A Whole New World: The Expanse’s Fourth Season Broadens Its Horizons 

click to enlarge COURTESY OF AMAZON PRIME VIDEO
  • Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video

When Syfy cancelled The Expanse in 2018, it seemed like yet another science fiction show cut down in its prime, doomed to go the way of Firefly and The 4400. What’s worse is that readers of the James S. A. Corey novels knew that the series was only just reaching where things start to get really good.

But in a move that has become commonplace over the past decade, Amazon played deus ex machina, swooping in to save the show just in time for what would be its biggest season yet. Fittingly, Jeff Bezos made the announcement at the National Space Society’s International Space Development Conference in Los Angeles a mere few weeks after the show was given the ax.

As season three’s final episodes aired, fans who’d “read ahead” were hopeful that a move to Amazon Prime Video would mean that the transition into the fourth novel’s literally expansive setting would be backed up by the production values it deserves.

And boy howdy, it is.

click to enlarge COURTESY OF AMAZON PRIME VIDEO
  • Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video

Like Netflix, Amazon knows the winning formula for rescuing cancelled series: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The result is a new season of The Expanse that retains what fans know and love, with the added benefit of a more “grown up” atmosphere — we’re not on Basic Cable anymore, Toto.

The first episode of the season comfortably lays out the plot arc and major players, although it plays loosely with time in a way that may confuse watchers who’ve forgotten that it takes quite a while to travel from Earth to the edge of the solar system, even with the Expanse universe’s trademark Epstein Drive. The truce between the factions of Earth, Mars and the Belt is shaky at best, and now that the protomolecule-constructed Ring has put interstellar travel into humanity’s hands, anything could happen.

With all this in mind — and a spectral Miller breathing down his neck — Captain James Holden (Steven Strait) is sent with the crew of the Rocinante to a newly discovered planet with two names: Ilus, from the Belter refugees who arrived there first, and New Terra, from the Earth corporation that has an official charter to operate there.

click to enlarge COURTESY OF AMAZON PRIME VIDEO
  • Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video

The introductory episode also shows off the enhancements provided by the move to Amazon. For the first time, Shohreh Aghdashloo is able to play U.N. diplomat Chrisjen Avasarala with the proper vocabulary. No longer are we relegated to a paltry few swears a season, but are up to almost an f-bomb a line. Rather than overdo it, though, Aghdashloo takes her enhanced diction in stride, smoothly folding the fucks into her performance.

As in past seasons, The Expanse maintains a surprising level of tangibility for a space opera by eschewing copious CGI in favor of physical props and sets whenever possible. Anyone concerned that Ilus/New Terra would be a green screen nightmare can lay their worries to rest, because scenes planetside were filmed on location. As the Roci crew marvels at the new horizons unfolding before them, viewers also feast their eyes on palpable vistas that give the characters’ arrival to a new world more weight than a CGI landscape would have offered.

The inclusion of a fully built set of the Ilus/New Terra settlement is just the icing on the cake.

click to enlarge COURTESY OF AMAZON PRIME VIDEO
  • Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video

The cast is up to all their old tricks — Cas Anvar (Alex Kamal) and Wes Chatham (Amos Burton) return to their roles with particular panache, and Thomas Jane’s transformation into the ProtoMillercule gives his hardboiled character new life. And just because Bobbie Draper isn’t around much in the novel Cibola Burn doesn’t mean we have to spend an entire season sans Frankie Adams. To keep her in play, the showrunners integrated material from elsewhere in the book series to let viewers keep an eye on the action on the inner planets while the Roci crew faffs around in interstellar space.

The Expanse’s casting department must’ve also made the move to Amazon, because season four’s newcomers are top notch. Burn Gorman (Torchwood, Pacific Rim) is killer as company man Adolphus Murtry and it’s nice to see Jess Salgueiro shine as Chandra Wei after her character’s immediate obliteration on Amazon’s The Boys. As an added bonus, both actors have excellent onscreen chemistry with Chatham’s Amos, albeit for very different reasons.

Similar to past seasons, the action of the novel is sped up considerably, covering a lot of narrative ground in the six episodes provided to reviewers. Still, this is nothing new, as the show moved quickly through the preceding action to keep the narrative running at an even keel. Plus, with four more books of material on the horizon, Expanse fans likely won’t be faced with an end-of-series blowup a la Game of Thrones.

The Expanse may not be the best sci-fi TV series ever made, but it’s certainly in the running, and with Amazon’s backing the show may very well fulfill fans’ dreams for a series covering the full narrative arc of the books. The fourth season shows exactly what has drawn both book-reading fans and new watchers to The Expanse, and cements its reputation as gripping, well-made speculative television.

The Expanse season four will be available to stream in full on Amazon Prime Video on Friday, December 13.

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March 25, 2020

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