi Channel” to “Syfy.”

The channel that was launched with the explicit purpose of airing sci-fi shows had grown too cool for sci-fi. Many sci-fi fans mocked the name change, pronouncing the network as “Siffy” or “See-fee.” Little did we know at the time, the network would soon be purged of the genre we loved most.

When the name change was announced, the network was already phasing out some of its top sci-fi shows.

Brad Wright’s “Stargate SG-1,” which ran for 10 seasons (of which five were exclusively aired on Sci-Fi Channel), had ended in 2007. Its first spin-off series, “Stargate: Atlantis,” concluded in January 2009 after five seasons. To top it off, Ronald D. Moore’s “Battlestar Galactica” reached the end of its five-season run a month later.

And just like that, the three biggest sci-fi shows on the channel were gone.

The Stargate franchise’s second spin-off series, “Stargate Universe,” seemed to be the last hope on the network for sci-fi fans. Every year from 2002 to 2010, new episodes of Stargate aired on Friday nights in what many loyal viewers remember as “Sci-Fi Fridays.”

Unfortunately, “Universe” embarked with 10 lousy, predictable and tedious episodes in 2009. Any attempts to build viewership in the remaining (and improved) 10 episodes of the first season and the far superior second season proved to be too little, too late. The failure of “Universe” justified the network’s decision to unseat the Stargate franchise from its normal Friday night slot after its first season and replace it with professional wrestling.

That’s not even a joke.

In 2010, Syfy welcomed WWE Smackdown with open arms to fill the timeslots that had since 1999 been dedicated to new episodes of science fiction programming. Sci-Fi Fridays had finally died. Network executives moved “Universe” to Tuesday nights for its second season and decided not to renew it after ratings mysteriously did not improve.

Moving a show out of the timeslot its franchise held for almost a decade killed the ratings. Go figure.

For five years, science fiction fans like me wandered in a television desert without an oasis. Before “The Expanse,” I had not tuned into a new episode of any show on Syfy since late 2011 during the final season of “Sanctuary,” which starred former “SG-1” and “Atlantis” actress Amanda Tapping.

After “Sanctuary” concluded, the network had turned almost entirely to reality television. Oh, how the mighty had fallen.

Hints of Syfy’s return to original science fiction programming began in late 2014, when the network aired the miniseries “Ascension,” which starred Tricia Helfer of “Battlestar Galactica.” I had heard about the premiere from a friend, but did not tune in because by that point I convinced myself nothing good could air on Syfy anymore.

After all, it was only a few months prior that the network debuted “Sharknado 2.”

However, I took the leap this past summer and watched “Ascension” on Netflix. I was pleasantly surprised. It was hardly perfect, but my craving for good sci-fi had at least been temporarily satiated.

Around the same time, the pilot episode of “The Expanse” was screened at San Diego Comic-Con and received rave reviews. Having been based on the critically acclaimed novel series of the same name by James S. A. Corey, it certainly caught my attention.

(Courtesy/Syfy)

But it was still not enough to get me to tune in for the series premiere on Dec. 15 last year. My skepticism of Syfy kept me away. I waited and read reviews for the first five episodes before finally deciding to watch it for myself.

With eight episodes aired and a two-hour season finale remaining, I think it’s finally safe to say what I have longed to say for so many years: Quality science fiction is back on Syfy.

“The Expanse,” which stars Thomas Jane, Steven Strait and Shohreh Aghdashloo, tells the story of our Solar System in the 23rd century. There are two major superpowers: Earth, which is ruled by the United Nations, and Mars, which is ruled by an independent military regime.

Then there is the colonized asteroid belt, with Ceres being the most populous colony. Unaligned with either of the major powers, visitors from Earth and Mars come and go from the Belt when business requires it. Otherwise, Belters (those who were born in the asteroid belt) are generally left to fend for themselves, hiring private security firms to act as police on the inhabited rocks.

This is where our story begins. Detective Josephus Miller (Jane) is asked to investigate the disappearance of Julie Mao (Florence Faivre), the daughter of one of Earth’s wealthiest individuals. What Miller doesn’t realize is her disappearance is tied to a faction of radicals trying to ignite a Solar System-wide civil war, turning up the heat in the Cold War between Earth and Mars.

The cast is absolutely stellar.

Jane nails the role of Detective Miller. We watch as man who has no interest in justice becomes the lone crusader on a search for Mao and the truth. Strait’s performance as James Holden, newly minted interim executive officer on the ice freighter Canterbury, is equally as brilliant, showing the struggles of leadership when nearly every decision could be life-or-death.

Aghdashloo’s portrayal of United Nations Deputy Undersecretary of Executive Administration Chrisjen Avasarala is compelling, especially in the later episodes. Her character has an enormous number of dimensions that deserve to be explored over the span of many seasons.

Visually speaking, the show is unrivaled. In the same way the visuals in “Firefly” were stunning for their time a little over a decade ago, the masterful work done in “The Expanse” continues to push the boundaries of the imagination.

Thanks in part to NASA’s Dawn spacecraft spending the last year orbiting and imaging Ceres, the depiction of the dwarf planet in the series is marvelous. Even more impressive, though, are the ships and space stations in the series. In particular, the visuals of Tycho Station and the LDSS Nauvoo are breathtaking.

I guess I’ve always been a sucker for space stations, though, because the Midway Station in “Stargate: Atlantis” gave me the exact same feeling of awe.

While the series is far and away the best thing to happen to sci-fi on television in the last decade, it still has yet to receive the audience attention it deserves. The series premiere was the only episode to draw more than one million viewers.

That’s in part because Syfy drove away so much of its core audience over the last five years. Viewership for the first eight episodes of “The Expanse” is about half of what “Stargate: Universe” got in its disappointing first season six and a half years ago. The average “Universe” episode drew about 1.5 million viewers while “The Expanse” is struggling to stay above 700,000 viewers each week.

Fortunately, despite the small audience, Syfy has already renewed series for a second season. For at least a little while, anyway, I’ll be able to rest easy knowing that new sci-fi is coming to push the boundaries of my imagination once again.

As the great science fiction author Isaac Asimov once said, “Individual science fiction stories may seem as trivial as ever to the blinder critics and philosophers of today – but the core of science fiction, its essence has become crucial to our salvation if we are to be saved at all.”

The two-hour season finale of “The Expanse” (“Critical Mass” and “Leviathan Wakes”) airs Tuesday at 10 p.m. on Syfy.


Kyle Constable is a senior staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at kyle.constable@uconn.edu. He tweets @KyleConstable.