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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » The Expanse: Season One (Blu-ray)
The Expanse: Season One (Blu-ray)
Universal // Unrated // April 5, 2016 // Region A
List Price: $49.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Randy Miller III | posted April 13, 2016 | E-mail the Author

Whether or not you herald Syfy's new *gasp* sci-fi series The Expanse as "the next Battlestar Galactica" or not, it's obvious that there's some real potential here. Developed by Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby (both screenwriters on Children of Men and Iron Man) and based on a series of novels by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck (under the combined pen name "James S. A. Corey"), The Expanse serves up an ambitious slice of interplanetary struggle, political intrigue, and social commentary. The first season's scope defies its modest running time of just 10 43-minute episodes, no doubt due to the complex, serialized storytelling that makes each chapter feel more like one segment of a much longer film.

Three separate narratives form The Expanse's initial structure during this first season: perhaps the most accessible and engaging is the sudden disappearance of Juliet Mao (Florence Faivre), daughter of a wealthy businessman and last seen aboard the transport freighter Scopuli before its distress beacon was activated. Detective Joe Miller (Thomas Jane, sporting a Shinsuke Nakamura haircut and a doofy fedora "to keep the rain off his head") is unofficially tasked with finding Mao; tracking down several leads on Ceres Station, Miller's interest in the case gradually turns personal instead of professional and it inevitably interferes with his normal duties. Working occasionally with current and former partners Dmitri Havelock (Jay Hernandez) and Octavia Muss (Athena Karkanis), Miller perpetually keeps them at a distance and, more often than not, labors alone to uncover the mystery surrounding Mao's evanescence.

Not far behind is the plight of the Canterbury, an ice trawler attacked by a mysterious cloaked enemy after answering the Scopuli's call for help. Though acting executive officer James Holden (Steven Strait), an ex-Naval officer who served aboard the Canterbury for five years, serves as the de facto crew leader after said attack, his impulsive decisions are often second-guessed, including his theories about the attack. The other surviving crew members---including engineer Naomi Nagata (Dominique Tipper), pilot Alex Kamal (Cas Anvar), burly mechanic Amos Burton (Wes Chatham), and surprisingly ineffective medic Shed Garvey (Paulo Costanzo)---have different ideas about the cloaked ship; together with the remaining survivors, loyalties are tested and at least one of them may be working for the enemy.

Running a slightly more distant third is The Expanse's political backbone, largely featuring UN executive Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and her attempts to prevent war between Earth, Mars, and the working-class citizens of the Asteroid Belt (usually referred to as "Belters"). Born out of the Belters' struggle with Earth and Mars is the Outer Planets Alliance, a faction viewed as either blue-collar heroes or straight-up terrorists...depending on who you ask, of course. Avasarala's "any means necessary" approach to protecting Earth includes the gravity torture of a prisoner from the Belt, as well as several other shady tactics that fit right in with The Expanse's bleak, dystopian vision of what life might be like 200 years down the line. It paints a pretty dark picture, but one that's still easy to get lost in.

As this ten-episode season unfolds, The Expanse rarely has trouble with building tension and the slow reveals that hint at much bigger things to come. It does however, have trouble with how some of this information is unloaded onto first-time viewers: there's quite a bit of clunky exposition at times (including a wall of introductory text in the first episode) and at least one prominent character is even introduced by those on-screen tags usually reserved for documentaries. But while some of these transitional---or at least temporary---items are sloppy to the point of distraction, The Expanse's core execution is largely solid, as are almost all of the performances, action sequences, production designs, music cues, and the world-building elements necessary for future season(s) to smoothly continue. Although I'm hardly a sci-fi fanatic (aside from obvious candidates like all things Star Trek, Firefly, Babylon 5, and the aforementioned Battlestar Galactica), The Expanse is obviously impressive and next year's second season will have my attention.

For the time being, new and established fans of the show and/or novels will have to make do with Universal's somewhat limp Blu-ray, which serves up a terrific A/V presentation and basically nothing else. (Even the menu interface, which doesn't warrant more than a few passive comments in most reviews, stands out for most of the wrong reasons.) Yet it's still a decent enough package, especially considering that TV on Blu-ray seems to be a slowly dying trend.

Video & Audio Quality

Not surprisingly, Universal has served up an excellent 1.78:1, 1080p transfer that easily outpaces The Expanse's original run on SyFy. The show's dark and stylish color palettes look accurate, black levels and contrast are deep, and textures are typically strong throughout. Everything looks surprisingly consistent for a digitally-shot series that's mostly rendered in low light, which makes the occasional outdoor and daytime scenes look all the more appealing in direct contrast. Digital imperfections---including excessive noise reduction, edge enhancement, and compression artifacts---aren't much of an issue at all, although mild banding and aliasing were spotted at times and some of the extremely deep black levels looked a little chunky. The limited CG effects---which are less extensive than you might think---also blend quite well with the practical shots, as they aren't always designed to stand out. Overall, this a visually striking presentation and I'd imagine that fans will appreciate having a Blu-ray option (which isn't always a guarantee these days).

DISCLAIMER: The resized screen caps and promotional images featured in this review do not represent Blu-ray's 1080p resolution.

Likewise, The Expanse's DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix creates a consistent and compelling atmosphere; music cues and subtle background noises are well-placed and effective without screaming for attention. Low frequency output is also ample at times, filling out a good chunk of the sonic landscape without drowning everything else. Overall, The Expanse's premise and overall atmosphere demand strong effects and clever touches along the way, and this lossless audio presentation takes advantage of that with a great mix that's not as overcooked as it could've been in lesser hands. Optional English SDH subtitles have been included during the episodes and quote-unquote bonus features.

Menu Design, Presentation, and Packaging

A good interface should be fluid. smooth, and intuitive...which is why Universal's menu design for The Expanse is probably one of the worst in recent memory. There's barely any text at all (not even episode names, just numbers) and cryptic icons instead of no-brainer headings like "subtitles" and "bonus features". I guess it's easy enough to decode after a few tries, but this is surprisingly cheap and sloppy work for a major studio release; the only saving grace is a handy (but again, cryptic) "resume" function that at least lets you skip a bunch of forced trailers once you've already watched them. This two-disc release is packaged in a multi-hubbed keepcase; the interior artwork includes an episode list (repurposed above), along with an Ultraviolet Digital Copy redemption code and embossed matching slipcover.

Bonus Features

Easily the other low point of this release, extras are limited to just a handful of Deleted Scenes for the first episode, "Dulcinea" (3 clips, 2 minutes total), which are mostly small moments featuring Detective Miller. Considering the handful of behind-the-scenes featurettes and other material floating around on YouTube and elsewhere, the lack of effort here is disappointing. At least the episodes look and sound better than streaming and cable versions, right?

The Expanse is unusual for a SyFy original series: not only is it actually sci-fi, but it's quite good at times and shows plenty of promise during this debut season. (Whether it's "the next Battlestar Galactica", a lofty assertion that hopefully won't hang over its head too long, has yet to be determined.) Though more than a little derivative at times, The Expanse obviously has a thinking head on its shoulders and it's perfect for binge watching on DVR...or in this case, Blu-ray. Unfortunately, Universal's efforts here don't amount to much more than a terrific A/V presentation: the sloppy menu interface and almost total lack of extras don't justify its price, hurting what could otherwise be a well-rounded package. Recommended nonetheless, but those new to the series may want to stream a few episodes first.

Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work and runs a website or two. In his free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, hanging out with his hot wife, and writing in third person.

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