[Review] - The Expanse, Season 1 Episodes 1-4

Courtesy of NBCUniversal Television
I starting reading The Expanse novels, by James S.A. Corey, at a time when I really needed to fall into some world building. I wanted - no, needed - a place where I could stretch my brain, get involved in the minutia of a crafted world, and immerse myself in the detail. And they did just that. they scratched that itch, right up until they stopped being fun and started being a chore. And I moved on, and realized only after I had some distance between me and them that while the detail was immersive and the minutia well crafted, the books had less staying power than I expected them. This is because the characters and the style are essentially just a collection of the author's favourite things, all mushed together. And the net result is that the books are less interesting than the things that inspired them. But, because they are books, and huge chunks of the sizable tomes are devoted to world building on a microscopic level, the reader can focus on the world building and less on the aping.

The same cannot be true of the series. From minute one, and all the way through at least the first four episodes, the unavoidable truth is that this series is constructed on it's influences. Now, it is one thing to find a muse in another creation, but this series takes it beyond that. This series runs like lawsuit-friendly cosplay, just a nick on the sleeve away from revealing the truth under the costume. Others have commented that the series is like Game of Thrones, Firefly, and Battlestar. This is incorrect. This series is Game of Thrones, Firefly, and Battlestar. The inescapable and distracting truth is how derivative this series is, and how completely it wants to be those other things. Yes, it builds its own world in which to exist, and that world is vast and complex, but they are playing with the Chinese knock offs of someone else's toys. And they've managed to take all that world building and detail, and produce a dull product to boot.

Hit the jump for the review, in-which I will do my best to avoid spoilers. Cause I'm in just that sort of mood.

But first, what works. The effects. I don't often say this, but the effects on this show are high grade. Not necessarily the CGI, the shots of the ships and such are pretty much what you would expect. But the physical effects to suggest weightlessness. Clearly, there is a lot of wire work at play. Most shows hand wave away artificial gravity or some such thing to explain how people can walk around a space ship, so that the show is sticking to the realities of science, and incorporating that as an ongoing aspect of the narrative. It does show the level to which the show has opted to stay true to the source material. The harder aspects of the series' science fiction are alive and well, and if nothing else, it is nice to see a high profile series incorporate a little science reality into their fantasy. It is a costly direction to go in, but does carve out a unique niche in the echelons of sci-fi TV. And, despite what some might think, is fun to watch.

Now, to the issues. The show is simply not that engaging to watch. And this isn't a "I prefer the books" position, its a "Jesus, just get on with it" position. Four episodes in, and I feel like the show is already suffering from decompression. Hilariously, a huge aspect to the events of the books is the reality of how long everything takes in space, as the distances between planets is a lot bigger than most people realize. The show, like nearly every other space based show, does a piss poor job of showing that sense of duration, all but doing away with it. In its place is a tedious tendency to extrapolate every single event out to the maximum emotional length. Everything is something horrific and taxing, and takes forever to accomplish. Nor is it evident where any of it is going. Certainly, the audience should never be able to predict the narrative direction of a show if they are unfamiliar with the source material, but so far, the three plot lines don't seem to have much of a point. If it is about establishing a bedrock foundation of information on which to build, then they are doing so in the least engaging way possible. Every time an episode shifts between Holden (Steven Strait), Miller (Thomas Jane) and Chrisjen (Shohreh Aghdashloo), it is a race to see which storyline can become boring the fastest.

Clearly, they are trying. There are politics at work, there is social unrest, and there is military unease. There is a lot of information the series needs to find a way to tell the audience, in order for anything to make sense. And they are succeeding in delivering that information, but in a less than engaging way. Every second line of dialogue is an explanation of something (the other line of dialogue is usually an insult). They haven't broken out the chalkboards yet, but it has gotten close. The point is, I can see them trying. Every decision the writers and producers have made is clearly with a point in mind. But the execution is flawed. Take, for instance, Jonathan Banks of Better Call Saul fame. He shows up in the first episode for a total of a minute and a half. The purpose to his character is to give Holden an opportunity to turn down a promotion, thus showing the audience that he is the sot of person who will not take power and responsibility himself, but must have it thrust upon him. But the result is that you have an uncomfortable and distracting scene with an actor that is worth and capable of more than this wasted opportunity, all to show us something that could have organically come up later on, when Holden is forced to take actual command.

Likewise, I get that they are establishing characters in states that allow for maximum emotional growth, rather than establishing them as full formed. However, the resulting side effect of this tactic is that pretty much every character on the show is an unlikable ass. Thus far, they have yet to present a character that is sympathetic or endearing in any way. Holden's crew are antagonistic to the extent that it makes it hard to believe they were ever a functioning crew. Miller is apparently stationed on planet asshole, as every living person on Ceres is a snide, snippy sarcastic ass. And Chrisjen is surrounded by politicians. In fact, they devoted an entire episode to having a character tell the audience that Chrisjen isn't anyone that we should be friends with. Dark does not equal complex, no matter how many times complex happens to equal dark. And without a sympathetic character for the audience to latch onto, we're stuck with assholes in space, waiting to see which one gets shot first, and not feeling a damned thing when it happens. We are meant to be caring if these people survive, and yet I am passive.

The series can best be summed up as if the crew from Firefly, if none of them liked one another, and Deckard from Blade Runner existed in Battlestar's world, as written like Game of Thrones. That is clearly, obviously, what this idea is. The minutia of the experiences of the universe are unique and detailed, but the characters have yet to grown beyond those every obvious inspirations and the tropes that cling to them like wet clothing. I like the idea behind the world - the slow, slightly closer to realistic depiction of the colonization of the solar system - and I like the detailed aspects of it. I like the evolution of language in the Belt. I like the physiological effects of living in zero-g. I like the designs of the ships and the functionality of the technology. I like that everything looks like it was designed for purpose rather than aesthetics. I like the political ideas providing supplementary motivation. But I don't like the people, and I don't like the pacing. Right now, the show is the equivalent to reading a D&D instruction manual on how to build a game, without building characters or ever really starting to play.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


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