She grabs my hand and pulls me into a humble dwelling. Cloth hangs from the ceiling, shielding us from the abrasive sun – but nothing inside feels like a home. There is one thing though: an ornate, metallic tea kettle and two small containers. The woman pours both of us a glass and offers me a seat. You have to believe that we want peace. Her words are sincere and earnest. I notice the smile lines around her eyes and mouth as she talks, but there’s no hint of a smile on her face now. Your presence here will not end well; you have to tell your people to leave. We don’t want to fight, but we will if we have to. Her words hang in the air; with the weight of the alien gravity. I thank her for her hospitality, stand up, and enter the blazing sun to deliver her message to my comrades.
The Expanse is one of three experiential activations at San Diego Comic-Con by Tool of North America aimed to promote the fourth season of the popular Amazon Prime television show. Written by Tom Salamon, this experience blends powerful and evocative writing with strong acting to create some of the most memorable moments at SDCC. Compared to Carnival Row’s sandbox-styled immersive playground, The Expanse adopts a multi-track approach, separating your group of twenty into smaller groups of five and putting each on individual paths. On these paths, there are plenty of opportunities for one-on-ones as actors pull participants from the smaller groups to offer them a deeper look into the lore of the experience. This unique style perfectly compliments the multi-layered narrative, as each group was privy to one side’s perspective, allowing for some poignant conversation afterward regarding who was in the right.
Guests are invited aboard the Rocinante spaceship as United Nations peacekeepers headed to the soon to be colonized planet of Ilus. A prior group of 23 researchers have gone missing – while it’s unclear whether it was because of an accident or malicious action, some blame a Belter: Ramon Andrews. After a quick introduction from your ship’s captain (Joy Jones) and a wonderful effect of the landing gear deploying, the doors open to reveal the red dirt, small huts, and monolithic metallic structures of the alien planet. Belters, the working class born in the Asteroid belt, wear dirty clothes, are adorned with strange symbols tattooed into their skin, and look upon us with distrust. But as our captain makes our presence known, tensions soon rise and groups are separated: some with the Belters, others with the Captain to find out just what’s happened on Ilus.
The rift between the three factions (Belters, UN, and scientists) is only enhanced by the strong acting, cast by Ross Tipograph (who produced with the Sleep No More team). On my track, I am pulled from the group early on by a hospitable but determined Belter (Suzana Norberg). Norberg’s kindness proves of little value; but luckily, Lauren Hayes (They Who Saw The Deep, Ma, Awake) begrudgingly agrees to help us in our fact-finding – as long as we remain useful to her. And when diplomacy fails altogether, Hayes is quick to pull a knife, ready to start a riot. Her ideals subside – and only anger remains. Another track (check out the video) brought participants into a small room, and face to face with a dramatic interrogation with a Belter. Spencer Williams (Tales by Candlelight, The Guest and The Host Make Music) plays one of the few remaining scientists after a catastrophic ship wreck. He turns his anger to the Belters, seeking vegengance and wearing it on this face as a grim mask. Per UN law, he gives your group five minutes with Andrews, the Belter prisoner that he blames for his colleagues’ death. A powerful performance by Ricky Bulda as Andrews results in a scene that is both raw and heartbreaking. Each of these tracks, scenes, and performances highlight the magnitude of responses people have to fear–fear of the unknown, of the different, and the end of life.
A character in itself, the planet of Ilus feels desolate and as repressed as the Belters that inhabit it. The barren red sands are foreign, and the strange symbols adorning each cast member’s bodies only add to the feeling of otherworldliness. Each house feels necessary and Utilitarian, rather than comforting or cozy. The costumes are dusty, ravaged, and messy. Together, these elements further contrast against the clean, unwrinkled uniforms and pristine, functional spaceship of the UN. Each piece serves to enhance the divide between the multiple factions, elevating the theme of inequality that permeates through all the Amazon experiences.
The Expanse takes audiences to a foreign planet where people wish to live peacefully but are willing to resort to violence to keep the home they have. With the highest stakes and actors exuding high energies, this experience is what makes the show successful: a noir detective story mixed with sci-fi elements that is thrilling, suspenseful, and thoughtful. While the Belters remain fighting for the sovereignty of their home, I’m truly glad that The Expanse found a home at San Diego Comic-Con.