The Expanse

Jun 11, 2022 · 3125 words · 15 minute read

Space is unforgiving and uncaring. Living in a fast moving pressurised tin can does not make life much easier. The Expanse makes this brutally clear from the beginning. It’s also one of the best science fiction shows I’ve ever seen.

There are lots of spoilers after the jump, and a very rambling reflection on trying to figure out why exactly I think this show is as good as it is, so don’t say you haven’t been warned…

Over the last few years I’ve watched very few series, and am wary of starting any long running commitments, but The Expanse at six seasons of about eleven episodes each, isn’t too much. It’s also excellent, with high production values, great characters and a good plot.

I watched most of it in the second half of last year, and have just finished watching the sixth and final season. When I started I thought I was starting a very ‘modern’ series, but the first season aired at the end of 2015, so it’s already seven years old. I won’t be recapping in a lot of detail, so if you haven’t watched the series, then my comments below won’t make much sense; so treat yourself and watch it. Additionally I, like most people, haven’t (yet?) read the books, so it may be than some of the points I question below are better explained in the source material, but my view is based only on the series.

The Expanse is slightly ‘harder’ science fiction than most, and plays up the hardships of living in space. The constant planning for things like breathable air and water, or the dangers of gravity, either too much while manoeuvring, or too little for long periods of time. This gives it a much more realistic and grittier feel than other shows, while crucially, providing a strong consistency with fewer chances for a random technology to spoil the plot by magically solving a problem without warning. This consistency1 also increases its believability when it’s evenly applied.

It’s not completely hard though, and there are concessions to give the story lines more pace. The ‘Epstein Drive’ engines are magically fuel efficient and solve most of the problems of how to generate and sustain long distance flight. Likewise the white injected liquid to help protect people against high-G manoeuvres, which is almost omnipresent in early episodes, but later barely referenced. The Protomolecule’s physics and actions are also understandably exceptional, as is the associated Ring Space, but it’s kept consistent and you’re rarely unpleasantly surprised by an unexpected Deus Ex Machina event.

One of the best aspects, that can make it visually less interesting, is the ship-to-ship combat, mostly done with torpedoes, Point Defence Canons (PCDs) and occasionally rail guns. No fighter like aircraft, or lasers, that almost certainly wouldn’t exist. The battle sequences are still very tense and feel very claustrophobic, with people strapped into their seats in space suits hoping they’re not obliterated by a random piece of shrapnel. This makes these scenes more like submarine based action films than anything else.

The political landscape is also very well done, with the three human factions of Earthers (why not Earthlings?), Martians and Belters being a mostly believable combination of warring states with a suitably long history of animosity.

Of these the Belters are the most novel faction, an underclass of colonial workers exploited over generations by private corporations under the control of Earth and Mars. With limited self-rule, they support a number of rebellious factions that appear to be part pirate, part organised crime and part political movement.

If there’s one nit-pick here it’s that it’s hard to believe that most of what Belters do, like mining and building, couldn’t be automated by robots, which are strangely absent from this universe. There are drones, but only remotely piloted, even things like mining asteroids and pushing cargo through space seems to be done with a lot of human input, even if I can easily imagine that being a completely automatable activity.

Without the protective powers of an existing narrative, the first season starts pretty brutally, with people meeting various unpleasant ends left, right and centre; and without established characters, you’re kept guessing who’s next. This makes for a really good start, but you can’t keep doing this if you want to really establish and invest in characters. This is done well, as the characters on the Canterbury plotline are whittled down to the future crew of the Rocinante, learning bits about each other’s pasts along the way.

The most interesting character in the first two seasons isn’t on the Roci though, that being detective Miller, who acts both as a good guide for us to the Belter society, while trying to figure out what he should be doing, and why he should be doing any of it at all.

His parts of the who make for much better viewing than any of the more geo(exo?)-political parts of the plot that Avarasarla and Errinwright represent, while important for context and later events, I didn’t find quite as gripping. I think that’s because at the beginning the show is trying to balance action with scene and background setting, meaning that a lot of the early scenes with Avarasarla are confusing more than anything else, as we’ve not had a chance to understand what’s going on, whereas Miller is a detective trying to solve a mystery, and Holden and co. are just trying to stay alive - both much easier to understand and follow.

As a whole The Expanse does manage to keep a good balance between the various parties, and not giving any single aspect too much time in the limelight - even if some characters, or aspects of the plot, require more introduction than others.

One aspect that I didn’t think worked so well was the pacing linked with the season, and the obvious cut points half way through season 2, and again in season 3, where the plot seems to wind up (e.g. withe Eros crashing into Venus) before starting up again. While perhaps it means you’re more likely to keep watching as the end of a season doesn’t mean the resolution of the larger plot beats, it does mean the introduction of new characters feels a bit odd, it’s not until the start of season 4, where the focus is heavily on the planet of Ilus that it feels like the seasons and plot start to align. I think this is also linked to the source material, that each season doesn’t cover the content of one book, but rather splits it.

The Expanse is filled with many excellent characters (some I understand to be merges of multiple characters from the books, where you can manage a larger cast). On the ‘good’ side the crew of the Rocinante are mostly pretty well fleshed out; even Amos who starts off as necessary muscle to see the characters through the various fights they get into, he gets a lot of back story in season 5.

Each is also well used to give more back story or context to what’s happening in the different factions - especially Bobby Draper’s return to Mars, where she sees the huge effect that the sudden appearance of habitable worlds has on the dream, and shared goal, of Martian society to terraform Mars.

This makes it even stranger that what could be considered the most ‘central’ character in the whole series, Holden, is in many cases a blank and the least developed. Through the series we learn more and more about the back stories of Alex, Amos and Naomi through flashbacks, and interaction with other characters; for Holden there’s none of that. We have a little exposition in Season 1 when Avasarala visits his mother on some collective farm that he was meant to lead, and that’s about it. We don’t see the events, or people, that shaped him. His time in the UN Navy seems to be referenced just as a passing note to explain why he understands the general principles of space combat. We do see him tired, and frustrated, and often unsure of what the ‘right’ thing to do is; but that always appears to be his quest. What keeps him going after the protomolocule isn’t very well expressed; Niomi and others repeatedly tell him that he can’t see it all as his responsibility, but for some reason he does. We also never learn how he’s so well built for someone who’s spent such a long time in low gravity - Amos I can imagine in a gym, Holden less so, but now I’m really splitting hairs.

In that sense Holden’s character shares his problem with most of the villains in The Expanse. While some of this comes down to them just having less screen time, the plot focusing more on what the ‘hero’ characters do in response to those challenges, and the narrative’s need for villains that are unlikable, in a lot of cases I found them to be a bit flat.

In the first seasons Errinwright is probably the most believable, even if he’s least like a real villain, and the scene where he’s about to be investigated, and is talking with his son, does a lot of humanise him - as does the fact that his he mis-calculated the relationship with Jules-Pierre Mau.

Talking of which; I never really managed to understand Jules-Pierre Mau’s motivations. He seems to want to play Earth and Mars off against each other to make the most profit by selling weapons to one or both. But he’s already incredibly wealthy, and the rapid shifting of allegiances would surely be a red flag to either side working with him, and he doesn’t seem to have political ambitions to rule either habitable planet. He must also know that a war between the two, even if he’s supplying the weapons and making the money, would surely leave almost nowhere habitable left; is that an outcome he’s happy with?

While I don’t find Adolphus Murty a great character in Season 4, he’s not terrible either. He does his job as uncaring corporate greed personified as the plot requires, and doesn’t offer much beyond that, other then being a counterpoint to show Holden as being on the side of justice and order. I think my main irritation with Season 4 was that the Rocinante was somehow easily adapted to fly in an planet’s atmosphere, and just land on it’s tail. This is a weird break from the normally consistent technical fiction at play in The Expanse. While there’s obviously leeway for things like shuttles and super efficient engines, this just seemed out of place.

The most irritating character, both as a plot element, and a character unto himself, award clearly goes to Marco Inaros. On a surface level I can understand his background and motivation: the Belt and it’s people have been exploited and mis-treated for generations, so he attacks Earth as best he can while forcing the Belt’s various factions together under his flag. Add to that that he’s a ruthless pirate, and you’ve got a decent combination for a believable ‘bad guy’, e.g. one that isn’t just ’evil’, but has a sold basis for his beliefs that help explain his actions.

That’s fine, but then it’s also combined with his self-centredness that makes him just an unlikeable character, and for someone with that many enemies it feels like he’s just a bit too lucky, getting out of various dead ends in a way that he doesn’t deserve. The other weakness in the narrative around Inaros is his strategy, or lack thereof. Tactics he’s got, and he find various creative ways of evading his enemies and making their lives difficult, but his overall strategy doesn’t seem to make sense. You could probably argue that’s part of his character, as a pirate survival and shorter term tactics are the important traits, and long term strategy was never so important, which is true, but…the story doesn’t provide us with another other character on his side to fill that hole, leaving him as the infuriating enemy without a really clear objective, and so a lack of suspense if we know he’ll get it or not.

Lost in the noise a bit is the keen observation by one of Naomi’s old shipmates that the Belters who can settle on the new worlds (because they can survive the constant high gravity), will soon cease to be Belters, but instead more like Earthers, but perhaps in different factions. This feels like a critical point, and one that vanishes without further comment in a series that’s normally very good about working out the wider ramifications of the events that take place. The Belt was already fractious, and implies you would get a kind of space bound continuation of Belters, plus new offspring factions that might have very little allegiance to their former comrades.

These issues combine with the weird teasing that happens in the ‘final’ season that did leave me a bit confused. Many plot lines are finished and tidied up in season 6, including Marco; also a more powerful place for the belt, safety for Earth and Mars etc. What confuses the issue is the teasing of more protomolecule related developments through the mini-episodes set on Laconia that start each episode, as well as the nature of the Artifact’s Creators interactions with the ring gates and their destroying of transiting ships. This might just be a tease, and the producers hoping to continue making Expanse series (the producers refer to the current situation as a pause), but some aspects do connect, rather confusingly, directly to the plot. Marco seems to be expecting reinforcement from Laconia of what might be protomolocule developed space craft, and maybe safe haven on Laconia or their support to hold the Ring Station - but I never really understood Marco’s connection and support from Admiral Duarte on Laconia, and why it was suddenly cut off after the protomolecule powered reviving of the killed child, leaving Marco no-where to go but the ring station.

So having just complained about the lack of depth, or understanding of some of the ‘main’ characters, particularly the antagonists, we can talk about the ‘minor’ characters, who are really what gives The Expanse it’s depth and makes it as excellent as it is. Characters like Anderson Dawes, Clarissa Mau, Cotyar Ghazi, Klaes Ashford, all of Drummer’s crew, Prax etc.

In the last season especially Drummer is the stand-out character; having outlived Johnson, made enemies and allies in different Belter fractions, she’s wedged into dangerous corners politically and physically, and makes a great counterpoint to Marco Inaros.

Anderson Dawes deserves a mention as a missed opportunity. He’s interesting in the first few seasons, but then quietly disappears. I feel he would perhaps have been a great character to hang the missing part of Inaro’s ‘strategy’ aspect; and certainly wouldn’t have done anything as inconsistent to their proclaimed mission like abandoning Ceres.

And perhaps that’s the compromise that the producers of The Expanse made, by reducing the time spent on the ‘main’ characters, and giving it to more ‘minor’ recurring characters they spread the depth of development around, making the universe and those who inhabit it seem more realistic, inhabited by real people and not just background cardboard cut-outs. It could also be my expectations that are confused in this situation, that the difference between ‘main’ characters and recurring characters is much smaller than I’m used to, and that’s the source of my dissatisfaction with many of the antagonists. One prime example is Drummer, who starts as a recurring character as of the second season, but by the last two is central, and in the last season the most interesting character in the whole show.

I haven’t listened to/watched, any of the Expanse related podcasts, and assume that if I do, I would learn much more about the making of, and possibly some of the script and narrative choices that were made, and why they were made.

In some cases the producers were also given tough cards. The sudden death of Alex in Season 5 was so dramatic that I did end up searching to find out what happened there, to learn that the actor Cas Anvar had been thrown out at short notice because of unacceptable personal behaviour. Given how central he was to the story, and one of the most sympathetic characters, I would almost think that the best solution was to re-cast him for the last season and not cut him out completely. This was really frustrating, combined with what felt like the recent scenes of Naomi spending, what felt like forever, holding her breath and trying to interfere with the signal on the Chetzemoka, these somehow just irritating rather than suspenseful.

Having just complained about half the characters, even though on balance it’s an excellent and varied cast, perhaps I should mentions some more of what I enjoyed. This includes having an interesting and gripping plot; which in many cases is actually many parallel plots, each giving different kinds of rewards for continued watching.

Another thing the series does really well is the small details that keep it all together. Things like the use of the transparent ‘communicators’, that everyone has and are used to communicate. Lots of series struggle with things like mobile phones or the narrative inconvenience of almost instant communication. The Expanse manages both parts of this well. The devices are well used, and visual enough to play nicely with a camera. Additionally the time delay of light speed travel over longer distances help keep the suspense at key moments by preventing the different parties sharing critical information.

The low gravity in the ships is also handled well. While the magnetic boots that most people wear do seem to have a little ‘magic’ that extends to things like keeping longer hair from suddenly floating off, it’s never forgotten and you get frequent details like tools floating off or blood suddenly floating in the air to remind you that it’s still a problem.

So in the end, do I think I know why I liked it so much? I think it’s the attention to detail that makes the universe so believable, and such a strong cast of characters that doesn’t just rely on a few key characters; rather a large cast of excellent characters that we get to know, but also do a good job at representing and explaining their background or faction.

  1. Not that I’m picking on anyone in particular , but it prevents things like people flying to and landing on a planet with a perfectly serviceable spaceship, and then, inexplicably, travelling on the surface with boats, flying bikes or grumpy lizards. ↩︎