Please note – this is a review of the second episode, ‘IFF’, and yes I’m posting it after the third episode is already out. I’m just a messy bitch who is addicted to procrastination.
My first attempt to watch ‘The Expanse’ a couple of years ago resulted in me losing interest after a few episodes. Which makes it weird that I now view it with a level of affection that I normally reserve for vegan junk food and attractive women who star in films about time travel.
The first episode of Season Three was reasonably standard. It was a decent “this is where everyone is, and this is what they need to do.” It put the Rocinante on course to one of Jupiter’s moons, it put Gunny and Chrisjen on an escape trajectory, and we got a brief aerobics course with Drummer.
Episode two, ‘IFF’, is not without its faults, but it does an amazing job of setting up the rest of the season to follow. Let’s get a few random observations out of the way first:
- Gunny has really come into her own in these two latest episodes. I’m not sure if the actor, Frankie Adams, is finally finding her comfort zone, or if she’s just getting better lines, but she owned the first episode and was on form this time as the knowledgeable but unqualified pilot of the Razorback.
- Holden is getting less screen time, and the episodes are proportionally improving. I mean, there’s nothing particularly offensive about Jon Snow in Space, he’s just not as interesting as any other character we’ve seen.
- Amos is continuing to develop into a genuinely lovable murderous thug.
- The renaming of the Roscinante to Pinus Contorta felt like the writers were mocking me personally, given my recent troubles.
- We meet a new character, Anna, a charitable human being who is dragged into the UN’s murky politics. I don’t know for certain that her being in a multiracial lesbian marriage makes ‘The Expanse’ more progressive than ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ and its multiracial gay couple, but I’m going to say that it does because I hate ‘Discovery’. And at least the fact that Anna doesn’t kiss her wife is because they’re physically separated by an ocean, and not because the show makers didn’t want to scare middle-America.
- Speaking of progressiveness, in my last article on ‘The Expanse’ I brought up the limited number of times that the show manages to pass the Bechdel Test. Well, so far, with Gunny and Avasarala at least, the writers seem determined to smash that particular glass ceiling. I hope the writers of ‘Discovery’ take note of how easy it is to have female-driven storylines when you’re not trying to cram as many hidden-identity sub-plots into each episode as is linguistically possible.
- ‘The Expanse’ really is much, much, much better than ‘Discovery’.
- Like, much, much better.
- In every way.
- God, I hate that show.
The Power of Set-up
Episode Two of Season Three, ‘IFF’, suffers from a key flaw. All of our primary protagonists (listed in the image below for easy reference) aboard the Razorback and the Penus Distorta are exposed to life-threatening danger, and that danger is nullified by the meta-environment of this being the second episode of the latest season of a really successful series, so we’re confident that they’re all going to make it. And this same problem applies to all genre TV, and even films – we can be confident that Captain America, the first Avenger, isn’t going to be killed during the first half of a movie called ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’.
The unfortunate consequence of this knowingly-absent danger is that it kills a lot of the tension that we might otherwise enjoy, and that the director has worked had to create. That doesn’t mean these scenes can’t still be exciting, or surprising, and a lot of drama can be derived from seeing how our heroes survive, rather than if they do. We all knew Luke Skywalker was going to survive the battle on Hoth, but we can still enjoy seeing him and Rogue Squadron bringing down AT-ATs with creative tactics.
However, the tension in this episode of ‘The Expanse’ isn’t the most important point. The purpose of this episode isn’t for it to provide a standalone piece of television, but to lay down the groundwork for what’s to follow in the rest of the season.
The first episode of this season, ‘Fight or Flight’, was about setting up the political state of the solar system and the physical and emotional state of our characters, so that we can get solid pay-offs in nine episodes’ time. The information that the audience learns in the first half of the season feeds into the second half. We don’t care if one of our characters goes off the rails if we didn’t know what rails they were on in the first place.
However this episode, ‘IFF’, is doing something that you wouldn’t normally need to do in other shows – it is setting up the physical laws of the universe itself.
Everybody understands the way things work on the surface of the Earth. You walk off the edge of a building, you fall. You get shot or stabbed, you die (unless your name is in the opening credits). Even other things, like making a phone call, or getting out of breath when you run up a flight of stairs, are well understood by the audience, and so don’t need explaining. If a character tumbles off the side of a building, we aren’t going to be surprised by what happens next (unless they land on a Harrier Jump-Jet piloted by their dad).
In space, however… matters are less straightforward. Distances are so huge that traversing them in reasonable time requires unreasonable speeds. Unreasonable speeds require incredible acceleration. Incredible acceleration means g-forces, and g-forces are the things that cause pilots to black out and Jeremy Clarkson to turn into a physical metaphor for his own opinions.
Not only that, but inside a spaceship, there’s no effect from gravity on the ship’s contents to keep things in place. You can put a diet coke from the drive-through in the cup holder in your car and resume your journey confident that you’ll remain dry and unmolested by fizzy brown water. In space, that cup of mediocrity needs to be fixed firmly in place, or else as soon as you engage the engines you and all of your equipment will be getting a bukkake of carbonated zero-calorie dogpiss.
All of which isn’t immediately obvious in a pop culture world in which the laws of physics are routinely unknown or ignored not just by audiences, but by showrunners themselves. One of the most egregious offenders is J. J. Abrams, but he’s hardly alone in dismissing physical constraints for the sake of a neat visual or emotional story progression.
But ‘The Expanse’ and its creators have a staunch dedication to writing a story that feeds off of the harsh realities of space travel, as I’ve covered before. Their sole concession to storytelling over realism is the presence of the Epstein Drive, a powerful, hyper-efficient engine which simply allows us to follow stories that take place over weeks rather than decades. In all other cases, they cling tightly to showing us just how difficult life in space really is – which makes the mysteries of the physics-defying Protomolecule even more compelling.
All of which is to say that the second episode of this season, ‘IFF’, is a masterpiece in setting up a universe which is governed by some very harsh and uncompromising rules.
From the get-go, Angry Hagrid and the Swearbear Bunch are stuck in the Razorback trying to evade an Earth frigate set to destroy them. Their one defense in the racing skiff is speed, but even though the ship is one of the fastest in the system, Gunny and Chrisjen are frail humans with squishy human bodies. And as they continue their flight from the Earther ship, Chrisjen’s physical condition deteriorates more and more, as the huge acceleration adds more and more pressure to her vital organs, her muscles and her blood vessels.
Later on, the Pinus Contorta, captained by Kitt Spacington and the rest, arrives on the scene to save the Razorback. But even this powerful gunship is subject to the whims of inertia. Prax, their newly-adopted botanist, fails to properly secure a tool locker. As the Contorta spins, accelerates and shakes under a myriad of forces, the locker falls open and all the tools inside, including hammers, wrenches and power drills, begin flying around the compartment.
What would be a mild inconvenience in the back of a speeding truck becomes a lethal shrapnel-party in a fighting spaceship. What’s more, solving the problem is itself a nightmare, since the one thing that prevents pancake-ification of a human body inside a Newtonian paintshaker is a good set of seatbelts and a comfy chair.
And, like with any good set-up, we are exposed to these ideas again and again. The bulk of the episode centres around the drama that results from doing anything in space. We are left with no doubt that space is a dangerous, horrible thing that will do everything it can to kill human beings who dare to venture into it.
Why is this important? Why go to all this trouble?
Well, let’s take another character-driven space series with some Newtonian Nonsense, ‘Battlestar Galactica’. With so many colourful, driven personalities, imagine the audience’s dismay if someone like Gaius Baltar or Saul Tigh were killed by, I dunno, a heavy box falling on them, or getting run over by a forklift or something. It would feel like a cheap, random way to kill an otherwise compelling character in whom the audience has invested a lot of interest.
But, ‘The Expanse’ is a setting where very pedestrian things really are deadly, and pose a very real threat. If you don’t properly seal your spacesuit, or you leave the wrong door open, or if you just get up to go for a piss at the wrong moment, all sorts of horrible demises may await you.
Setting up the dangers of space travel early on in a season, either for new viewers or as a reminder to returning viewers, establishes this everyday lethality and prepares the audience for what may be to come. By seeing Chrisjen collapse due to prolonged acceleration forces, we won’t feel betrayed if those same forces kill another character later on. By seeing Prax nearly lobotomised by a loose power drill, the narrative precedent has been set for a similar fate to befall another character at a more dramatic point in the story.
This, again, probably sounds pretty obvious and rudimentary to most people, but it’s amazing how frequently setup like this is ignored, in TV and films alike, so it’s nice to be able to pick out a particularly focused example for commendation. Episodes like this highlight the difference between good writing and bad writing – and I say that as an unashamedly crap writer myself.
The rest of the season still has a lot to live up to, but between the nicely rounded characters and the rich, well-realised solar system in which they live, it seems like everything is on track for an excellent season of genre television.
Just as long as Holden keeps his gob shut.