The Expanse season 1 [Spoilers]

Image result for the expanse season 1

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Plot: a group of ice haulers from the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter go from ship destruction to ship destruction, pinballing themselves into a conspiracy, possibly a web of it, to start an inter-planetary war.

War between?

Mars, Earth and the Belt, which are all probably representative of specific nations on Earth, not sure which ones.

I suppose Earth might be the US, Mars might be China/Asia and the Belters are the entire third world.

Or it might be real world politics simplified into three groups.

Though what does that make Russia?

The OPA [Outer Planetary Alliance]?

Characters:

Holden the unofficial ship captain [Does most of the talking, so much of it that other characters just start looking towards him whenever they need to make a decision]

Naomi the vice captain/possible former OPA operative. Has a British accent, but is not from the usual crop of rich kids e.g. Daisy Ridley, Keira Knightley, Felicity Jones.

Amos the muscular, pragmatic grunt. Not homophobic and at home in sleazy bars cos that’s where he grew up.

Alex the pilot, who flew for Mars and gets a costume out of it in episode 3.

Chrisjen the UN rep who will defend Earth and deliver lines badly at all costs.

Miller the working class cop who has only ever killed one person before episode 8, and about 23 people two episodes later.

Subplot: Many, including Belter independence, Mormon generation ships, Corporate motherfuckery, Martian arrogance etc.

Sub-sub-plot: a disgraced doctor tries to hide from his past among the belters and subtly work towards redemption. Can he find a place among the main crew? Depends on their stitching skills.

Space is dark

It may have been the sunlight streaming in through my living room window, but I struggled to see what was happening in any of the space battles.

I could make out some glowing torpedoes, but what they were aiming at

and what they actually hit was a mystery.

I did like the presentation of the asteroid field though. All the rocks were days apart, which seems to make a lot more sense than the usual movie cluster grouped together tighter than Jon Voigt and James Woods at a Eugene Debs Memorial. Space is huge, it takes three days to fly to the moon, why would asteroids be brushing up against each other? My ‘C’ in Science says they wouldn’t.

Drink coffee while torpedoes fly

This was another aspect I really liked about The Expanse, similar to the above point about the asteroid belt – the acceptance of the fact that torpedoes take time to reach their targets. The Martian captain actually sits back and drinks coffee after the first round has just been fired, asking Holden if he’s ever been in a space battle before.

In Star Trek, most strikes are instant, same with Star Wars, so it adds a lot of authenticity to see space battles done in the way that the Expanse does them.

It also, theoretically, adds a bit of tension, though it’s undercut in the Mars episode due to the fact that we don’t care about the Martian crew and we assume the main players will survive [minus a doctor – that was a bit of a shock].

The crew are not friends

It skews a little too antagonistic at the start, especially towards Holden when he harbours the dark secret of being the guy who responded to a distress signal. It’s an interesting direction to take, the selfishness and protection of your own interests over helping others [sums up about half of  current human society sadly], and the perspective has merit in real life, but not when watching a movie. The audience likes to see characters being decent, the rich asshole or selfish right winger is typically portrayed negatively, so it’s brave for the Expanse to make most of the Canterbury’s crew a bunch of twats. Of course, the majority of them are dead by the end of episode one, but I didn’t know that when I was watching.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more I warm to the initial harshness of the show’s tone, mostly because it creates conflict. The only reason I flag it up as a negative is because the characters are not distinctive enough, or wronged against enough, when they are being selfish. Like Blake’s 7, you don’t have to have saints as your main characters, but, unlike Blake’s 7, The Expanse doesn’t make me feel either sympathy or empathy for its crew in the first episode. As the series goes on, it gets better, especially when the number is down to four on the primary ship.

Who are they again?

Amos is the prominent example of the pragmatic type, a man willing to let people die or shove them out of the airlock if they’re slowing down the mission of the group.

Holden is the idealist, who was basically raised in some kind of cult with anarchist tendencies [I forget the religion behind it]. He doesn’t want to kill anyone, and because of that might be getting in the way of the crew’s survival.

Naomi is something in between, a former OPA operative [a kind of terrorist], who reluctantly agrees to go along with Holden most of the time, but is also cautious when it comes to meeting new people.

She’s also a bit scared of Amos

and so are we as

we don’t know if he’s possessively in love with her in a harmless way or in an unhinged way, i.e. unhinged if she ever rejects him.

Alex is just there, flying the ship, trying to crack a few jokes.

Blake’s 7 rehash?

Looking at the bios I just wrote, you could make that argument. Holden is Blake the idealist, Amos is a dumber version of Avon, Naomi is a slightly more visible Jenna, always backing up the boss, and Alex is a less cowardly Vila.

Sadly, none of them are in the same league, with the exception of Naomi who, due to not being chin deep in 1970’s sexism, is an upgrade on Jenna. Also, the writing is not as sharp or witty, and the characters don’t have the same sense of purpose as Blake and co. For most of the first season they just meander about and react to huge events they don’t really understand.

Others?

Chrisjen is quite ruthless but no Servelan.

Miller is cynical just like Amos, and meets up with the crew around episode 8.

Is he cynical even after Julie Mao?

Ha, even more cynical. Miller’s character is a little elastic at times – the part where he tells another cop that he’s only ever killed one person juxtaposed with the last two episodes where he basically goes on a killing spree, offering the defence of ‘us or them’

Is it a different person?

Does he just feel angry that Julie Mao is dead?

Possibly. I guess it’s a good thing that not everything is explained, as long as you can feel the core of the character is still the same. I think it pretty much is. I didn’t get a jarring sense of difference between the two Millers, though I thought he was a bit harsh in the way he talked to Holden. Could be that Holden’s idealism pissed him off, I don’t know.

What happens next, what happens next, what happens…

The plot momentum wasn’t breakneck, and the Earth scenes were tedious most of the time [which is why I don’t talk about them much], but it had enough in it to keep my attention.

The end of the first episode has the hook, even though I didn’t really give a shit about anyone on the Canterbury.

The second, third, fourth episodes repeat the same trick, but the lack of clarity in the space battles negated the strength of these parts

I can’t remember what happened in the middle episodes at all, so they couldn’t have been that great, but by the time they got to episode eight, the central plot mystery had tightened and we were given a semi-tense scene in the lobby of a 2 star hotel on Eros.

It wasn’t perfect, it could’ve been stretched out a bit longer

and the assassins died a little too easily

but generally it worked

and it needed to as the Expanse didn’t have any memorable scenes up until that point.

After that, the next two episodes were decent

and the final scenes of the season set up the plot for next year, which is half the struggle for a sci-fi show like this.

Depth of the Universe

The Belt is well-established in this season, though the Belter language seems a bit tagged on. Just ending a sentence in English with one native word is not very convincing. In fact, why were they speaking English at all, especially to each other.

If I were the writer, I would’ve made more of a distinction between the use of English and the use of the Belt language. The majority of the belt scenes would’ve been in their own language, and when they talked to Miller they would talk in English at first then their own language when they got annoyed.

Jared Harris is Scandinavian

I know he’s British, but he didn’t sound like it. I didn’t even know it was him at first, as his accent was so foreign. That’s what a good actor will do, completely change his cadence/accent to fit the role, and not in a glaringly bad way either. That would’ve been someone just doing a foreign accent without the change in cadence, but Harris managed both cos that’s often what people do when they’re speaking a foreign language.

Lack of detail

There’s a scene in the first or second episode where Miller has a moment of decency and threatens a landlord to supply water/air to the Belters in his block or go out an airlock. It’s an attempt at detail, to establish this environment, but for me it’s not enough. It seems like detail, but it lacks specificity and expansion. A better way might’ve been to have the landlord depriving them of decent air in a more subtle, bureaucratic way, and Miller has to do more than just threaten to shove him into space to resolve it. Or maybe he can’t resolve it as the system itself is the virus. And make the victims more interesting too, give them a personality.

Also, the rookie cop learning the native language from a prostitute should’ve been avoided. In fact, his whole character was a waste of time. Just wasn’t interesting or distinctive enough.

Maybe I’m being too harsh.

I liked the series overall and I appreciate it’s not easy to establish a universe or society in one episode, but Ceres just didn’t feel convincing as a futuristic colony, or not convincingly delineated at least. I didn’t really understand where everything was, which areas were rougher than others, who the people really were.

Also, I didn’t really find it engrossing. It was better than the Earth scenes, and once Jared Harris came into it things improved, but I still preferred the Holden/Naomi thread out of all of them.

Remember the intro to the ship in BSG?

That was a great scene. Follow Adama around the ship, see the layout, some of the characters at work, then jump to Starbuck playing cards and punching the eyepatch guy. I forget his name.

This isn’t the only way to do it, but it’s effective. Each character is introduced actively doing something wrong or interesting, so they stick in your mind. The Expanse doesn’t really have that.

Holden introduced having zero G sex in his quarters vs the BSG engineer sneaking off to have sex with Grace Park? The former has a USP, but it doesn’t really say anything about the character whereas the latter scene does.

BSG/Blake’s 7 are tough benchmarks

Maybe, but they’re still there and it’s on modern sci fi series to match or beat them. And neither is invincible as they both had bad episodes now and again.

The Expanse does okay, but is better when it focuses on 3-4 characters towards the end of the season.

Mars Attacks

Not really. Mars gets attacked and smugly does its best Ching Dynasty impression, sitting back and chatting before getting completely overwhelmed by superior forces.

Apart from that battle, we don’t see any more Martians in season 1, though I’ve read that that will be rectified in season 2, with the introduction of a new character, which is a good thing as, from the little we see, Mars has an intriguing and aggressive culture, with a strong disregard towards Earth’s climate policy.

Anything else?

Fred Johnson is seen at two points in his life – as a military butcher and an insurgency leader. The interesting part is that Naomi and a lot of other characters see him as the butcher, even though he’s clearly with the OPA now.

The scene in the last episode where he gives his recorded speech is a nice counterpoint to my ‘lack of detail’ on Ceres’ criticism earlier. The way he practises his lines before making the speech is the kind of detail that makes a character, and a series, stand out from all the others, mostly cos it shows a ‘thinking mind’ instead of a guy just reading the script out loud.

More of Fred in season 2 would be a good idea, as long as it doesn’t come with flashbacks to show how he went from butcher to redemption seeking freedom fighter cos it’s just not needed. You can see the change through the other characters’ actions towards him, so the most important thing is where he goes from here, not how he got there.

Thinking about it, flashbacks in general are never a good idea.

Chrisjen

I gotta say I thought this actress’ line readings were pretty terrible. I don’t know if she was trying to sound foreign the same way Jared Harris was, but she sounded uncomfortable in English, and if that is the case then it needed to be explained through her character story/background. Have her speaking another language to her husband, Farsi maybe, then we can see she’s speaking her second language.

The way she said some of her lines was just too distracting, though I haven’t read anyone else have this problem with her character so maybe it’s just me. Maybe there’s a character explanation I missed, where they say she’s not American?

Even overlooking this, it’s still a missed opportunity in regards to language presentation: a mixed language tv show, especially one set in the future, would be more realistic than everyone going round speaking English all the time.

Probably unrealistic considering it’s a US series, but I wish someone would do it this way sometime in the future.

It was a problem in Rogue One too, the two Chinese characters given scripted lines in English that were for native speakers, when they should’ve said natural lines in their own language. Star Wars is set in an alien galaxy, they could use Mandarin with each other, or a Cantonese-Mandarin mix, and just call it an alien language. Why not?

Season 2 will be better

That’s what they always say, but in this case it should be possible for The Expanse to maintain the same quality level of the last three episodes of season 1. They don’t need to set anything else up, they can just dive straight in to the crew and their new mission of bringing down the Mao syndicate.

I assume that will be the main thrust of the plot…

A bit of Mars too

And, just like Daredevil season 2 imitating the corridor fight scene from season 1, another semi-tense scene in a 2 star lobby

with double the number of assassins.

 

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