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The Expanse Is Back

The Expanse is back on Amazon Prime (because space freak Jeff Bezos loved it, and rescued it from cancelation) for its sixth and final season.

I’ve watched this show from the beginning and it’s the realistic, grounded space show of my dreams, ever since I was a kid. It’s beautifully mounted, thoughtfully written, and wonderfully precise in the scope and detail of its worldbuilding.

And yet there’s something lacking that I think has also held it back from being a pop-culture hit. I often find myself checking the clock during an episode, even when it’s moving inevitably towards a highly anticipated confrontation.

I’ve been trying to think of why that is.

(Sorry, this is my usual pattern: dumping on something I love. I’m a tough critic.)

The biggest “problem” with The Expanse is the uniquely un-cinematic and boring nature of actual space travel that haunts any show trying to be “hard” sci-fi.

Real space travel is slow, it’s tedious, it’s anti-dramatic—the astronauts are in a confined space, pressing buttons and waiting. There’s no sound for exteriors. Between harsh lighting and fast relative speeds, you can barely see anything else out there.

Combat is most effectively fought with missiles: you press a button, the missile launches and does the rest. There aren’t any dogfights, as in Star Wars...or lumbering battleships, as in Star Trek.

Having spent some time trying to write a more realistic depiction of space warfare—and even film a little of it—I’ve done my homework on this.

Depicting gravity (or the lack of gravity) is also an expensive and confounding problem. The Expanse handles it well with the characters’ magnetic boots, and use of plausible artificial gravity via the ships’ acceleration and deceleration curves.

But no Hollywood production, no matter how expensive, has been able to solve a realistic depiction of low gravity (as would be the case on the moon, Ceres, asteroids, etc.). You can’t instruct actors to walk as if they only weighed twenty pounds. You certainly can’t build props to behave as if they only weighed a sixth of their actual weight...I mean, build everything out of styrofoam? The real illusion of low gravity is sold when somebody jumps and comes down slowly like in the moonwalk footage. Maybe you can film one or two of those as a stunt, but having it permeate all of the shots...? I have no idea how to do that.

The Expanse gets so much of it right that it’s sort of the “Jim Carrey/Andy Kaufman” problem from The Man in the Moon. Jim Carrey came so close to looking like Andy Kaufman in that biopic, it only reminded me…that he isn’t Andy Kaufman. Because everything else was so good, everytime I saw Jim’s brown eyes (as opposed to Andy’s blue), it threw me off. And yeah, his eyes are pretty much in every shot, so this is a tiny thing that nonetheless persists in every moment.

Likewise, in The Expanse, any time they try to use just a little bit of sound in space—a dim explosion, a subtle fly-by whoosh—it reminds me that this is all fake. (2001 aside, it’s almost impossible to depict space travel with no sound whatsoever. It just seems unreal, having things move without sound, even though it’s absolutely real. Gravity, I remember, did a good job using music to simulate movement, so they could drop or at least pull down fake sound effects.)

It’s so problematic depicting realistic space travel, you’re sort of better off with the Star Wars approach: make it all fake, but super fun.

The second thing that holds back The Expanse is that, while there are personal arcs, the show is largely driven by the political machinations.

The gold standard for characterization in one of these long-running serialized shows (with nine stories intercut each episode) has to be Game of Thrones. There, the characters are tormented and driven by highly individual obsessions and grievances. (Television executives call this “relatable.”) They mostly pursued their heart-on-sleeve personal goals (revenge, lust, family feuds) while not really caring about the larger political ramifications—as befitting a quasi-medieval setting where people are not supposed to be very psychologically sophisticated.

But in The Expanse, to its credit…the characters are pretty smart. That means they subdue their own problems to carry out their duty vis a vis the dense political alliances, betrayals, etc.

So it’s a case of the characters serving the plot—the “belters” vs. “inners” multi-season conspiracy and war—rather than the other way around.

There’s just not a lot there in the “pop” sense for the Game of Thrones-type of casual fan to hang onto. We don’t have Jon Snow trying to be honorable, Cersei trying to protect her children, Joffrey being a detestable, murderous brat.

I mean, we do, sort of…but it is way more subtle and sophisticated. We have good people trying to do good things in a difficult universe…but they largely feel like chess pieces for the plot.

I was trying to think of examples of Holden trying to exorcise his particular demons, Avasarala doing the same...but I can’t really think of them. They are pursuing goals, but not necessarily goals unique to their backstories.

As far as the spectacle, it has the usual space-travel inside/outside problem: “outside” are these fabulous CG space shots (excellent work for television, a little too shiny), but “inside,” the actors are mostly confined to standing sets (by the nature of space travel, quite claustrophobic)—and, sometimes, they venture out to obvious Canadian exteriors.

Because of the sprawling settings—multiple planets and ships—characters are often separated for seasons at a time.

It’s just inherently un-cinematic to have your stars in the same small rooms talking to each other on phone calls, and then flying ships by pressing buttons.

Finally—the overall mood is of crushing dread. There just isn’t a lot in the way of fantasy wish-fulfillment and fun. The Clinton Shorter score is good, but doubles-down on the heaviness and doom. There are existential threats—war with the belters, the mysterious proto-molecule—that never go away...which is realistic, but not necessarily entertaining. Even when there’s a little triumph or character resolution, the looming conspiracies suck the air out of the room (no pun intended).

Now I feel embarrassed for taking a dump on this show. It really is, by any objective measure, excellent. I congratulate all of the cast and creators.

The producers very honorably handled the real-life discovery that one of their lead actors—Cas Anvar—was a serial sexual harasser (creeping on fans at conventions, and worse). They killed his character and fired him. Good!

I was just wondering...why don’t I like this show more? Why doesn’t everybody?

And this is the best I could come up with.

But I will happily watch the rest of the show and look forward to the finale.

Movie-space-travel postscript:

In The Black Hole, why did Yvette Mimieux have that tacky late 1970s perm? Because it would stay still in “zero-G”! Great stuff in this Hollywood Reporter retrospective from 2019 about how they originally cast Jennifer O’Neill, but her long, gorgeous hair didn’t look good in “zero-G” during a film test. So they gave her a severe haircut, but she was so distraught getting shorn during the styling session, she kept asking for glasses of wine—then got in a car accident on the way home, and had to be recast!

Then Mimieux had to have her own, long, beautiful hair cut as well. All that for the lame Disney movie with the great John Barry score!

If you like this movie, that’s fine, but seriously—this is what you’re defending:

What is this, Yiddish theater?

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