Look, at some point in your life some bright spark is going to wax lyrical at you about how manipulative and amazing Avasarala is, or how charming Alex’s cowboy affectations are, how compelling Gunny’s naive idealism is, but fuck all those characters and fuck the people who will tell you different: the real star of the ‘The Expanse’ doesn’t even get listed in the credits.
James Holden’s Coffee Cup may only appear on screen three times in a single episode, and it may not get any lines, and it may not be some mysterious glowy blue material that drives interplanetary wars, but James Holden’s Coffee Cup us more important to the narrative than you will ever realise. It does more to shape character development than the main cast members of other shows.
Here’s the scene: two ships are docked to one another, the Rocinante and the Guy Molinari, and en route to a mysterious station, which is their objective. The vulnerable freighter Guy Molinari aims to board the station with detachable breacher pods, whilst the gunship Rocinante covers the attack and intercepts enemy defence vessels.
Inside the Rocinante, its Martian pilot, Alex, reaches out and grabs his helmet, floating motionless beside him. Further down the ship James Holden, the captain, takes a sip from his sealed coffee cup and then lets go of it. It spins slowly next to him. It’s emblazoned with the initials “MCRN” – Martian Congressional Republic Navy. The Rocinante is a stolen ship, built by Mars, now a freelance vessel in the business of justice for the exploited.
Now, when I watched this, I was annoyed. Because the first thing I thought, being a fucking dweeb, was “As soon as they switch on the engines that coffee cup’s going to go flying.” Nevermind, it’s hardly the most egregious failure in accuracy in a sci-fi show. Soon after, the crew seal up their flight suits so they can depressurise the ship. Why? “We gotta do it, they’ll be poking holes in us,” Holden explains. “Yeah, but this feels like we’re agreeing to it,” his engineer, Naomi, responds.
Y’see, they’re about to go into combat, and any damage to the hull will result in air escaping. So if they’re not all suited up, they’ll choke. And even if they are, the escaping air would act like a miniature thruster, pushing the ship off course.
Once they’re depressurised, Holden gives the order to detach from the Guy Molinari, and the Rocinante peels away from the larger ship and into a casual spin, an effort to look like a piece of debris.
And, as if to spite me, the coffee cup goes drifting off through the crew cabin. Amos, one of the other crew members, calls out to Holden. “Didn’t the Navy teach you to stow your gear before we went into manoeuvres?” He holds out his hand and catches the cup.
Amos and Holden have previously experienced a lot of friction. Well, to be fair, Amos experiences friction with everybody. This light jibing is a sign of them functioning together more successfully following a few dangerous misadventures. It’s a small character moment, but it hints at a complex relationship between the antisocial, antagonistic Amos and the rigidly righteous Holden. The Navy reference also reminds us that Holden was once a military officer – he’s not just some random space trucker, there’s a reason he’s out here, committed to a cause. And there’s also a reason he’s not a Navy officer anymore.
It’s also a nice bit of science thrown into the mix. Because when you’re in a car, and the car speeds up or turns sharply, you can feel your body being pulled or pushed in different directions. That’s because the car is changing momentum – it’s changing its direction of travel. Because your body is stuck in the seat (and you better be buckled up, kiddo, safety first), your body will also change direction. But your body doesn’t want to – your body has its own momentum, and it wants to keep going the same way it’s already going.
If your body wasn’t in a seat, you’d feel the effects of momentum much more harshly. In fact, you can – if you’ve ever been stood up on a train or a bus, you can tell how difficult it can be to stay standing in one place without holding onto something. Without some sort of anchor point to the vehicle, such as a handle to hold onto – or your arse in a chair – you can easily be thrown about, and that can be dangerous.
In space it’s even worse, because there’s no gravity in space (or rather, you won’t feel its effects). So on a bus, you’ve at least got your feet being stuck to the floor by the weight of your body, and that gives you some point of contact. If you were floating, then you wouldn’t move at all when the bus did until you hit the back of the bus – or rather, until it hit you.
So when the Rocinante fires up her engines and begins turning and accelerating, even only very gradually, the coffee cup moves around the inside of the ship, because there’s nothing keeping it attached to the ship. There isn’t even any air resistance, because they’ve vented all the air because they’re going into combat. The most sensible way to prevent this would be to do as Amos suggests – stow your shit. But Holden is a scruffy waster with no shame, so he just lets his shit loose all over the place.
Now, why is this coffee cup so important? Why spend nearly 900 words already talking about it? We’ve already seen the last of it – Amos grabbing hold of the damn thing is the last time we get to look upon its beautiful brushed aluminium finish.
But here’s the thing – later, during the battle, the Rocinante gets damaged, and so Amos, he of The Great Dysfunction, goes to repair the damaged system. Whilst he’s there, a new situation develops, requiring the Rocinante to pull some serious manoeuvres. And Naomi even warns of this, explicitly telling Amos before and during his repair excursion that even a few gs of acceleration could send him flying, wounding or killing him, even inside of the ship.
Because the same physics that cause the coffee cup to go rogue under gentle acceleration produce bone-shattering forces under high acceleration. Amos could get flung into a bulkhead with the same amount of force as a car slamming into a concrete wall at 70mph.
The knock on to all of this is that it causes Alex, the wannabe-cowboy pilot of the Rocinante, to hold back for a moment, go a bit slower to avoid killing Amos. And as a result, they don’t destroy a space cannon before it shoots one of the breaching pods from the Guy Molinari, killing twenty five people aboard it. And as a result, Alex goes through something of an emotional breakdown later on, after the mission, obsessing with ways of saving that breaching pod. And as a result of that, he and Amos clash, Amos being insensitive to Alex’s emotional fallout.
And all of this works, from a narrative perspective, because of that coffee cup. Because that coffee cup is the “show, don’t tell” of this entire plot line. Without the coffee cup, sure, the physics would still all be there, but to most of the audience the only reason that Alex would have to slow down the ship’s manoeuvres would be because Naomi said that they had to. And even though Naomi’s established as an expert engineer, the essence of storytelling would be absent – it would feel like technobabble, used to add artificial drama in the very worst traditions of the likes of ‘Star Trek: Voyager’.
Sure, you could’ve used any object, it didn’t have to be a coffee cup. But you had to do something, this episode, in the lead up to that key scene with Amos, to quickly establish the laws of physics in space. And from that, you get all the cool character stuff that follows.
There are plenty of other lovely touches just in this particular sequence – such as Miller trying futilely to reach his floating helmet whilst Drummer briefs the boarding party. Or Fred Johnson, briefly remorseful over his sending of soldiers to their deaths, adding yet more complexity to his character. Or of the sounds of Drummer’s magnetic boots as she walks along the floor in a zero-g environment. Christ, this show has a level of detailed consistency to its footwear than other shows do for the major biological traits of their main characters.
I’ve now written 1400 words about a single coffee cup in a short scene in ‘The Expanse’, and I feel like I could go on. The thing is, great storytelling comes in many different forms, not just coffee cups – but a well-written story can take any form, including coffee cups, if it really needs to. Every scene doesn’t need to be a hyped-up emotional overload, and the quiet tension of this sequence works so well in setting up a battle that ends up feeling climactic, but is ultimately barely even a minor skirmish in what’s to come.
And this is only the twelfth episode of ‘The Expanse’. And the second episode of the second season. There’s already so much history to the characters, the ships. There’s complex politics, cultural clashes, schemes within schemes. We’ve met dozens of different characters, many of whom are already dead, all of whom had dreams, and ideas, and objectives of their own. As one of my friends pointed out, we only meet the crew of the Martian flagship Donager for two episodes, and yet their loss is keenly felt when the die in service to their planet. Some shows can go fifteen whole episodes without ever giving their main character a goal or an ambition, instead just having them wander from one crisis to the next whilst stuff happens around them.
‘The Expanse’ will be getting its third season in just a few weeks, and the endless possibilities that abound have got me excited. It’s not a perfect show, by any means. I love its slow pace, but that could be tedious for some. And it rarely passes the Bechdel test compared to Anti-Bechdel (although it has some fantastic female characters).
But the fact that it structures its narratives so well, setting up key, powerful events with something as simple as a coffee cup, is a testament to what can be achieved when you’ve got real love for your art. When you actually want to tell a story, and explore a world, this is what you can do, and the audience will thank you for the results
Although thinking about it, it may not have been coffee.