Weeknote 4 – TV week with The Expanse

Outlaws in space. Meetings. Recharging

Work

Not much to say. Loads of meetings to plan the next three months. One presentation that was a bit of a failure. Way more meetings than was smart. Hopefully next week will be better.

TV

Didn’t read much this week and instead decided to watch the entirety of the season 3 of The Expanse. I liked it more than I expected and I already expected to enjoy it.

The Expanse had a very slow start. The first half of the first season doesn’t really hang together properly—a problem that was exacerbated by the hype that it was basically ‘Game of Thrones in space’.

There are a few pointed parallels between the two: they are both about how humanity is losing itself in war and political intrigue while ignoring a burgeoning threat to human existence. So at first glance you’d think that the two are nothing more than two different takes on the same theme—humanity’s self-destruction—one with dragons and frosty zombies, the other with weird alien substances and spaceships.

But that isn’t what The Expanse is. What it is, is a continuation of one of the oldest TV sci-fi formulas: outlaws in a cool spaceship get caught up in a seismic change to the status quo.

And ‘Outlaws in a Spaceship’ is a genre that I love.

It a series that is building on a tradition established by Blake’s 7, Farscape, and Firefly: anti-heroes stumble on to something important and, even though they are rogues and scoundrels, decide for the most part to do the right thing.

Moreover, the point these series usually try to make, explicitly or obliquely, is that the reason why these characters can shake things up is that they stand outside of normal society: they can fight an unjust system because, as villains, they are used to being against the system.

Which means that The Expanse is playing an entirely different ‘game’, so to speak, than Game of Thrones. Where The Game of Thrones gleefully revels in the base horribleness of its characters and world—everybody in the series is an awful human being—The Expanse is all about showing that everybody is both a villain and a hero; some just lean more one way than another. And I mean everybody: from the borderline saintly pastor to the alien presence that threatens life in the solar system as we know it. The Expanse is focused on the humanity that’s caught up in and compromised by the intrigue and the war.

Once you’ve figured out The Expanse’s genre, it becomes obvious where it went wrong in the first season: in the ‘Outlaws in a Spaceship’ genre, the spaceship is a vital part of the formula. Even when it isn’t an actual character, as with Zen in Blake’s 7 or Moya in Farscape, the spaceship still needs to have the emotional investment and buildup that a character would. Unfortunately it takes The Expanse five episodes before it properly gives the characters the ship that will serve as their anchor for the rest of the series. Most other takes on this formula get there in the first minutes of the first episode.

It takes the series a while, but after an uneven first season it gets to a point where it starts to improve with each episode. By the time you get to the second season it has become a compelling viewing.

Part of what makes it work is that even though it isn’t trying to be ‘Game of Thrones in Space’ it is tackling some of the same themes: we are fighting each other while the world is burning around us. It places war and political intrigue in the context of the potential end of humanity without trivialising the seriousness or horror of any of the events it depicts. Which has obvious parallels to how things are playing out in the real world.

I think it works and I’m looking forward to seeing more.

It’s worth comparing The Expanse with another take on the same genre that debuted just a few months earlier also on Syfy: Dark Matter.

Like The Expanse, Dark Matter is about anti-heroes in a cool spaceship getting pulled into major political events. Unlike The Expanse, Dark Matter presents its core hook right at the start without waffling: the characters are outright villains, but they—for hand-wave-y sci-fi reasons—have amnesia and need to rediscover who they are, both literally and in the character growth sense. What works in Dark Matter are the characters which are quite compelling—in many ways much more compelling than those of The Expanse. What doesn’t really work for it is the world-building. Blake’s 7 had a totalitarian state modelled after the crumbling fascist and totalitarian blocks of the late 70s coupled with a hint of early Thatcherism. Farscape had a very strong sense of the fantastic and wondrous, helped in no small part by it being a Jim Henson Company co-production. Firefly was a western in space, with all of the unfortunate political implications that come with westerns in general.

Dark Matter?

Basically a generic cyberpunk corporate dystopia, but in space. And it never quite feels as fleshed out or fully formed as The Expanse’s various nations and communities.

Worse yet, Dark Matter got cancelled on a cliffhanger, so even though it’s a really enjoyable three seasons, I can’t bring myself to watch the third season as I really, really hate it when series end on major cliffhangers.

Between the two series, I think The Expanse is the one with more potential so it didn’t entirely come as a surprise that, when both were cancelled by Syfy only a few months apart, The Expanse was the one picked up by Amazon to continue. The series’s only real liability is a weak first half of the first season and that is probably less of a problem for a streaming service where people might be more likely to give series more episodes to prove themselves.

Anyway, they are both worth a watch. Dark Matter has great characters but is let down by a lack of closure and spotty world-building. The Expanse’s major flaw is its slow start.

Pick your poison.

Movies

Saw Captain Marvel. Enjoyed it a lot. Actually enjoyed it more than I do most of the Marvel movies. If I still have thoughts on it next week, I’ll write about it then.

Photography

Nothing going on this week. Recharging.