Monday, December 7, 2015

The Expanse on Syfy - I Came, I Saw, I Reviewed

A sigh of relief. The Expanse is worth watching, so far.

This was not a sure thing. Even though it's based on the bestselling (and damned good) space opera by James S.A. Corey, The Expanse could have easily screwed the pooch. Syfy has a history of bad, bad, terminally dumb shows, and they could have found a way to make this one of them.

Instead the visuals, the sound design, the pacing, and the performances are all impressive at best, and convincing at worst. The title sequence is damned good. A lot of the shots (such as those in space) are obviously CGI, but designed well enough so that it doesn't matter.

For those unfamiliar with the books, The Expanse takes place in a future where an efficient fusion drive has put the solar system - but not the stars - in humanity's reach. We've colonized Mars, Luna, the Asteroid Belt, and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. Earth is home to the majority of humanity; Mars has the greatest military power; and both siphon resources from the Outer Planets. Tensions are building. And then, something happens...

One subtle but important point - the showrunners knew enough to keep the books' vertically built spaceships. In the books, Corey (pseudonymous authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) makes the point that in a future without artificial gravity, spaceships with constant-gravity drives will essentially be skyscrapers sitting on top of thrusters. They won't swoop through space like the Millennium Falcon; they will shoot upward, balanced on their tails. The temptation for any space opera to portray spaceships as super-fighter-jets is enormous; resisting it takes real aesthetic willpower.

The corridors of Ceres are an excellent realization of the book, with a multi-story main drag roofed over by a deliberately fake blue sky. Thomas Jane, as Detective Miller, projects a weary, cynical quality that is faithful and spot-on. Cas Anwar, as pilot Alex Kamal, is a surprise standout with only four or five lines so far.

So that's all gravy.

But there are already some troubling portents, ominous harbingers of what might be coming. The showrunners were able to resist the siren song of the horizontal space ship, but they couldn't fight the lure of the glamour-puss. Most of the main characters are either prettier, neater or shorter than they should be.

In the books, there are profound and obvious physical differences between Earthers and virtually everyone else: Those born on Earth are shorter (and presumably stronger) than those born elsewhere. Belters especially are tall, thin, and unable to spend time comfortably on Earth. Holden, the main character in the books, is handsome, but he's also Earthborn and considerably shorter than characters like Naomi Nagata and Detective Miller, the other protagonist. The same is true of Havelock, Miller's partner and another Earther. But on the show Steven Strait (who plays Holden) towers over a shorter (and very curvaceous in a distinctly un-Belterly way) Dominique Tipper as Naomi. And surrounded by Belters, Havelock should have a tough time seeing through a crowd. In The Expanse, he doesn't.

Not only is Holden taller than Naomi, but he's cut and ripped. I like eye candy as much as the next critic (although I prefer the female variety) but here's the thing: You only get the muscles that Strait is sporting through conscientious, regular weight training in high gravity. Holden is a spacer, the executive officer of a deep-space mining vessel with a crew from all over the system. The only time he would experience 1.0 g acceleration is when the ship is executing a relatively high-g burn. Holden's muscles might look like those of a swimmer, but not like those of a gym rat. Steven Strait as Holden is too buff to be real.

Then there's Wes Chatham as Amos Burton. Chatham is ex-military, and believable as such. But Amos Burton *isn't* ex-military. In the books, Burton is deeply damaged, the victim of an abusive childhood who grew up on the streets. He is very big, and very strong, and very scary - but he doesn't look like a youngish poster child for the armed forces; he looks like someone who got beat until he got big enough to beat back. Chatham seems too "together" to be Burton. (To be fair, Chatham might pull it off - he hasn't had much screen time yet; but at first glance, he doesn't project the aura of damaged violence that Burton should have.)

Finally, there's Shohreh Aghdashloo as Chrisjen Avasarala, the UN official who's keeping track of the developing conspiracy. Avasarala may be the most appealing character in the entire series, a rotund, foul-mouthed, physically unimposing Indian grandmother in her 70s who is the smartest, toughest and sanest politician on Earth, and maybe  in the entire solar system. Changing any of it would be doing a disservice to the series. But Syfy did just that: They cast Aghdashloo, a striking Iranian actress in her early 60s. And Aghdashloo, in what we see of her so far, brings a dragon-lady vibe to her portrayal that is the opposite of the unimpressed, no-bullshit Avasarala of the books.

These casting notes might seem like quibbles; they're not. The height question, for instance, goes to the heart of the book's main political conflict: Earth/Mars vs. Belters/OPA. The Belters aren't just terrestrial humans in space; they have changed. They can never go back to Earth. They can barely survive that gravity. They're stuck in the black forever, with their backs to the figurative wall. There's one scene that nods toward this fact, but it's then ignored with every crowd scene on Ceres. Amos and Avasarala are two of the most compelling characters in the books, but casting may have sanitized them.

Still, The Expanse is worth watching so far. Let's see where it goes.


  1. There are very few people who are tall and slender enough to look like they live in zero gravity. There are even fewer who work as actors. Even fewer are good actors.

    1. It wasn't necessary to find 7' tall actors; only to cast as Belters actors who were significantly taller and more slender than those playing Terran/Martian characters. The showrunners made no effort to do so.