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‘The Expanse’ is the Hard Sci-fi Drama ‘Mass Effect: Andromeda’ Wants to Be

Frustrated with 'Mass Effect: Andromeda'? You Should Watch 'The Expanse'.

by Danielle Riendeau
Mar 29 2017, 8:49am

All The Expanse images courtesy of SyFy

Note: this piece contains a couple of very mild story spoilers for The Expanse.

I'll start this out by saying I like Mass Effect: Andromeda, from what I've played and seen (mostly seen, having watched my girlfriend sink 80+ hours into the game). I adore the Mass Effect series, generally, for its heart, grand space opera trappings, and lovable characters. Though Andromeda doesn't hit the bar set by earlier games of the series for me, it does have a lot to enjoy, like memorable characters—especially PeeBee and Vetra—gunplay that's more varied and free-form than in chapters past, and the theme, at least, on paper, is exciting. This is Mass Effect in the Wild West, essentially.

But the "complexities at the frontier" plot that Andromeda desperately wants to sell is lacking in… well, a lot of complexity. For much of the game, you are an alien who comes into unknown territory, kicks ass and solves the region's long-standing problems, painting you as either the only competent mind in this part of the universe (unlikely, given the difficulties of surviving in space) or some kind of magical superhero.

All Mass Effect: Andromeda screens courtesy of EA

It's fun, but deeply unsatisfying, lacking in both texture and moral weight.

But if you crave those very things things—alongside the stuff that Andromeda does do well, like crackling gunfights and all those pretty images of space—you should give Syfy's The Expanse a shot.

Now in its second season (which has pushed the pace, hard, since the opener), the show posits a future where humans have colonized several of the inner planets. Earth is a paradise with niceties like universal basic income and free air, while the militaristic Mars and struggling cities of the asteroid belt illustrate the universe of difference between haves and have-nots. The class warfare is as intense or more than the literal gunfights and dogfights that punctuate the show.

The Expanse stills courtesy of Syfy

The Expanse also gives us believable, fallible heroes. There's James Holden, played by Steven Strait, who's a Navy guy caught in a truly extraordinary set of circumstances, doing his best to hold things together for his crew—and not start a war between factions. Dominique Tipper'sNaomi Nagata is a "belter" (as in, she was born in the Asteroid Belt) with ties to an extremist group (themselves a complex "one man's revolutionary is another man's terrorist" set of characters) trying to do the right thing in a sea of uncertainty. 

Thomas Jane plays Detective Joe Miller—yes, this is the guy with the dumb haircut and hat—a belter cop who, would've you guessed it, gets in trouble for sniffing out corruption. Shohreh Aghdashloo's Chrisjen Avasarala, meanwhile, is the coolest woman in the universe, a UN diplomat who is smarter than anyone else in a given room but plays her political games in order to genuinely help people.

As much as I adore Star Trek, The Expanse's darker, more nuanced view of the future rings truer in many ways.

I could go on and on—I love the relationship between Martian pilot Alex (Cas Anvar) and Naomi's muscle-bound, emotionally troubled buddy Amos (Wes Chatham)—but I don't have enough space. Every character on the show, even supporting players without much screen time, are set up as believable people with equally believable biases, histories and motivations.

Star Trek this is not—and as much as I adore the starry-eyed, aspirational series from my youth, The Expanse's darker, more nuanced view of the future rings truer in many ways. Politicians and unhinged scientists gamble with people's lives and return to lavish apartments, while poor belters get spaced (or worse) for trivialities. Revolutionary groups spring up from the belter settlements, understandably, but some cells commit acts of heinous violence. Martians toil endlessly in pursuit of a better world, but their civilization is harsh and spartan. 

And, sometimes, folks with the purest hearts end up fucking up. Badly.

 

I'll be vague to avoid spoilers, but there's a scene in a recent episode that illustrates everything about The Expanse's world of moral grays and intentions leading to god-knows-where. A band of characters that generally act in a heroic (or, at the very least, admirable) way steal a ship from a couple who runs supplies for humanitarian relief. The grizzled captain of that ship, pissed off, but going along with it, chides her captors for their wannabe "save the world" ideals, preferring instead to "help a few souls along the way."

Later, after they leave the ship, our heroes spy some thugs trying to steal the same ship. When they intervene, they make things worse. Much, much worse.

The Expanse doesn't shy away from some very dirty and uncomfortable truths about humanity. Most of all, it feels emotionally honest.

So much for saving the world.

The Expanse doesn't shy away from some very dirty and uncomfortable truths about humanity. About hatred and greed, and the seething combination of the two that breeds when some folks have everything, and others nothing. It's achingly beautiful at times, and there are many moments of genuine heroics—amid the muck and dirt.

Most of all, it feels emotionally honest. The people here are trying to scrape by in a difficult world.

Like our buddy Andromeda, it's far from perfect. It takes a little while to really get going (though it starts off with a bang in its premiere episode), with a lot of setup in its first season. And while the visual effects and production design are good-to-great in most scenes, there are certainly a few dips into what Rob and I like to call "trashcan eclair" territory. Meaning, chiefly, that there's some occasional cheesiness.

 

Mass Effect, for its part, has always ridden something of a line when it comes to moral complexity, but there's no version of that universe where you aren't playing as some kind of hero (whether by the book, or by throwing said book out of an airlock). I love playing the hero—but I'd love to see what happens if the rules changed and the challenges were less mechanical, and more emotional.

Certainly, there are some places where a comparison makes no sense between a TV series and a game series. I can't play The Expanse in any real sense, and I can't "watch" Mass Effect without seeing it through the filter of a human player and the specific choices they make.

But if you are looking for good hard sci-fi with memorable characters and both "big question" sci-fi meat and a healthy portion of social commentary, The Expanse should be your destination.

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