Sunday, 16 January 2022

The Expanse: Season 6

The Solar system is reeling from the massive attacks unleashed on Earth and Mars by Marcos Inaros. With Earth still under threat, the UN fleet is unable to take the offensive, leaving it to rebel Belters led by Carmina Drummer and privateers like the Rocinante crew to keep Inaros on the defensive. Meanwhile, on the colony world of Laconia a bold renegade Martian admiral is tapping the planet's resources to build his own empire.

The Expanse has reliably been the best space opera TV show of the last decade, shading higher-profile but dumber fare like Star Trek: Discovery and Foundation with its excellent character development, outstanding visuals and strong writing. It has also, perhaps surprisingly, ended with only six of the nine novels in the series having been brought to the screen.

The reasons for ending the show here are persuasive: six seasons is a hell of a long time for any space opera TV show, two better than the much more heavily-feted Battlestar Galactica reboot, and only one less than three of the Star Treks. Going for another three might have been a bit too ambitious. In addition, there is a substantial time-skip in the books between the sixth and seventh volumes, which would require the TV show to put all the actors in aging makeup (always iffy) or recasting the whole cast (also dubious).

In that light you'd expect the producers to rewrite the ending of the sixth book, Babylon's Ashes, into an ending for the whole series. But they don't really do that either. The season adapts Babylon's Ashes with some fairly logical changes (substituting Drummer for Michio, as they did last season) and also some eyebrow-raising ones. The season brings in and adapts Strange Dogs, a self-contained novella exploring the initial colonisation of Laconia and the discover of its secrets there, as a prelude to the massive role Laconia plays in the closing three novels of the series. Adapting Strange Dogs with no guarantee that the setup will pay off later on is...bold, especially when this final season only has six episodes to work with rather than the more normal ten.

That said, giving Babylon's Ashes only six episodes to work with is a good idea: the novel is one of the weaker in the series, acting more as an extended coda to the epic events of Nemesis Games then a novel in its own right, with a huge number of POV characters meaning that its pacing was shot to hell and it felt like the final defeat of the bad guys was done way too easily. Season 6 of the show, on the other hand, mitigates almost all these problems. The pacing means the story is tighter and more focused; most of the other characters aren't even in the show so the focus can remain tight on the Roci family, Avasarala and Drummer; and the defeat of the bad guys is here complicated and given more weight. As usual, the CGI is exemplary, clearly showing what's going on (the current trend for murky, "arty" CG in space shows which just means you can't tell what's going on can go die in a fire) and delivering excellent space battles on a tight budget. The actors are all as great as we're used to, but I have to say that Cara Gee as Drummer really, really steps it up this season and goes above and beyond the call of duty, and gets almost all of the season's best moments.

There are a few other weaknesses: the devastation inflicted on Earth in the prior season seems to have been written off more quickly than even the book managed to do, and having major characters die off-screen always feels cheap. It might have been better to have just not mentioned such characters rather than do that. It's also a bit unclear how the Rocinante managed to overtake an enemy ship which had a massive head start on them in one chase. But these are fairly minor issues, some inherited from the source material.

The final (for now, maybe) season of The Expanse (****½) is the show doing what it's always done well: telling great character stories intermixed with politics and war, backed up by outstanding vfx and one of the best scores on television. The season's excellence is mitigated by the decision to continue doing setup work for future episodes that might never come, time that might have been better spent with our main characters. Still, if there's one thing you can't fault The Expanse for is its optimism and its willingness to take risks. The season and the entire series is available to watch worldwide on Amazon Prime Television.

No comments: