So season 1 of The Expanse finally has a German DVD release and I finally got around to watching all of it – after having watched the episode that was nominated for a Hugo last year. That is, I thought I’d watched the episode that was nominated for a Hugo last year, for upon rewatching all of season 1, I realised that I had accidentally watched the wrong episode. Oops.
Now I did read Leviathan Wakes, the first book in the series by James S.A. Corey, on which the TV show is based, around the time it first came out back in 2011. I remember liking it quite a bit at the time. Hey, it was space based science fiction at a time, when such fare was still thin on the ground, because the great space opera resurgence was still a few years away. However, for some reason I never got around to reading the subsequent books. And when I revisited The Expanse books, when the series was up for the inaugural best series Hugo last year, I noticed something very strange. Even though I knew I had read Leviathan Wakes, I remembered very little about it. And considering that I have no problems recalling details of e.g. some Isaac Asimov short stories I first read thirty years ago, forgetting most of a novel, one I sort of enjoyed at that, only approx. five years after I first read it is strange indeed. I wouldn’t have been surprised if it turned out that I’d forgotten most of say a category romance or regency romance a few years after the fact, since those genres are very much literary comfort food for me, something for which I reach when I’m ill or tired. But having problems remembering a well regarded science fiction novel, start of a well regarded series, after only a few years is very unusual for me indeed. Especially since I have zero problems recalling plot details of other books I read around the same time.
Nonetheless, I was looking forward to watching season 1 of The Expanse. Because hey, it was a space opera show and there is way too little space opera on TV and even less of it is actually good. And besides, The Expanse TV show had gotten generally good reviews and even won a Hugo in the best dramatic presentation short form category, so it promised enjoyable science fiction entertainment. And sometimes, fun action in space with likeable characters is really all you want.
So I sat down and watched the show, full of anticipation and… well, I guess it was okay. It wasn’t nearly as good as I’d hoped for and it was infested with many of the problems of this alleged golden age of television (TM) as well as some tropes that are much older than the either the show or the books it is based on (more on that later), but watching an episode of The Expanse was a perfectly fine way to spend forty minutes. It was certainly more satisfying then watching the umpteenth rerun of NCIS Whatever or Hawaii Five-O or some other perfectly watchable, if forgettable crime drama. It’s TV comfort food set in space with characters who are likeable enough and look distinctive enough that you can tell them apart, even if you probably won’t remember most of their names.
Warning! Spoilers under the cut!
Before you continue reading my thoughts on The Expanse, take a minute to visit The Baffler and read last year’s Campbell Award nominee Laurie Penny’s review of the first two seasons of The Expanse (a.k.a. Campbell Award nominee reviews best dramatic presentation and best series nominee). Let’s have a quote:
The Expanse is also quite good. It is, in fact, the very epitome of quite good, and right now, quite good is good enough. The show does not want to mislead us by pretending to be unduly serious about the time we’re going to spend together. It knows what it’s for and is proud of its reliability, and you can tell this, because in one of the very first scenes the showrunners decided to cut the flirting and just give us what everyone who watches a science fiction series, deep down, really wants to see, which is attractive people having sex in zero gravity.
The Expanse loves its audience and wants us to be happy. It is a study in terribly expensive blandness and also, quite possibly, the finest show ever made. By which I mean: it’s fine. It’s not a good show. It’s not a bad show. Its sheer unremarkability is its only remarkable quality. It is the lukewarm gas station sandwich of popular narrative: unmemorable, but when you’re hungry and headed down a dark road, it’s exactly what you need. More flavor would be inappropriate.
It’s not just a brilliant review, Laurie Penny also very much mirrors my own feelings about the show as something that is neither particularly good nor particularly memorable, just perfectly serviceable entertainment, if “action and adventures in space” is catnip for you. Coincidentally, I initially tried watching the show with someone for whom “action and adventures in space” is not nearly as much of a draw as for me, since they’d rather watch the umpteenth rerun of some forgettable crime drama, and well – let’s just say it didn’t work for them at all.
Even though it’s science fiction rather than epic fantasy, The Expanse is very much part of the quest to find the next Game of Thrones, down to the fact that its title sequence depicting the parts of the solar system where the action takes place deliberately mirrors Game of Thrones famous animated map opening. But there are more similarities between Game of Thrones and The Expanse than just the title sequence. Both shows follow several different characters and their storylines, which may or may not eventually intersect. In The Expanse, two of the three main storylines eventually intersect in episode 8 and the characters spent the last two episodes of the season teamed up. For Game of Thrones, we’re mostly still waiting for the multiplying storylines to finally come together.
The similarities to Game of Thrones are probably not quite coincidental and not just due to US TV stations looking for the next Game of Thrones either. For both Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham, who make up the James S.A. Corey writing team, know George R.R. Martin and live in the same region and in fact, Ty Franck even used to be Martin’s personal assistant. Though Ty Franck has stated in interviews that he doesn’t write like George R.R. Martin, which mostly seems to refer to writing process, since George R.R. Martin is quite famously a discovery writer, while Abraham and Franck seem to be more on the outlining and planning side of the fence. Nonetheless, there are similarities, for both A Song of Ice and Fire and The Expanse have multiple storylines which may or may not intersect. They also – in this is even more notable in the books than in the respective TV shows – give everybody and their sister their own POV.
Now this “cast of thousands with multiple intersecting plotlines and lots of POV characters” approach used to be very common in both epic fantasy and space opera in the 1980s and 1990s. A Song of Ice and Fire isn’t the only series with roots in that era that does it. On the space opera side of the fence, Simon R. Green’s Deathstalker saga (the first book came out in 1995) follows the same approach and features lots of different storylines and POV characters which eventually come together. However, what interesting is that most current space operas and for that matter many current epic fantasies feature much fewer POV characters than the “everybody and their sister gets a POV” approach of the 1990s. Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy, Rachel Bach’s Paradox trilogy, K.B. Wagers’ Indranan War trilogy, Ann Aguirre’s Sirantha Jax series, Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti trilogy, Sara Creasy’s Scarabaeus duology and Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles for an epic fantasy example all have only a single POV character and are often written in the first person. And while e.g. Becky Chambers’ books or Elizabeth Bonesteel’s Central Corps series feature multiple POV characters, they usually stop at four or five at most. Sometime in the early 2000s, novel length speculative fiction switched preferences from a cast of thousands, each with their own POV, to a limited number of POV characters and frequently even a single first person narrator. I’m not sure why this shift occurred, though I suspect it seeped into the rest of the genre via urban fantasy, which often featured first person narrators and was booming in the early to mid 2000s.
The Expanse novels are contemporary with many of the novels and series listed above – the first book Leviathan Wakes came out in 2011. Nonetheless, they stick to the 1990s multiple plot strand and multiple POV approach and stylistically sometimes feel like a throwback to a much earlier area. Indeed, in spite of the state of the art effects and pleasantly diverse cast, I frequently found myself thinking, “This all feels kind of old-fashioned” while watching the show to the point that I had to check that I hadn’t misremembered things and the first book really came out in 2011, i.e. only seven years ago.
The first of the three focal characters in The Expanse is Jim Holden, who starts out as second officer aboard the ice freighter Canterbury and ends up as captain of his own ship, the appropriately named Rocinante. Coincidentally, one area where The Expanse really excels is the naming of spaceships. The derelict ship that lures the Canterbury to her doom is named the Scopuli after the home of the sirens from Greco-Roman mythology. The death-dealing cloaked mystery ship that everybody is chasing for much of the season is named Anubis after the Egyptian god of death. A Martian battleship is named Scipio Africanus after the Roman general who defeated Hannibal. The Earth battleship send to take down Earth colonel turned belter rebel Fred Johnson is named Nathan Hale after a figure from the American revolution. Okay, so it makes no real sense that the UN would name a spaceship after such a specifically American figure who is little known outside the US, but then The Expanse is a very American show. And the Rocinante, a ship crewed by questing knight errants, is named after Don Quixote’s horse. Coincidentally, as a kid I had a wooden hose named Rocinante, which immediately made me root for the Rocinante and her crew.
And Jim Holden, the Roccinante‘s captain, is very much a knight errant figure determined to take on every windmill he can find. He is also the unluckiest person in the universe, because wherever Jim Holden shows up, spaceships and space stations blow up and people die. By the end of the first season, Jim Holden has survived the destruction of no less than four spaceships, not to mention a space plague struck asteroid and countless cosmic mishaps in what is clearly an attempt to give Commander Cliff Allister MacLane of the fast cruiser Orion a run for his money (MacLane quite famously managed to destroy seven Orions – over the course of a seven part TV series). Holden is extremely likeable – however, he’s also a person from whom you want to run away very fast, because trouble inevitably follows him.
Laurie Penny describes him as follows:
The characters are likeably bland, especially Joe Protagonist, the drama-magnet and cut-price Kit Hartington–lookalike whose given name I still can’t recall despite it being spoken in almost every scene.
This man has no obvious competencies besides being neither a dickhead nor an idiot, which by the standards of most narrative arcs including America’s makes him more than qualified to make decisions at a galactic scale. He is so obviously the hero that one must assume that every luckless minor character who crosses his path has either never read a novel or assumes the rules don’t apply to them, a dreadful mistake to make in a universe which—again, much like our own—is written by linear-minded sadists who care not at all for the life chances of anyone with more than a subsidiary speaking role.
The focal character of the second plot strand is Joe Miller, a cop who works the mean streets of Ceres in the asteroid belt. Miller is your typical noir protagonist, the hardboiled and cynical cop with a heart of gold. Miller is such a typical noir protagonist that he walks around in 1940s style get-up, complete with a hat – in a universe where nobody except Miller wears hats. Laurie Penny has the following to say about Miller:
Another of the show’s key characters has been provided with a hat in lieu of a fleshed-out personality profile. At one point in the second series he loses the hat, and this is commented on in every scene just to remind us that this is that guy in the hat, because the showrunners know we’re probably not giving this our complete attention, and that’s okay. The character in question is a jaded detective with unorthodox methods and a drink problem, and while there was definitely room for the writers to improve on the cliché and do a deep-dive into psychological, experimental space-noir, that would have left less screentime for sparkly space explosions, so they put him in a battered trilby and trusted us to get the idea.
Once more, Laurie Penny is harsh, but not wrong, because Miller is a walking cliché, even though actor Thomas Jayne does his best to imbue him with a bit of personality. Coincidentally, in this house we referred to Miller as “man with hat”, because the hat literally is his most defining characteristic.
At the beginning of the show, Miller is tasked with finding Julie Mao, the daughter of a wealthy and unscrupulous businessman, who discovered her social conscience on Ceres, joined the unfortunately named rebel group/terrorist organisation OPA (apparently, it stands for Outer Planet Alliance, however “Opa” is also the German word for “grandpa”, which is not a connotation you want to evoke) and went missing. Tracing back Julie’s last steps, Miller stumbles into a huge conspiracy, the same conspiracy that also causes spaceships and space stations to explode underneath Jim Holden’s feet. Miller’s quest to find Julie and his growing obsession with her is pretty much the 1944 film noir classic Laura relocated into outer space. Except that while I never had any problems understanding just why the detective protagonist was so beguiled with Laura as portrayed by Gene Tierney, I never really understood why Miller was so obsessed with Julie Mao, because for much of the series, Julie is a bland non-entity, a plot token rather than a living, breathing person. It’s only in the penultimate episode – after we learn that Julie is already dead – that she gets a little fleshed out, when we finally see what happened to her. However, fleshed out Julie isn’t that much more interesting than plot token Julie, since Julie was basically a poor little rich girl stereotype who was exploited by everybody around her from her villainous father to the OPA and who continues to be exploited even after her death. Though it is tragic that Julie died only minutes before Miller, Holden and the rest of the gang find her.
Indeed, one of the main problems with The Expanse is that the two central mysteries, which eventually turn out to be one and the same, aren’t actually all that interesting. At any rate, I was never particularly interested in what happened to Julie Mao. Indeed, I found some of the other characters surrounding Miller, such as his current partner Havelock – last seen in hospital on Ceres, after he got himself nearly impaled during a riot – and his former partner Octavia, who has an unrequited crush on him, a lot more interesting than Julie Mao. Of course, it didn’t help either that one of the few things I remembered from the book was that Julie was already dead, so I could never really become invested in her fate. Similarly, I could never really get invested in the destruction of the ice freighter Canterbury, the catalyst which sets off the plot, either, simply because we were never given enough time to get to know the Canterbury and her doomed crew. We briefly meet the Canterbury‘s crew in the first episode, but even there the focus is mainly on Holden, Naomi, Amos and Alex, the characters who will eventually survive. And Naomi, Amos and Alex are less fleshed out in the TV show than in the books, where we get scenes from their POV. Then by the end of the episode, the Canterbury is destroyed and everybody aboard dies. Of the dead characters, only the Canterbury‘s captain and Holden’s blonde lover make any sort of impression at all. The crew of the equally doomed Mars battleship Donnager (they make the mistake of taking Jim Holden on board) is as underdeveloped as that of the Canterbury, which leads to the odd dissonance that while the characters are up in arms about the fates of the destroyed ships, the viewer really couldn’t care less. What makes this even more problematic is that The Expanse does prove that it knows how to make us care about characters we meet only very briefly before they meet their inevitable ends. In fact, the brief flashback featuring the striking miners of Anderson Station before the station and miners are destroyed by Fred Johnson, earning him the nickname “the Butcher of Anderson Station”, did manage to make me care about those miners and their fate in a way I never cared about the crew of either the Canterbury or the Donnager.
There is a third focal character with her own storyline in The Expanse, namely Chrisjan Averasala, UN assistant undersecretary. Unlike Holden and Miller, Chrisjen Averasala is not a particularly good person. In the very first episode, we watch her torturing a suspected spy and in subsequent episodes we watch her lie, cheat, steal and throw friends and associates under the bus. Nonetheless, Chrisjen Averasala is awesome. She is a character we don’t often see on TV, an awesome older woman of colour in charge. It does help that there are scenes with her husband and grandchildren that soften the character somewhat, but Averasala would still be awesome even if we never got to see her family. She’s clearly the most complex character and the smartest person in the show (coincidentally, the second smartest person is probably Naomi Nagata, the only other female character of any note) and the one who comes closest to unravelling the conspiracy at the centre of everything. And she does it from Earth, while Holden and Miller go jetting all over the asteroid belt in search of the truth. Finally, Chrisjan Averasala also gives me wardrobe envy, since she has hands down the best clothes in The Expanse. Yes, sometimes I am that shallow.
Chrisjen Averasala, the awesome older woman of colour, is the sort of character you wouldn’t have seen on TV or in science fiction as recently as ten years ago. And her awesomeness very much highlights how comparatively bland our two white dude heroes Holden and Miller come across. In fact, it sometimes seems as if both Jim Holden and Joe Miller wandered in from completely different SF novels. Both characters clearly belong to older traditions of science fiction, traditions that are a lot more white and male than current space opera. Jim Holden, the everyman spaceship captain who only tries to do the right thing and inevitably gets himself and others in trouble, is very much a golden age hero. He’s the sort of protagonist one might find in a Robert A. Heinlein novel of the 1950s. Even Holden’s unconventional family background – he was raised in a weird religious sex cult and has eight or nine parents – sounds like something straight out of a Heinlein novel. Joe Miller, meanwhile, is a hardboiled detective from a 1940s/50s noir novel, who has wandered into science fiction via the cyberpunk era of the 1980s and early 1990s. In fact, the mean streets of Ceres, which are Miller’s beat, with their subjugated population, their gangsters, gambling dens, crooked union officials, etc… are pure cyberpunk. In many scenes, Ceres and later Eros even look like a downmarket version of Blade Runner.
All this contributes to the feeling that something about The Expanse is rather old-fashioned. For even though The Expanse clearly considers itself part of the so-called “golden age of television” and engages in such annoying practices as perpetually dim lighting (“Just turn up the bloody lights”, we frequently yelled at the TV) and aggressive serialisation with very abrupt endings, while the novels are part of the 2010s space opera resurgence, both books and TV show draw on tropes and traditions that are much older.
As for the setting, The Expanse is set in the solar system a couple of centuries into the future. Humanity has colonised the Moon, Mars and the asteroid belt. Space travel is fairly common, but humanity has not yet achieved faster than light travel or left the solar system. Political tensions are running high between the three major players: Earth and the Moon, now ruled by the United Nations, the newly independent Mars and the mining colonies in the asteroid belt, where life is hard, poverty runs rampant and the so-called belters fight for better living and working conditions and eventually independence. All three major players are in opposition to each other and when things start going wrong, every fraction suspects that the other two have united against it. Meanwhile, it is pretty obvious to the viewer (though the characters take a while to catch on) that maybe, a fourth player is setting the three major players against each other.
As settings go, The Expanse‘s is pure early 2000s mundane science fiction with a bit of Heinlein thrown in for good measure. In fact, it’s almost as if Abraham and Franck had used the mundane SF manifesto as a checklist: No FTL, no artificial gravity, space travel is limited to the solar system, etc… In general, the depiction of space travel, asteroid habitats, zero gravity and the solar system in general is hard enough to satisfy even Charles Stross, provided he could ever be persuaded to watch it. Okay, so there probably still isn’t enough talk about economics and no one has mentioned VAT yet, but at least the asteroids are located suitably far apart from each other.
The fact that The Expanse tries to adhere to the dogmas of mundane science fiction and that it attempts to portray life and travel in space in a hard SF style doesn’t mean that the show is scientifically accurate, because it isn’t. Weightlessness and low gravity still only exist when it’s expedient for the plot or allows for a titilating zero-G sex scene or when the special effects people want to insert a cool effect. We are told that belters are tall and skinny with weak bones due to the low gravity environment, yet the two leaders of the belter rebels we meet, Fred Johnson and the treacherous docker and rebel leader from Ceres are both played by rather stocky gentlemen, namely Chad L. Coleman, who also plays Bortus’ partner Klyden in The Orville, and Jared Harris a.k.a. the dude who hanged himself in the office in Mad Men. We also learn that in this future it is possible for eight or nine different people to combine their DNA to produce a child together, but they still require a human woman to bear that child, since apparently no one ever thought of uterine replicators or read Lois McMaster Bujold. And the doomed freighter Canterbury meets its fate, while hauling ice from Saturn to the asteroid Ceres, which makes me wonder if the writers have any idea how vast the distance between Saturn and the asteroid belt actually is. Still, The Expanse makes a big deal out of the fact that it tries to be scientifically accurate. Laurie Penny decribes the show’s approach to scientific accuracy as follows:
In place of narrative invention, The Expanse offers a series of vignettes that might one day be included in a safety-training program for people trying to survive long-haul space travel. Many extraterrestrial dramas skate over the actual mechanics of super-atmospheric survival, but in The Expanse, this is where the VFX team really got to go to town. Water, whiskey, and bodily fluids of various hues glide in perfect jewel-like constellations through the thinning air. Spacesuits have exciting near-failures on the surface of moons that look like that screensaver you had in 2005. People get thrown into airlocks a lot. Really, a lot.
Science fiction has always grappled with serious philosophical issues, from the intimate application of surveillance to the makeup of a post-scarcity society to how the human race might morally as well as practically survive thermonuclear war. The Expanse contributes to this tradition by grappling with the socio-technical questions that everyone, including serious futurists who present papers at conferences, really wonders about at three in the morning. Questions like: What happens when someone gets decapitated in vacuum? What happens is that the visual effects people get very excited and we all go home happy—not that we’ve left the house in days now that the next episode countdown feature comes as standard.
In spite of being set in a globalist future – we are repeatedly reminded that Earth is governed by the UN – the politics of The Expanse are still very American. For starters, the United Nations are clearly not a benevolent body in The Expanse, echoing American suspicions of the UN. The UN officials we meet are all backstabbing plotters, even the otherwise awesome Chrisjen Averasala. The UN also tortures prisoners, something which so infuriated Ian Sales that it put him off The Expanse altogether.
In general, of the three major powers, Earth is portrayed the way Americans sometimes view Europe, as aging and arrogant power on the decline, a place which all the dynamic people left behind long ago to go elsewhere, the source of everything that’s wrong and yet a place to be envied. Mars is portrayed the way Americans sometimes see themselves, as young and aggressive, a military obsessed rising power which has the technological edge over everybody else (though Abigail Nussbaum claims that Mars is communist, so maybe it also embodies American fears of China as a rising power). The belters, meanwhile, are the developing world analogue, colonies exploited by the older powers. And even though it is said that both Mars and Earth exploit the belters, the main exploiters we see are Earthers. And yes, this is a very American view of the world. The European view is quite different. For according to the European view, the people who stayed here and did not emigrate were not weak or cowardly, but they were doing perfectly fine. Meanwhile, those who emigrated to the US (leaving aside forced migration due to slavery and indentured servitude) were the ones who couldn’t hack it here, the younger sons who did not inherit the farm or the family business, the women who could not find a partner for whatever reasons as well as people who had to leave because they were persecuted for political or religious reasons or simply because they were wanted for some crime or other. And that’s the polite way of putting it.
But it’s not just the general political set-up that is a very American view of the world, it’s also the details. Even though The Expanse attempts to portray a diverse future and particularly the belters mostly seem to be mixed race, the main male characters are white dudes with such whitebread anglo names as Joe Miller and Jim Holden. Security in the belt is privatised and unions are portrayed as mob-like groups given to violence, another very American view (in Europe, even people who don’t like unions would rarely compare them to the mob). Abigail Nussbaum writes:
And yet despite making no bones about the fact that Belters have genuine, legitimate grievances against the inner planets, The Expanse repeatedly teaches us to distrust them as a political force. It’s actually not that unusual for Hollywood to treat labor and civil rights movements as inherently suspicious, reducing them to the two extremes of un-organized suffering and organized insurrection, with no middle ground for legitimate unionizing or political action. (This is changing a little under the force of real-world events, to the extent that only two and a half years after its premiere, The Expanse already feels a little out of step on this front.) But The Expanse takes this even further with the personalities it places at the head of OPA, and the way it contrasts them with Holden’s apolitical desire to do good.
An Earth battleship is named after the American revolutionary Nathan Hale, a figure who is largely unknown outside the US and not someone one would expect the UN to name a spaceship after. The “Remember the Cant” slogan that appears all over Ceres following the Canterbury‘s destruction is clearly modelled on the “Remember the Maine” slogan from the Spanish American war (just as the Canterbury‘s demise is kind of modelled on the destruction of Maine, since both ships were not destroyed by the people ultimately blamed for it), another reference that has little resonance outside the US. In fact, I had to explain both the Nathan Hale and the “Remember the Cant” references to the person watching with me.
The portrayal of religion in The Expanse is also very American. Now I’ve never made a secret of the fact that I don’t care for religion in my science fiction and prefer secular futures. And at least in Europe, the trend also points towards an increasingly secular future. I don’t mind religion used as a worldbuilding detail – the way one would use sport, food, art, entertainment, fashion, etc… – but too much focus on religion and I’m out of there. Now thankfully, The Expanse does not focus on religion. In fact, religion doesn’t play any role in the plot at all, with two exceptions. Most of the time, the future portrayed in The Expanse is fully secular. There are no Catholics, no regular Protestants, no Orthodox Christians, no Muslims, no Jews, no Hindus, no Buddhists, no Sikhs, no Yezidi, no Jain in The Expanse. These religions don’t exist, not even as background detail. You never see a nun in her habit, you never see a priest or monk, you never see a woman wearing a hijab, you never see a man wearing a kippah, you never see a Sikh wearing a turban, not even among the background extras. What is more, two of the main characters – UN official Chrisjen Averasala and Alex, the pilot of the doomed Canterbury and later the Roccinante – are of South Asian origin, which would suggest that they are Hindu or maybe Muslim or Sikh or Jain. However, we have no way of knowing, since their religious affiliation is never mentioned, not even in passing.
However, one religious denomination is mentioned repeatedly in The Expanse and that is Mormons. For you see, the Mormons are building a generation ship shaped like a huge golden angel (yes, really) to travel to the stars and the construction of that ship at Tycho station in the belt is used as a cover for all sorts of nefarious activities. What is more, a Mormon missionary also shows up aboard a shuttle to talk about Jesus Christ to Joe Miller. Now I wouldn’t mind the Mormon presence in The Expanse, if they were just one of many religious groups mentioned. However, Mormons are literally the only religious group we ever see in The Expanse, which I found not just odd, but flat out grating. For starters, you would be hardpressed to find a more specifically American religious group than Mormons. Cause in spite of their missionary activities, Mormons just aren’t much of a presence outside the US and a few Latin American countries. As far as the rest of the world is concerned, they simply aren’t on the radar. Most Europeans have never had any conscious contact with Mormons and couldn’t tell you what they believe beyond some vague stereotypes about polygamy. And yes, I know that Mormons have a stronger than normal presence in speculative fiction, mainly because the Mormon Brigham Young University has an excellent and genre-focussed creative writing program. Nonethless, if the Mormons of all people are the only religious group to show up in The Expanse (though apparently, a Methodist preacher is a main character in a later novel in the series), this makes the show irritatingly American. In fact, at one point the person with whom I was watching said to me, “Please tell me that it turns out that the Mormons are the ones behind the conspiracy.”
The only other mention of religion involved the cult/commune which birthed Jim Holden. Again, the way this cult/commune is portrayed is very American. For starters, the commune is literally located in the US midwest and the cult is in constant conflict with the government, for reasons that aren’t quite clear, at least not in the TV show. What struck me, however, was that the cult which birthed Jim Holden was portrayed largely sympathetically. Whereas in Germany, religious cults and fringe religious groups are inevitably portrayed as dangerous and not to be trusted. Back when I was at school, warning kids of religious cults was part of the curriculum. The “cults are evil” chapter in my religious education textbook was illustrated not just with Moonie mass weddings and singing Hare Krishnas, but also with graphic images of the dead at Jonestown (which my teenaged self found deeply disturbing and my adult self still considers completely inappropriate). In general, I found the insistence on warning kids about the dangers of cults – which inevitably also included the dangers of tarot decks, ouija boards, meditation and other largely harmless things – a bit overdone, particularly since our teachers were making us suffer for the 1960s generation’s susceptibility to weird cults and new age woo woo. Nonetheless, portraying religious cults as anything other than negative is very strange to me. Now I would have glossed over the portrayal of the cult that birthed Jim Holden in The Expanse (after all, not all cults are Jonestown, some only fleece their members for money), if not for the fact that an apologetic TV show based on the events at Waco, which sympathises with the cultists and condemns the FBI (which is not how anybody here viewed it), was airing at around the same time I watched The Expanse. It’s not the only Waco apologia I’ve recently come across either – apparently, this is a thing now. And my reaction to the portrayal of the cult that birthed Jim Holden in The Expanse was very much coloured by anger at the Waco apologias, because I viewed it as yet another example of how Americans will always side with fringe religious cults and defend them, no matter how problematic those cults obviously are. Meanwhile, Islam, a world religion of approx. one billion adherents, is treated like the ultimate evil. In fact, the only likable Muslim character in an American TV show that I can think of is Sam Hanna from NCIS: Los Angeles and the fact that he is Muslim is handled in a very low-key way.
So in the otherwise secular future of The Expanse, the only religions mentioned are Mormons on the one hand and a weird religious fringe cult living in a commune in the American midwest on the other. Honestly, you can’t get any more American in your portrayal of religion than focussing on two very American fringe groups, while not even mentioning the various major world religions at all. Worse, neither of those two religious groups have any impact on the plot at all, unless it happens in future books. The Mormons and their generation ship are merely there to give Fred Johnson an excuse to putter around on Tycho Station, while conspiring. As for the commune that birthed Jim Holden, does it have any impact on his character at all beyond giving Chrisjen Averasala and Jim’s birthmother as portrayed by Frances Fisher an opportunity to square off against each other? Not that I mind seeing two awesome older women chewing up the scenery, but I still wonder what the purpose of that scene was. By the time, we meet Jim’s family, we have already amply seen what kind of person Jim is, namely a fundamentally decent person who always wants to do the right thing. We don’t need to learn about his family background, especially since the kind of background Holden has rarely spits out people like him. Okay, so we learn that Don Quixote was Jim’s favourite book, which explains his choice of spaceship name. Still, if you want to have religion in your science fiction, focussing solely on American expressions of religion is not the way to do it.
Coincidentally, I happened to rewatch Firefly and Serenity over the Easter weekend and noticed how much better that show plus the movie handled the issue of religion. Of course, one of the main characters in Firefly is a priest of some Christian denomination (I don’t think it’s ever explicitly defined), so religion of course plays a bigger role in Firefly/Serenity than it does in The Expanse. However, you also see brief visual references to religions other than Christianity. There is a woman in a burqa, a man wearing a taqiyah, there are buddhas and shrines, the “marriage ceremony” of Mr. Universe and his lovebot is Jewish, etc… There are worldbuilding issues with Firefly/Serenity, most notably the fact that there are hardly any Chinese people visible, in a universe where Mandarin is one of the main languages. However, it handled the religion issue so much better than The Expanse did more than ten years later.
Getting back to The Expanse, the disparate plotlines of Jim Holden and friends trying to figure out just why the hell spaceships keep exploding under their feet and Joe Miller trying to find out what happened to Julie Mao finally come together in the second-to-last episode, when Miller tracks Julie and the Rocinante crew tracks the lone survivor who might know what the hell happened to the Canterbury, the Scopuli and the Donanger to a seedy hotel on the asteroid Eros. A shoot-out erupts near randomly in the lobby, Miller bursts in to save Jim and friends and together they finally go to Julie’s room, only to find her dead body, encrusted with crystals and the glowy blue alien protomolecule, which is the main MacGuffin of the plot aside from Julie. Coincidentally, I only knew that the blue stuff was an alien protomolecule from the books. I don’t think the show ever says what it is. It does look an awful lot like the magic mushroom drive and the inhabitants of Pahvo from Star Trek Discovery, though. We also get another Americanism, for though Julie dies naked in a hotel bathtub (which will remind German viewers of another infamous death in a hotel bathtub and one of the most famous press photos of all time), the alien crystals have managed to cover up her breasts, since The Expanse is a US TV show and apparently not one that airs on HBO.
For the last two episodes of the season, The Expanse suddenly turns into a 1990s episode of The X-Files, complete with a shadowy conspiracy using a mysterious alien substance (extracted from the body of poor dead Julie) to infect the hapless residents of Eros, because… – well, it’s not entirely clear why the shadowy villains led by Julie’s own Dad are doing what they are doing. Just as it’s not entirely clear why they want to trigger a war between Earth, Mars and the belters. Profit, I guess? There is the suspicion that the villains want to use the alien protomolecule as a bioweapon, but one of the things I do know from the books is that the protomolecule is not a bioweapon and that its tendency to infect and kill people is just an unfortunate side-effect.
Person watching with me: “So what does that blue stuff actually do?”
Me: “Uhm, it builds stargates.”
Person watching with me: “So the blue stuff infects and kills people and then builds a stargate? But that makes no sense whatsoever.”
Though the breakneck speed of the final episode, the one that won a Hugo, doesn’t leave you much time to realise that what you’re watching doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Because Miller, Holden and the crew of the Rocinante find themselves trapped on an asteroid with an alien killer virus – pardon, killer protomolecule – that is rapidly infecting the civilian population as well as with a bunch of gangsters, hired killers and other lowlives who have replaced the legitimate security personnel on Eros.
Meawhile, back on Earth, Chrisjen Averasala figures out that the mysterious stealth ship Anubis, which is responsible for the destruction of the Canterbury, Scopuli and the Donnager was built on Earth and not on Mars or in the belt, as previously assumed, and that it was privately financed. Since the guy from whom Averasala got the information was killed, though the murder was made to look like a suicide, Averasala assumes that the conspirators will now try to kill her, too.
During a firefight on Eros, that has station security firing on civilians, the group is broken up. Naomi, Amos and Alex try to make their way back to the Rocinante, which is made more difficult by the fact that Eros station is on lockdown, including the docks, and that the criminals turned security guards are patrolling everywhere. Meanwhile, Miller goes off to investigate what is going on and Holden, being once more too heroic for his own good, follows him.
The rest of the episode is taken up with Naomi, Amos and Alex as well as Miller’s old pal Sam and a bunch of belter refugees they pick up along the way crawling through maintenance tunnels, while wondering why Naomi can read the OPA symbols that point the way. Meanwhile, Miller and Holden uncover the terrible secret of what is really going on on Eros station (which isn’t that much of a surprise, if you’ve ever watched only a single episode of The X-Files back in the 1990s). Basically, the shadowy conspirators (TM) have taken a sample of the alien protomolecule from the body of poor dead Julie and derived a serum from it. Then they engineer a fake radiation leak on Eros and have the criminal security guards heard the population into shelters, not without first injecting them with what’s supposed to be an anti-radiation drug, but is really the alien protomolecule. Once the infected belters are locked in shelters, they are left to die. And then, once the alien protomolecule has done its work, the shelters full of dead people are flooded with high radiation, because… – well, I’m not entirely sure what the radiation was supposed to achieve. Maybe the shadowy conspirators (TM) wanted to see if radiation would stop or kill off the alien protomolecule. At any rate, they are wrong, because the alien protomolecule really likes radiation and soaks it up to grow and spread even more.
Worse, Miller and Holden, being not just heroic but also fatally unlucky, manage to stumble into one of the shelters full of dead belters just as it is being flashed with high radiation. And so they catch a pretty much lethal dose. Of course, this is the future and a lethal dose of radiation isn’t necessarily lethal, if you get treatment fast enough. And so the race is on to get back to the Rocinante, before the ship leaves and before either the radiation or the criminals turned security guards or the shadowy conpirators can get them. Miller also gets revenge on the guy who impaled his partner Havelock (remember him?) back on Ceres (he was one of the criminals turned security guards), while Jim Holden does his best to keep an increasingly trigger-happy Miller in check. They make it to the airlock of the Rocinante literally with seconds to spare and are rescued, because Naomi refused to leave without Holden (and Miller) on board and because Amos shot Sam, Miller’s former partner, who tried to force Naomi to take off.
The Rocinante blasts off Eros station, Miller and Holden are taken to the medbay for treatment, where Holden and Naomi manage to almost, but not quite kiss, earning dark looks from poor Amos and sighs of frustration from the audience. Meanwhile, one of the few survivors aboard the station – the spy whom Naomi and Amos had caught skunking around in the crawlspaces of the Rocinante earlier – gets eaten by the alien protomolecule to nobody’s regret. Coincidentally, I just realised that we never learn what became of the Mormon misionary who talked to Miller about Jesus on the shuttle to Eros. I presume he’s as dead as everybody else on Eros.
And that’s it, the end of the first season. It’s not much of an ending at all, even though our heroes are all safe for now. Now The Expanse does have a tendency towards rapid, cut to the credits endings – another typical feature of the so-called “golden age of television”, where TV episodes no longer have endings, but often just randomly stop. Mad Men did it, too, for example, up to and including the final episode. But the season 1 finale of The Expanse ended so abruptly that we actually checked the DVD to see whether we’d missed an episode. But nope, that was really the end. It just wasn’t much of a payoff. Hell, we didn’t even get a kiss between Holden and Naomi, no matter how much it was teased.
In many way, the less than satisfying ending of the first season was rather apt, because The Expanse left me rather unsatisfied as a whole. It’s something that really should be right up my alley – adventure and intrigue in space – but it just leaves me lukewarm. I’m not the only one who feels this way. Abigail Nussbaum largely shares my feelings:
For two-plus years, I’ve watched this celebration of the show with bemusement. I don’t hate The Expanse, and I’ll probably keep watching it for as long as it’s on. But I also find it singularly un-engaging—surprisingly so, given how well-calibrated its premise and genre are to my interests. I would describe The Expanse as a show with great casting and production values, amazing worldbuilding, a so-so story, and characters who are, with a few notable exceptions, dull as ditchwater.
This I quite remarkable, because while I always appreciate Abigail Nussbaum’s genre reviews, I rarely agree with her on anything. What is more, while I famously hated the new Battlestar Galactica, the TV show The Expanse and much of contemporary TV space opera is clearly trying to emulate, usually to their detriment, Abigail Nussbaum very much liked it. But even she finds The Expanse competently made but rather bland.
Also, as noted above, while The Expanse looks modern, has a pretty diverse cast and fits in visually (the effects are good, but the lighting is dim, so very dim that you can barely see anything) with the so-called “golden age of television”, the actual story feels much older. It’s a hodgepodge of 1990s and early 2000s influences from The X-Files to mundane science fiction to cast of thousands, multi-POV epic SFF intermixed with some strands that are even older, such as 1980s neo-noir Cyberpunk, 1950s Heinlein novels and 1940s hardboiled and noir fiction. And though The Expanse, both books and TV series, clearly belongs to the space opera resurgence of the 2010s (The first book, Leviathan Wakes, came out in 2011), it’s nonetheless an outlier. With space opera books such as Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy and Provenance, Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit, Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit and Raven Strategem, Rachel Bach’s Paradox trilogy, Ann Aguirre’s Sirantha Jax and Dredd Chronicles series, Elizabeth Bonesteel’s Central Corps series, K.B. Wagers’ Indranan War series, Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti trilogy, Sarah Creasy’s Scarabaeus duology, Tim Pratt’s The Wrong Stars, etc… it’s easy to see that for all their differences, these books are still part of the same tradition. The Expanse, however, doesn’t really fit in with any of those. Why this series was adapted for TV rather than one of the many others I listed above I have no idea. That is, I do have some ideas, after all. Namely I suspect that The Expanse was adapted because it has a veneer of seriousness and respectability, it has no aliens (i.e. no extensive make-up or CGI characters necessary), it’s a series written by two male authors featuring male main characters and a cast that’s white enough to satisfy US TV executives.
But there is not just a space opera resurgence in written science fiction at the moment, but there is one going on in televised science fiction as well. At any rate, there are currently several different space opera shows on TV – after many years of none at all. Of those current space opera shows I’ve watched, I find The Expanse the least interesting. True, season 1 of Star Trek Discovery was a hot mess and rumours suggest that season 2 won’t necessarily be any better. But if there’s one thing that Star Trek Discovery wasn’t, it’s bland. Meanwhile, for those of us who actually like Star Trek to be – well – Star Trek, Seth MacFarlane is regularly dishing up 1990s Star Trek with more humor and the serial numbers filed off as well as updated for 21st century sensibilities in The Orville.
Of these three, The Orville is actually the show I enjoy the most, which surprised the hell out of me, because it was also the show of which I had the lowest expectations. But while The Orville is clearly less ambitious than the other two shows, it knows what it wants to be and does what it does surprisingly well. Star Trek Discovery, meanwhile, has all the advantages – a great cast, a big budget and one of the most recognisable science fiction franchises of all time – and yet squanders much of it, because it’s obvious that the show has no idea what it wants to be and instead seems to turn into a completely different show every other episode. And while some of these different versions of Star Trek Discovery are actually pretty good, they don’t form a coherent whole. The Expanse, meanwhile, also has the advantage of a big budget, a promising premise and a serviceable enough cast, and yet does very little with it. Unlike Star Trek Discovery, The Expanse clearly knows what it wants to be and therefore the occasional tonal shifts are not nearly as jarring. The Expanse also has a coherent story, however, that story is neither particularly original nor particularly interesting.
I still have two more space opera TV shows lined up: Killjoys and Dark Matter. I’m currently four episodes into the latter. I’ll do a more detailed post, once I’ve actually watched Dark Matter all the way through, but so far I like it a lot more than The Expanse, even though it only has about a fraction of the budget and is obviously cheaply made (outer space looks like Canada once again). It’s also less ambitious than either Star Trek Discovery or The Expanse, but it has plenty of thrills and action in space and an intriguing central mystery that quickly reels you in and keeps you watching.
So what’s the lesson here about televised space opera? Maybe that the expensive shows like The Expanse or Star Trek Discovery tend to be overly ambitious and so they overreach, while the cheaper shows have few ambitions apart from giving you a good time, but generally succeed at what they’re doing.