THE EXPANSE is a 2015-2021 television program based on the novels by James S. A. Corey, currently available on several streaming services. The first three seasons appeared on the SyFy Network, and the second three produced by Amazon.

Finally, after everyone and his brother recommended this show to me, I have taken the time to watch it. Woe is me that I waited so long.

This is simply one of the best written, most well produced and well acted hardcore science fiction series it has been my pleasure to see in half a century of being an SF fan. Each tiny realistic detail of real science shows the craftsmanship and even genius of S.A. Corey, and the faithfulness of the adaptation.

But be warned: this is not for younger viewers, or adults of delicate nature, as the show revels in swearwords, introducing utterly needless and disgusting scenes of adultery, nudity, brutality.

In theme, it is dark and grim in its grimness and griminess, dwelling on the dark and nasty aspects of human nature, with heroes too flawed to be totally admirable. You will find no Captain Kirk nor Luke Skywalker here, only crooked cops, crooked politicians, crooked crooks, war criminals, roughnecks, tough guys, and lesbians. Lots of lesbians, all in mixed-race relationships.

It is, as everything in the Film Noir genre, unrealistic in its realism. Every hero has feet of clay, and every villain has understandable motives. The show is cynical and unsentimental and meant to be.

The characters are hard-boiled and hard-bitten, as one might expect facing an unforgiving frontier, with corrupt corporation and corrupt planetary governments of overpopulated Earth and militant Mars taking advantage of the weak and scattered Belters, who inhabit the moons and asteroids of the outer system.

There are no good guys, but there are some guys with bad backstories trying to do the right thing.

The first show of the first season starts with a space accident caused by negligence, complete with dismemberment of an unlucky crewman working a rig to gather icebergs from Saturn’s rings, just to inform the reader of the harsh conditions of life in space. A tramp steamer sailing inward overhears a distress call, perhaps from the victims of piracy, perhaps as a lure to trap would-be rescuers. The captain orders the distress call ignored, and the call scrubbed from the ship’s log. One ship’s officer, James Holden (played by Steven Strait) secretly disobeys orders to do the right thing, and disaster eventuates. To say more would be to reveal the very carefully woven twists and turns of clever and surprising plot.

There are no good guys, but all the characters are memorable. One of the most memorable is the world-weary police detective Josephus Miller (Thomas Jane), pounding a beat on the mean corridors of Ceres asteroid station. He wears a fedora hat in the stations, and when asked why, he half-grins and say it is to keep the rain off his face. This, from a man who has never seen rain. Of course there is a personal meaning to the affectation, but that is not shown until later. He is given an off-the-books assignment from his crooked superior, to find and return, that is, to kidnap, the rich and beautiful heiress of a corrupt plutocrat from Earth, for she has shamed the family by joining a group of idealistic freedom-fighters, that is, terrorists, urging the belters to unify and revolt against the domination of the corrupt government of Earth.

Good-natured Martian family man Alex Kamal (Cas Anvar), rescued by enemies, finds himself in the cockpit of a perhaps-illegally salvaged Martian gunship, with nothing but his limited training during a short shift as a marine transport pilot to come to his aid when he, and other survivors taken aboard, come under attack. Of course he has a troubled past.

His troubled past is as nothing compared to that of brilliant engineer Noami Nagata (Dominique Tipper) a Belter board in low gravity, whose tragic past comes to haunt her in later seasons. Her henchman Amos Burton (Wes Chatham) is a sociopath with a heart of gold … er … sort of. He will face death without flinching and kill without remorse or regret, all while maintaining his stone-cold demeanor.

Meanwhile, one of the less corrupt UN Security Council ministers of Earth Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo), grows aware not just of growing political tensions, but of a conspiracy involving an experimental protomolecule, which may be something more than a self-aware nanotech bioweapon it first seems.

Not long after, a Martian space-marine Bobbie Draper (Frankie Adams) is given what seems a routine assignment, only to see her whole squad wiped out, perhaps by the enemy, perhaps by friendly fire, perhaps by a conspiracy more sinister. As the only survivor and the only eyewitness, she becomes both an unwilling media figure, and a soldier given orders she cannot in good faith obey.

Then bad turns to worse, as all these separate threads converge on gangland bosses, terror-masters, sociopathic scientists, ambitious trillionaires, and ex- war criminals all seek the secret behind the protomolecule.

Our unlikely crewman from scene one, James Holden, now the captain of a salvaged warship, crewed by gathered misfits from inner and outer planets alike, is the only one in position to do anything — but will he and they do the right thing or the smart thing?

In this world, doing the right thing is never the smart thing.

Each of the characters is well crafted. All have a bad side and a less bad side, as do men in real life. Every now an again, one meets a character with a good side, usually someone motivated by religious faith.

Not just individuals, but whole races have their own personalities: Earth is corrupt with over-luxurious elites ruling mobs of proles, who only hope in life is a job-lottery or a career in gangland. The Martians are here portrayed as a highly disciplined republic, whose who public efforts are directed toward a dream of terraforming the planet, so their grandchildren will be able to walk unsuited under blue skies. The Belters are a collection of gangs who speak in patois, a rabble ruled by charismatic crimelords, crooked cops, corporate overlords, idealist terrorists, and the like.

The only drawback to the characterization is that the society portrayed, despite being three hundred years in our future, suffers currently fashionable egalitarianism concerning the races and sexes. Myself, I like the detail of having an Oriental with a French first name, for example, or a mulatto with a Japanese family name. It would seem no stranger to the natives of AD 2350 than we now seeing a Norman with a Saxon first name: over centuries, races intermingle. However, portrayal of female space marines able handily to overpower brawny male thugs when she is not in her power armor is and always will be absurd.

However, in all fairness, another female character who routinely trashes larger male opponents has a cyborg enhancement temporarily increasing her speed and strength. Is it possible the female marines of Mars are likewise enhanced? If so, my suspension of disbelief can once more be honestly suspended.

While it is refreshing to see religious characters treated with respect — the Mormons, for example, are constructing a multigeneration starship called “The Nauvoo”, a name which only an author with some knowledge of Mormon history would have selected — it is merely irksome to see such character portrayed as lesbians mix-race married couples raising a baby fathered by another.

These are minor drawbacks to an otherwise well written, exciting, thought-provoking show peopled by unforgettable and fully-realized characters. The mark of an expert writer: even when a character acts out of character, he does so in a way that suits his character. James S.A. Corey has the knack, and the writers adapting the show carried his genius to the small screen.

The special effects are unobtrusive, almost flawless, and even the difficult task or portraying movement is zero gee is handled well enough. Again, details matter: whiskey poured from bottle to glass on the moon moves slowly and sluggishly, while a spilled drink in zero-gee must be sucked out of midair one bobbing bubble at a time, amid laughter.

The set design, the look of the ships and buildings, the warrens and nooks carved in asteroids where the poor huddle, the seedy bars or swank apartments, all is done with care. A Martian corridor is instantly distinguishable from a corridor on Ceres, or Tycho Station, much less an open-air Earther street in overcrowded Baltimore.

As befits a dark “Film Noir” piece, the lighting is too often too dim. Of course, it is quite dark in outer space. But at times the scenes are too dimly lit.

These are all tough men and woman in tough situations with no easy answers. To those of you desensitized to every sentence starting with an F-bomb, you will be charmed and delighted as I am by the sheer cleverness and thought woven into every detail of life in space.

Finally, finally, the science fiction audience has been given a story honestly set in outer space.

Details include things like wounds not able to drain in zero gravity. Children raised in microgravity suffer bone disorders. Martians raised in buried warrens, find the blue skies of Earth a source of vertigo when visiting overcrowded world, not to mention the heavier gravity — a detail other science fiction shows and films would overlook. Disasters here are portrayed as disastrous, as when a ship evacuating from a bomb-out spacestation lacks power to pump sufficient air aboard to supply the number of refugees aboard — the hard choice of who stays behind is not handwaved away. It is grim.

I have waited years — from my youth onward — to see a space combat performed with realistic weapons under realistic outer space conditions, that is, in proper zero-gee, in three dimensions, as if in a frictionless vacuum. I never saw such a thing.

Instead, I would see a cartoon like SPACE GHOST, where men without suits would blast alien ships, whose wreckage would fall toward the bottom of the TV screen, a direction I call “space down.” But even serious big-budget science fiction films — with the sole exception of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY — would have ships in a two-dimensional plane, exchanging broadsides like ironclad sailing ships of old, or would have fighters weaving like dog-fighters, making banked turns in space. Or a fightercraft would blow up an Cylon and swoop through the smoke and debris of the explosion.

This last is noteworthy because in at least one scene in THE EXPANSE, a ship blown into smithereens during combat still intercepted an oncoming ship, and the shrapnel of the debris, at that velocity, was like a hailstorm of bullets.

Or there is a scene where a crewmember is jarred loose during a spacewalk, and sent spinning into space. There is no way to slow a spin in vacuum; blood rushes to head and feet. The radio on one’s ear can carry the voice of someone coming to the rescue, but there is no way to tell near from far, and spinning makes it hard to see. The whole scene was well depicted and frankly terrifying.

In another scene, a crewman fails to secure a tool locker. When the ship is maneuvering under high acceleration, changing vectors rapidly in combat, the tools slip loose, and ricochet around the cabin, a danger to two men in their acceleration seats.

And there is another scene just as clever in the next episode, and another and another. Scavengers stealing water from plumbing pipes. Orbital mirrors hanging over hydroponics and gardens of an outer moon. Magnetic boots and gloves to aid in motion in free fall. Medical implants to make taking anti-radiation drugs easier. Telephones controlled by swipe gestures. Railguns on spaceships having kickback.

Even shows that made some attempt at realism would get niggling details wrong. Not here. THE EXPANSE is the first time this viewer has ever seen a spaceship decelerating toward her target with her prow facing aft, so that her thrusters could thrust in the direction of motion, to slow the velocity and match speeds with the target. It would be the way ships fly, if they fly under the rules of Newtonian mechanics. I have waited my whole life to see this simple thing: now I have.

Yes, it is a small thing, of notice only to truly nitpicking fans of hardcore, realistic, near-future science fiction. But it has rarely or never been on the screen before, in TV nor in film.

A work of genius is composed of many small things, when each small thing is done well. At the risk of spoiling one small thing, I must wax lyrical over at least one example of the expertly crafted characters and writing.

In one of the most memorable scenes in the show, Amos sees a kind-hearted father, a botanist rescued from a war-crime that shattered his domed moon-colony, confronting the corrupt corporate doctor who kidnapped the botanists’ school-age daughter for ghastly and inhuman medical experimentation, along with other children. The kind-hearted father holds a gun in his trembling hands while the corrupt doctor begs for his life. Amos is wise enough to intercede, taking the gun from the kind-hearted father, and telling him he has it not in him to kill an unarmed man. “You’re not that guy,” he says sympathetically. The father nods and departs. As the corrupt doctor is thanking Amos, Amos says “But I am that guy,” and shoots him dead.

Which might not have been a wise thing, but it was the right thing.