In our most ubiquitous sci-fi franchises, space is often an incredible place to be. With jaw-droppingly cool technology, strange (and sometimes sexy!) aliens, and unbelievable landscapes, it’s a fantasyland full of lightsabers, transporters, holodecks, miracle cures, food replicators and all variety of lovable robots. But there’s very little of that stuff in The Expanse, which returns for its fourth season on Amazon’s streaming platform later this month.
Instead, James S.A. Corey’s books and their TV adaptations are inhabited by flawed, broken humans (some of whom live on Mars or in the Asteroid Belt) who haven’t evolved beyond cruelty, bias, or greed in the slightest. The handful of slick spacecraft we see in the Sol system are playthings of the wealthy; the Rocinante and most other ships are boxy, claustrophobic heaps, constantly at risk of decompressing or getting blown up.
Earlier this fall, at New York Comic Con, the crew of the Rocinante shared their thoughts about how the acclaimed series departs from an optimistic, Roddenberry-esque vision of the future with Inverse.
“Star Trek tries to make a lot of moralistic questions and themes. I don’t necessarily think The Expanse does that,” said Cas Anvar, whose character, Alex Kamal, ditched his wife and son on Mars to go have space adventures. Anvar loved both Star Wars and Star Trek as a kid but acknowledges that this show is trying to unsettle and interrogate those comforting fictions of the future.
“The Expanse is really good at showing a mirror to nature. It shows us the truthful, honest and ugliest sides of ourselves, and allows us to make up our minds about it,” Anvar said.
Wes Chatham, who plays Amos Burton, the Roci’s hardassed mechanic who grew up in a Baltimore brothel, agrees. He adds that The Expanse offers a blueprint for a future we should avoid.
“If we all were asked, ‘Hey, are you looking forward to The Expanse coming true?’ I don’t think any of us would say yes,” he said at NYCC. “It’s pretty bleak. It’s pretty violent. It’s pretty brutal. It’s pretty corrupt. But it’s very honest. There’s a brutal, realistic, unflinching look at what our world could look like 100 years from now, 150 years from now. And then it’s up to you to decide whether or not you want to change it or not.”
Even though The Expanse does include some badass space combat, moments of bold derring-do, and even mysterious telepathic ghost beings, its lead actors are quite adamant about not seeing their characters as heroes.
“There’s always flip-sides to these wonderful humans,” Dominique Tipper, who plays engineer Naomi Nagata, said. “Even if you pick out someone you really, really love, someone else might say, ‘that guy’s a dick, he left his family.’”
The same is true of the show’s protagonist, James Holden, who’s a far cry from Star Trek’s iconic Captain Kirk, despite sharing the nickname “Jim.” Rather than being the golden boy of Starfleet Academy, Holden was dishonorably discharged from the Navy for taking a swing at his commanding officer. He was working on an ice delivery vessel, essentially a glorified Philip J. Fry, when fate — and the mysterious protomolecule — intervened.
“Most people don’t pop out of the womb an incredible leader. They usually go through a ton of awful shit first, fuck up a bunch, and they learn from it and move on,” Steven Strait, who plays Holden, told Inverse. “[Holden is] cocky, naive, shirks his responsibility when you first meet him. He grows into a leadership position of competence through failure.”
While the Roci crew was quick to dissuade comparisons between The Expanse and more gung-ho spacefaring adventures of the Star Trek or Star Wars variety, Strait said he sees a lot of similarities to another well-known show: “When I was first pitched the show almost five-and-a-half years ago-ish, six years ago, that’s what they said… it’s Breaking Bad in space,” he explained with a laugh. “And I was like, I get it. I totally get it and I love it.”
The Expanse Season 4 comes to Amazon Prime Video on December 13.