A little while ago, I wrote an article about how ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ is just a show about people in rooms, talking. Needless to say, even people who hated the show were not convinced by my arguments. But I stand by them, and the latest episode of ‘The Expanse’ is the reason why.
Spoilers for Season 3 of ‘The Expanse’ from here on out, along with gratuitous comparisons to ‘Discovery’. You Have Been Warned.
Last week’s episode, ‘Dandelion Sky’, was pretty explosive from a narrative perspective. We got a pretty huge, if vague, infodump on the origins of the Protomolecule; Holden made it to the centre of the mysterious station; we got to see Gunny again; we had a lot of backstory for Melba, the tacky rich bitch who needs to get some respect for herself; every ship in the region got frozen in place; and in general the whole storyline advanced significantly.
This episode, ‘The Fallen World’, is nearly the exact opposite. We learn virtually nothing new, most side plots stand still, and very little of the story develops in a significant way.
And it was my favourite episode so far.
Of the entire run.
To explain why, we need to look at the story that takes up the bulk of this episode: Drummer and Ashford, the captain and first officer, respectively, of the Belta battleship Behemoth.
First off, you’ve got great performances by Cara Gee and David Strathairn. Strathairn is almost unrecognisable with his sheriff’s moustache, burn scars and thin, scruffy hair – roughly 22 astronomical units from his appearance in ‘Good Night and Good Luck’. Strathairn is also typically brilliant, and as much as I love Gee’s tough, uncompromising performance as Drummer, the august Strathairn steals most of the scenes in which they appear together.
Immediately following their confrontation at the end of last episode and then the sudden deceleration of all ships in the area, in this episode Drummer and Ashford are pinned at opposite ends of a farming… machine… thing, and are both suffering from painful and potentially lethal injuries. The machine is mag-locked in place, so even though there’s no gravity they can’t move it to free themselves.
Cue some wonderful hateful cooperation between the two as they work together to save themselves. It’s almost entirely just the two of them talking (and occasionally singing), and this is where the first comparison to ‘Discovery’ comes in.
Because Ashford and Drummer aren’t just talking – there’s a mountain of context to what’s going on between them. For the last half of the series, since Ashford’s introduction he and Drummer have been circling and snapping at each other like dogs competing to be the Alpha of the pack. And that tension shapes every exchange between them as they’re stuck here, slowly dying, attempting to escape a painful death. The physical peril is more of a framework from which the real drama between the characters is hung.
In contrast, most of the scenes in ‘Discovery’ lack that tension, and the drama usually comes from the situation rather than from the characters. And I hate to say it, but that is a Star Trek trend that started way, way back in the days of ‘The Next Generation’ and, later, ‘Voyager’. It’s unfortunate that so much of the plot progression occurred in those shows, around a conference room table, where a group of people who are all friends discuss some made-up problem, and what drama there is is squeezed out of the imaginary peril in which our crew finds themselves.
Here, aboard the Behemoth, not much even happens, but we learn so much about these two characters as nothing happens. They tell us about their pasts, their motivations, hell, they spend five minutes just talking about clothes, and we still discover more about them than we did about Beverly Crusher by the end of ‘All Good Things’. We also get to see how resourceful these two Belta leaders really are, as they try a whole variety of jury-rigged and desperate solutions to their situation, and that leads me onto the next comparison to ‘Discovery’.
Do you remember in the first season of ‘Discovery’, when the crew are faced with a really, really difficult task that they’ve never done before, and they spend a few minutes talking about how dangerous it is beforehand, and then they try it and it works first time with no problems? You should, because it happens on at least six separate occasions.
- Early on, Lorca has a plan to jump into combat with the Klingon ships bombing the dilithium planet, bait them into attacking Discovery and then jump away, leaving a load of bombs which completely destroy every Klingon ship. They try it once and it works flawlessly without them taking any damage or casualties.
- Shortly after, Burnham is given the task to save the Tardigrade, so as her first resort she launches it out of the airlock. This works flawlessly and the tardigrade immediately rejuvenates itself before fucking off.
- Later, the crew needs to get the cloaking calibrations off of the Klingon Ship of the Dead, which they do without getting hit or damaged.
- Then, they need to fly a perfectly-timed manoeuvre through the middle of the Mirror Universe’s Emperor’s flagship, which they manage flawlessly without getting hit or damaged.
- Then, they need to instantly terraform a planet into a spore-plant farm, something never done before, and they manage it flawlessly with a five-minute special effect.
- And finally, they need to end the war with the Klingons by having an low-ranked Klingon torturer threaten Qo’Nos with a super-bomb, and this plan works flawlessly and with no resistance from anyone, resulting in an immediate end to the war.
This is absolutely Not a Trek trope, where the usual scenario involves the first solution failing horribly and resulting in LaForge shouting excitedly with his head tilted up by thirty degrees ; Riker putting his foot up on the side of Data’s console to get maximum camera coverage of his crotch; Picard denying Worf’s request to fire the torpedoes and Troi gasping a few times for good measure.
The point is, it’s more exciting when something doesn’t work than when it does. In ‘The Expanse’, everything is on the European Extreme difficulty setting. Need to move a space farm tractor thing? Someone’s going to have to die. Forget to lock your toolbox properly? You’re going to end up with a power drill as a permanent part of your anatomy. Want to bone some rich racer chick that you’ve never met? Well I hope you like Venus, my friend, as well as crashing into Venus at relativistic speeds.
And that’s what I love about this show – the writers are not afraid to draw from the enormous pile of deadly situations that can occur at literally any moment in space. In point of fact, every single problem encountered by our heroes in this episode is a result of a very simple, very basic principle of physics – that things in motion like to stay in motion, and making them stop means applying a force. A very large force, if the things are moving very fast.
A few episodes ago I wrote this article, covering how well ‘The Expanse’ nails its storytelling, and in it I predicted that the events in that episode were setting up a dramatic event for a character later in the series. Well, I was nearly right – I just didn’t anticipate it being a setup for large chunks of the Earth, Mars and Belt navies getting their crews pancaked to death all at once.
But it’s true that thanks to the second episode of this season setting up momentum and Newtonian physics as major antagonists early on, we now get to see what happens when alien magic-tech gets involved. The alien station brought every fast-moving object to a halt at the end of last episode, and the results are not pretty. Not only do we see scenes of first-law carnage in the corridors of the U.N.N. Thomas Price, but we learn that the M.C.R.N. Xuesen lost a third of its crew instantly due to the near-instant deceleration, with another third badly injured. Alex is left napping in a cloud of his own lasagne, and Amos is finally revealed to be a mere mortal when Naomi finds him with a gorgeous shiner and a concussion in the Rocinante‘s engine room.
What’s worse is that now that none of these ships can use their engines to accelerate, the clean-up has just become that much harder. A U.N.N. doctor tells Anna that without gravity, artificial or otherwise, blood can’t drain from wounds and all sorts of things that usually happen when a body heals stop happening, and whilst I’m not a space doctor, I assume that this is a realistic medical concern in zero-g. This kind of attention to detail is charming and grisly, and again emphasises just how horrific space travel can be.
We get a tragic example of just what weightlessness means when Anna attends the wounded Tilly. As Tilly cries in pain and anguish, the tears cling to her eyes instead of falling. It’s a beautiful, very subtle visual effect, and a mark of the real love that goes into even the smallest detail when making this series.
(I also feel the need to bring up the character Tilly, here, and the fact that the same name is used in ‘Discovery’. It seems like the sort of thing that might just be a coincidence, but it’s such an unusual name, and she first appeared in the book ‘Abaddon’s Gate’, which was released in 2013, which leaves me thinking this is just another example of the latest Trek series “paying homage to” and definitely NOT “plagiarising” ‘The Expanse’.)
And speaking of Anna, we again get more scenes of her just wandering around being a generally decent person. And this feeds back into my earlier point, because a lot of what Anna does is be in a room, talking with someone, and yet there’s always more to it than that. She offers her assistance as a nurse to the above-mentioned U.N.N. doctor, who promptly tells her to bog off before explaining the gruesome fate awaiting casualties in zero-g. It’s an expository conversation wrapped in a grim and hopeless medley of suffering.
We then follow Anna on her pursuit of Melba, the manifest avatar of wealthy privelege. Melba murders people just so she can murder other people, and whilst her ultimate target is James Holden, that doesn’t allow me to forgive her for going on a violent crusade of sabotage just to impress her war-criminal father. She’s a goddamn uptight sack of tasteless trash and whilst I’ve greatly enjoyed her story so far, if I met her at a barbecue at a mutual friends’ house I’d secretly wipe every burger bun on my smelly arse just in the hope that she might eat one of them.
Anyway, Melba “Shithead” Mao (that entire family is a train wreck, by the way) EVAs her way to the Roci just so’s she can ruin more things for everybody, thinking that Holden might actually be there, and she runs into Naomi (the real hero of the show when Gunny isn’t on-screen) and we get the one action scene for this episode, and it’s very quick and it’s very brutal.
Melba attacks Naomi with her ‘Aliens’-esque powerloader spacesuit, and it’s a very one-sided fight between a walking crane and an unarmed Belta. Naomi barely manages to evade Melba’s attacks, using the lack of gravity to attempt an escape, but Melba catches her and begins choking her to death. She gets interrupted by Electric Anna, but this whole scene is another great example of the superior action sequences of ‘The Expanse’.
First off, it’s dynamic. Every action changes the nature of the fight. Melba launches herself at Naomi. Naomi dodges, and uses a mag-lock to pin Melba in place. Melba rips herself free as Naomi deactivates her mag-shoes to leap across the room and up to the exit hatch. Melba grabs her, and drags her back down to the floor, and that’s it, the fight is now over, and Naomi’s nearly killed. Now compare that to this trash:
In the above, Lorca, Burnham and Georgiou all fight in what is a very technically impressive bit of choreography, except that they spend nearly three full minutes beating, punching and stabbing each other and at the end, they’re all still just standing there, seemingly on full hitpoints, and nothing about their situation is radically different from when they started. Lorca even gets a knife thrown in his back at one point – he takes a moment to pull it out, then goes right back to fighting at full effectiveness. There are explosions, swinging swords, knives, phasers, and the scene is ultimately resolved by Lorca getting stabbed in the back whilst standing still.
Then we look back to ‘The Expanse’, and the fact that Holden has a bloodied nose for, like, three episodes after getting in one brief fistfight. Every action in ‘The Expanse’ has consequences, and as such every action in ‘The Expanse’ has weight.
In ‘Discovery’, if you scroll back up to that bullet list I made of the impossible tasks that they achieve flawlessly, you’ll notice something odd – not one of those tasks is relevant in any subsequent episode. The dilithium planet is saved and never seen again; the tardigrade is healed and vanishes for the rest of the season; the crew get the cloaking calibrations, then return at a point where the data is irrelevant anyway; the Emperor’s ship is destroyed, and we never revisit the Mirror Universe; a planet is terraformed, and then never mentioned; a new dictator is installed in the Klingon Empire, and that’s at the end of the season, so we’ll have to wait and see if that one gets any further look-in.
And if you think it’s petty of me to keep bringing up ‘Discovery’ in my reviews of ‘The Expanse’, then I need to explain that first, ‘Discovery’ invites the comparison through all the “homages” it pays to ‘The Expanse’. And secondly, the two shows are like mirrors of one another. They’re both futuristic, serialised sci-fi adventures following small crews in larger universes, both to the background of cosmic war with unknown technologies.
But every stumble ‘Discovery’ makes highlights every triumph that ‘The Expanse’ achieves. The crew of the Rocinante follow a richly compelling narrative that is propelled not by numerous secret identities and shocking plot twists, but by simple character-driven decisions and interactions, and by the unflinching application of long-term consequences to short-term actions.
My fascination with ‘Discovery’ was driven by how succinctly it captures so many pitfalls and shortcomings of modern storytelling – a microcosm of “narrative by hashtag”. My fascination with ‘The Expanse’ is driven by how expertly it tells a story without resorting to cheap tricks and flashy effects – in fact, it’s very, very difficult to highlight any small part of ‘The Expanse’ because so much of it is layered and built off of what has come before.
My absolutely favourite single moment of this entire season was shortly after Amos spaced the reporter and her creepy camera guy, and he says to Holden quite casually “I’m sorry I put them out the airlock, I should have told you first,” and Holden responds with a very off-hand “That’s alright.” That exchange had me in stitches, just because of all the disagreements Amos and Holden have had in the past, and all the weird shit they’ve been through now means that Amos apologising for spacing two people is handled as though he’s apologising for leaving the kitchen light on all night. And I absolutely cannot explain to anyone how much joy those two lines of dialogue brought me because NOBODY WOULD UNDERSTAND.
There’s a load more I could talk about in episode, and the season so far, such as Gunny remaining the best character, or the continued beautiful visuals, or the fact that this episode is nearly entirely female-led, or just the fact that Alex listens to country music because OF COURSE Alex listens to country music. But I’ve gone on enough. Now I just want to wait patiently for the next episode, which I have no doubt will somehow be even better than this one.