Canceled by the Syfy network after three seasons, the ambitious space opera series The Expanse was rescued by Amazon, reportedly at the direction of Jeff Bezos himself. About a year and a half after its last broadcast episode, the show makes a big jump to the Prime Video streaming platform for its fourth season. The move coincides with other notable changes. Fortunately, all of them benefit the drama, which maintains the excellent quality of its writing and storytelling while allowing some extra room to breathe and expand (no pun intended) its scope.
Based on a book series credited to the name "James S.A. Corey" (a pseudonym for co-authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck), The Expanse debuted on Syfy in 2015 to great critical acclaim but wasn't quite the breakout hit or Battlestar Galactica replacement the network may have hoped. The show lasted three seasons until Syfy pulled the plug in mid 2018. The cancelation happened right at a critical transition point in the narrative, with humanity poised to leave its home solar system for the first time. Thankfully, the producers at Alcon Entertainment shopped the series around until it found a welcoming home at Amazon Prime.
The fourth season primarily adapts the novel Cibola Burn. New viewers hoping for a soft reboot they might jump right into would be advised to go back and watch the first three seasons (also streaming on Amazon, and recently upgraded to 4K HDR quality). This is a tightly plotted serial narrative, and the story will likely not make much sense without the background.
Season 3 ended with the mysterious Ring Gate opening over 1,300 wormholes to new solar systems begging for exploration or exploitation. Fearing another incursion of the dangerous protomolecule that could threaten the human race with extinction, the governments of Earth, Mars, and the Belt formed an alliance to stem any travel through the gate with a blockade. Nevertheless, some ships have slipped through, mostly carrying desperate Belter refugees seeking new homes or riches. When one of them successfully establishes a colony on a distant planet called Ilus, U.N. Secretary General Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo) asks James Holden (Steven Strait) and the crew of the Rocinante to visit the planet, scope out the situation, and report back on any dangers there that might work their way back to Earth. Although reluctant, Holden continues to be pestered by visions of his dead friend Miller (Thomas Jane), conjured by exposure to alien technology, and Miller is very eager to travel through the gate.
Arriving on Ilus, Holden and crew are forced to mediate a feud between the Belter colonists and a mining operation whose security chief (Burn Gorman) is all too willing to wipe them out to protect his legal contract. However, that squabble is soon dwarfed in significance by ancient alien artifacts littering the planet, which reawaken after millennia dormant. Meanwhile, Avasarala is distracted by a faltering election campaign back on Earth. Camina Drummer (Cara Gee) now commands the space station at the head of the Ring Gate blockade, with former antagonist Ashford (David Strathairn) at her side. On Mars, Bobbie Draper (Frankie Adams) struggles to adjust to civilian life since being discharged from the military.
The shift to Amazon actually comes at a fortuitous moment for The Expanse. At Syfy, the show's ambitions often strained the limits of its resources. That surely would have proven problematic for this season's storyline, which grows in scale when the characters set off to explore new worlds. From the results on screen, Amazon appears to have granted the series a comfortable budget increase. In addition to the new settings, the production has been bumped up to 4K HDR video with a noticeable uptick in the quality of visual effects. (These episodes have some truly stunning scenes of spaceships in orbit over the planet.) The creators also enjoy the freedom to play around with aspect ratio, framing all the scenes on Ilus at a letterboxed 2.39:1. Most amusingly, the dialogue is now uncensored, which allows Avasarala to unleash her sharp tongue without bleeping.
Unlike Syfy's weekly broadcast schedule, Amazon delivered the entire fourth season last Friday, ready for bingeing.
Beyond that, The Expanse is largely still the same show it always was. That's a good thing, because it was already pretty terrific. This season brings another well-crafted plot filled with complex political intrigue, rich character development, and the occasional thrilling space battle.
The Expanse always deserved more exposure than Syfy was able to offer it. Hopefully Amazon can bring it to more viewers' eyeballs. The service is confident enough in that to have already renewed the show for a fifth season.
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Josh Zyber has written about TV, movies, and home theater for the past two decades. Most recently, he spent more than nine years managing a daily blog at High-Def Digest.