Friday 5 February 2016

The Expanse: Season 1

Two centuries from now, humanity has spread across the Solar system. Mars is independent, its population working together to terraform the planet and building a high-technology society whose capabilities are beginning to outstrip those of Earth. A tense cold war between the two is building with the miners and ice haulers of the asteroid belt caught in the middle.

When a rich heiress goes missing and an ice hauler is destroyed near Saturn, tensions between Earth and Mars threaten to spill over into war. It falls to the survivors of the ice hauler and a determined cop on Ceres to expose the truth: that all of the factions are being manipulated by forces unknown for a much more mysterious, and deadly, reason.

Space operas have been a bit thin on the ground since Battlestar Galactica and Stargate: Universe both ended half a decade ago. Since then TV SF has largely restrained itself to near-future techno-thrillers like Fringe and Person of Interest. However, SyFy is now leading the fight back. It has launched two new space opera shows, Dark Matter and Killjoys, but these are relatively low-budget affairs. The Expanse is different. It's a big-budget, flagship, tentpole show designed firmly to recapture the BSG audience with its take on politics, war and human nature. It's also based on a popular series of novels by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck (writing as James S.A. Corey), which should minimise concerns about the writers and producers not having "a plan" for future episodes and seasons (a key criticism of BSG).

This is a tense and at times claustrophobic show, with our protagonists spending most of their time in tunnels inside asteroid colonies or in spacecraft. The only time we get a feeling of air and freedom is when the series cuts away to events on Earth, where UN Deputy Undersecretary Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo) is investigating the events in space from the homeworld and using her canny political skills to work out how both Earth and Mars are being manipulated. This use of physical space cleverly ties into the sociological themes of the show, that the people in the belt are living in uncomfortable and unpleasant conditions for the betterment of people hundreds of millions of miles away who don't care about them whilst living off the benefits of their work.

The main cast consists of several intersecting groups of characters. The largest, and the group we spend the most time, with are crewmembers from the Canterbury who survive the opening episode: Jim Holden (Steven Strait), Alex Kamal (Cas Anvar), Naomi Nagata (Dominique Tipper) and Amos Burton (Wes Chatham). This core cast is a little different from the books: Holden is slightly younger, Alex is more of a family man and Amos is both younger and shorter than their book counterparts. However, in each case the changes work well. In particular, Amos in the books is big and beefy and loyal to a fault, but still has a coldly utilitarian attitude to violence which disturbs his shipmates. Despite his shorter stature, Chatham sells the same thousand-yard stare and air of barely-controlled danger simply through attitude and confidence, and inhabits the character completely convincingly (although he also has a moderately distracting resemblance to BSG's Aaron Douglas). Naomi walks pretty much straight off the page. Thomas Jane also does outstanding work as Joe Miller, the hardbitten noir cop who is so much of a cliche that even he and his bosses remark on it. But Jane's nuanced performance brings out Miller's humanity and his search for something good to live for in the world. The Walking Dead and The Wire's Chad Coleman also has a small but pivotal role as Fred Johnson, a different kind of role for the actor (an administrator and general) which he pulls off skillfully.

The casting is excellent throughout, even where they differ from the character descriptions in the books, and clearly the show has put a lot of thought into bringing out the belter patois as well as mentioning how those born in low gravity tend to be thinner and taller than those born on Earth. The show also makes concessions to the low-gravity environments of places like Ceres and Eros, by showing birds half-floating through the air, only having to flap their wings every now and then, or by having liquids move slowly through the air when being poured. However, the people themselves tend to move around pretty normally, as if they're in 1G. This is a decent compromise between showing the scientific reality of low-gravity environments without them having to spend 90% of the show pretending to walk through syrup. There is also no artificial gravity, so unless they're under thrust the ships also feature zero-gravity environments which are pulled off quite impressively.

The production values are stunning, with large, expansive and expensive-looking sets and some quite incredible CGI in places. The spacecraft are chunky and primitive compared to those in other space operas, with no FTL travel meaning that the action is restricted to the Solar system and it takes days or weeks to get anywhere even with their highly fuel-efficient Epstein drives. The Expanse has had a lot of money spent on it (it's apparently SyFy's most expensive-ever production) and most of it is firmly on screen. There is also a wonderful theme tune and fantastic opening credits, although these are only seen in full in the first and last episodes (the remainder just having a title card).

With great production values, amazing CGI, fantastic actors and some brilliantly-handled scenes, the show should be slam dunk. Unfortunately it's held back by several flaws. The first of these is pacing. The first season is based on Leviathan Wakes, the first novel of a planned nine in the novel series. However, it doesn't cover all of the novel and finishes about two-thirds of the way through the book. This has several issues. We can assume that they are not planning 13-18 seasons, so the structural implications of cutting off the plot are not necessarily an issue (especially as the next two books are quite focused around Holden and company, the TV series can use the Earthbound plot to open things up and use the remains of the much more plot-dense Leviathan Wakes to open the second season). However, what is an issue is the effect is has on pacing. The show moves fairly slowly for the first six or seven episodes, then the last three are fairly jam-packed with incident. Early reviews show that many viewers, in particular those unfamiliar with the novels, have found these early episodes a bit of a slog and turned off in droves; the show lost more than half of its audience over its run. Fortunately, SyFy have taken on board the very healthy online viewing figures and renewed the show for a second season regardless. But it's certainly a concern that the first episodes are a little too obsessed with worldbuilding and scene-setting over action. Another issue, although understandable from a budget standpoint, is that the show a little too obviously shares its asteroid sets between Ceres and Eros, which could also be confusing to some viewers.

What we get instead is a lot of fine characterisation, which space operas usually don't prioritise. But here we get quite a lot of building up of the characters, their motivations and what makes them tick. For those who enjoy character-building, the slower-paced opening episodes are excellent. For those who prefer to have the characterisation established through the plot and action, The Expanse's writing and structural choices may be initially challenging.

The first season of The Expanse (****) is the finest season of space opera to air since the second season of Battlestar Galactica, a full decade ago. It's well-written and finely-acted with excellent production values, effects and its own, unique atmosphere. The pacing is a little off and the first season doesn't so much climax as end (well short of the book's own much bigger and more climactic finale), but overall this is both an enjoyable season of SF and also a rare example of the TV show being better than the book. The season will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray in the United States on 5 April.

Note for would-be UK viewers: somewhat inexplicably, SyFy has failed to secure a UK distributor for The Expanse, either in terms of showing it or releasing it on DVD or Blu-Ray. This is baffling, given how other, considerably cheaper and less-accomplished American TV shows are routinely picked up in the UK. As a result, the only option for watching the show in the UK right now is to order the media release from the United States.


Mike said...

I agree about it being slow. I couldn't even make it thought a single episode because I found it to be so boring!

I have little enough time to watch TV and there are enough good shows on TV and NetFlix that I don't bother anymore with shows that *might* become good after 10 hours.

Wastrel said...

This is one of those shows where I have to feel a big disconnect - even incomprehension - toward many TV critics. I just don't understand people's thinking on this one. The AVclub, for instance, complains that much of the information discovered over the course of the series could have been conveyed in half the time. And that's true. I mean, the entire plot and backstory could have been conveyed through bullet points and infographics, and it would have taken less than an episode... but is that really why we watch TV, to have information conveyed to us as quickly and efficiently as possible? Oh no, thinks the critic, we had to discover things slowly in a tense and mysterious way, while having to watch well-realised characters go through various perils and travails - who wants that?

It also bothers me that this seems like a double standard against the genre. By critical acclaim, the two best shows on TV right now are probably Fargo and The Americans (both of which are indeed fantastic). But both of them are every bit as patient and teasing as The Expanse. The Americans, in particular, is positively glacial - another series could have gotten through all the significant plot beats and most of the sideplots of the first three seasons in about five episodes. [In fact, in fundamental terms, regarding the protagonists, there have only been three significant plot developments, two of them in the second half of the last season]. Critics love the patience of these shows. But when it comes to SF, it all has to be explosions and firefights and plot conveyed quickly in infodumps.
Critics complain that The Expanse wastes time because by the end of the season the good guys have only just caught up to what the audience sees in the cold open... presumably Breaking Bad is a complete waste of time too, on those grounds...

I'm not criticising you, btw - you're actually much more moderate than the professional reviews I've seen, and it is true that compared to something like Killjoys* it's a much slower, much more novelistic style. But I think that there's a place for immersive, novelistic storytelling, and I don't think that place is exclusively outside SF&F, as critics seem to.

*incidentally, I'm not sure I'd call Killjoys and Dark Matter 'space operas' exactly. But that's a debate for another time...

Dave Ellis said...

What's even more baffling is we have a SyFy channel in UK...Don't they just own the rights and can show it??

Silent said...

I'm pretty sure that there is one episode left, or are you ahead of the syfy schedule? I think the 10th episode is this Tuesday and is titled 'Leviathan Wakes".

Adam Whitehead said...

The SyFy channel in the UK is a franchise. They bought the name rights from the American channel and they probably have some kind of direct communications, but they are effectively a separate organisation. SyFy UK is VERY low budget and can't actually afford to buy most shows from the US SyFy. That's why they usually end up on other channels.

Episodes 9 and 10 aired last week as a double bill.

Geoffrey said...

I really enjoyed this. I started reading Leviathan Wakes a while ago but never finished it for whatever reason and I was bummed out about it because I kept hearing that the novels that follow it are for the most part all excellent. Anyway I was hoping to watch this first season and then move on to the books but now finding out that the TV show ends only 3/4 of the way into the first book I am worried I might be lost if I jump into Caliban's War now. Should I wait for season two to come out or is it no big deal in your opinion? Anyway I could use some advice because I can tell that I am really going to like this series. If you could recommend a good fan page with a summary that would get me caught up with the plot before going into Book Two that would be great. Thanks Adam