‘The Expanse: The Fallen World’ Is Just A Show About People In Rooms, Talking

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 didn’t like 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 her 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 probably the story that takes up the bulk of this episode: Drummer and Ashford, the captain and first officer, respectively, of the Belta battleship Behemoth.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Unrelated ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ still. Look, all I’m saying is, ‘The Expanse’ pays attention to the tear ducts of a minor character, where other shows don’t even use a spellchecker.

(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.

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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.

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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.

‘The Expanse’ Continues Season Three With a Masterclass in Storytelling

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.

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  • 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’.

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A handy guide to the main players in ‘The Expanse’. I didn’t include Fred Johnson or Drummer because they both deserve better than this.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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You may have noticed that I’ve included a lot of shots of Amos in this article. That’s because he is a beautiful, beautiful man, and should be honoured as such.

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.

A Review of James Holden’s Coffee Cup in ‘The Expanse’

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.

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Unrelated CBS promotional image.

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.

Chilling.

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.

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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.

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Beauty shot.

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.

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Unrelated CBS promotional image

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.

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Unrelated CBS promotional image.

‘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.

An Exclusive Interview With The Writers Of ‘Star Trek: Discovery’

I was really excited to be contacted by CBS the other day and be given the opportunity to interview some of the writers of ‘Star Trek: Discovery’. This is my first big bit of actual journalism, and it was also an amazing opportunity to find out some exclusive behind-the-scenes info about the show, as well as some hints at what’s to come.


Crude Reviews: Hi all, thank you so much for flying out to talk to us! It’s great to have you here with us to talk about this amazing show you’ve written.

Writing Unit #1: Thanks, and it’s so great to be here, thank you for having us. And on such a nice day! Look at that sunshine.

CR: Uh, that’s a painting, not a window. It’s actually horrible outside.

[awkward silence]

CR: So, anyway, let’s talk ‘Star Trek’. Writing for such a well-established franchise has to be a challenge, so what was your approach to keep things consistent for existing fans?

Writing Unit #2: What a great question. It’s so great to be here, thank you for having us. Our primary approach was to remember that the show is set in space, so we made sure that there was at least one space ship in each episode. Sometimes, there were two, occasionally three space ships, but one space ship was the minimum, really.

CR: Oh… kay. I… That’s interesting. Let’s move on, let’s talk about characters. Trek has always had a mix of different characters with different backgrounds. Can you talk about how you developed the characters for this new show, and what inspired you when writing dialogue for them?

WU1: What a great question. It’s so great to be here, and on such a nice day! We tried to draw inspiration from multiple sources for our characters. For instance, Saru, who is an alien because he’s from space, was intended to be a popular character. As such, we based him on the popular character Chandler, from the commercially profitable show ‘Friends’.

[Side-note: I know this is a joke article, but seriously, if you watch the ‘After Trek’ episode for Discovery’s ‘Choose Your Pain’, one of the writers genuinely states that Saru is partially based on Chandler from ‘Friends’. I’m not even kidding, that’s something that’s actually true. Go and watch ‘After Trek’. Just be careful, it’s nearly as bad as ‘Discovery’ itself.]

CR: So, you based one of the main characters for a Star Trek show on a sitcom character? That’s… that’s certainly a fresh approach. I guess. I’m almost scared to ask, but did you draw inspiration from any other sources?

WU2: What a great question. It’s so great to be here. Other sources of inspiration included:

  • Space. The show is set in space, so space was a big inspiration.
  • The most popular elements of other Sci Fi shows.
  • The most popular elements of movies.
  • The most popular elements of history and culture.
  • ‘The Expanse’. This was the most significant source of inspiration, because ‘The Expanse’ is set in space, and so is this show, so it was a natural fit. ‘The Expanse’ also features humans, words and moving images, which also made it a natural fit. To make the most out of this inspiration, we took the scripts from ‘The Expanse’, replaced the proper nouns with our own proper nouns as approved by CBS, and also added a few paragraphs about a tardigrade.

CR: Did you just speak in bullet points? How did you… how is that even possible? Y’know what, nevermind. Uhh, Burnham’s mutiny seems to be the main backbone of the show’s narrative. How did you approach it, and how did this affect the character’s motivations?

WU1: What a great question. Thank you for having us. Market research demonstrated that the term “mutiny” had an audience engagement score of 0.76, approximately equivalent to “betrayal”, “sacrifice” and “coming-of-age”, so it was important to ensure that the main character did indeed engage with, or become affected by, something which could be described as “mutiny”. To maximise audience engagement and retention, we structured the dialogue such that the term “mutiny”, or a derivative, was spoken at least three times during each episode’s run time.

CR: That’s a surprisingly cohesive answer. Moving on, it’s clear to most people that this is the darkest instalment of Star Trek to date. What prompted that shift in tone?

WU2: It’s so great to be here, and what a great question! We analysed the most successful Sci Fi and / or Fantasy show in the past ten years, ‘Game of Thrones’, and highlighted its primary components, which included: graphic violence, gratuitous nudity and sex scenes, political intrigue, swearing, and magic. We ran these through the North American Conservative Values Acceptability Index (NAConVAI), which eliminated everything except graphic violence and swearing for inclusion in a mainstream show. With those parameters established, we could ensure a minimum probability for success without alienating any viewers who may be offended by non-Christian elements such as nipples or diversity.

[Again, you may think I’m joking but one of the creators literally said that they thought nudity “doesn’t feel right” on Star Trek, yet apparently women of colour getting lacerated, burned and eaten is all fair game. Look, there’s a screenshot below, taken from this article at The AvClub:

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To clarify, I don’t give a shit about the swearing, pretty fucking obviously – just the horrific violence.]

CR: You brought up diversity, which raises the subject of some of the criticism that ‘Discovery’ has faced for its sadistic portrayal of violence against women. How do you respond to those who have accused the show of having a sinister approach towards representation?

WU1: It’s so great to be here answering these great questions, thank you for having us, it’s great. After we cast a black woman as the lead character on the show, we were worried that we would be alienating other minority groups, such as white men and white boys. As such, it was important that for every black woman in a lead role, at least two other non-white women would have to be killed in order to show we were balanced. Otherwise, if we don’t represent the views and insecurities of everyone watching, including white men and white boys, we could hardly call ourselves “diverse”, could we?

CR: You make a compelling argument, as always. But do you really think it was necessary to kill off those non-white women with such graphic and violent methods?

WU1: Such a great question. As established previously, we needed graphic violence to achieve ‘Game of Thrones’-levels of success, and there was a real concern that if any of that graphic violence were to occur to any white men in major roles, the white men watching the show might be put off watching the show, for fear that the violence was reflective of our feelings towards white men who, let’s be honest, have a pretty tough time already.

CR: … … … Let’s move on. It’s been confirmed that the Mirror Universe will be featuring later in the show. Can you take us through your plans for this classic part of the Trek canon?

WU2: We sure can, and can I just say, it’s great to be here! We decided, after a fair bit of research, that the Mirror Universe was suitably recognisable to casual Trek fans that including it would increase viewer attraction by 39.1%. Whilst we weren’t sure how to proceed with that kind of storyline, we soon realised how much narrative potential there was in the concept of a parallel universe accessible through portals in every bathroom and bedroom.

CR: Hang on a fucking second, you think that the Mirror Universe literally means a universe in mirrors? Like some kind of Stephen Donaldson bullshit?

WU2: What a great question! The Mirror Universe is a complex part of the show. I mean, we get to see what our characters would look like if they were left-handed! We get to see what Starfleet insignia look like on the other side of the uniform! This really gave us a lot to play with, particularly in terms of things being on opposite sides to where they would normally be. Imagine seeing the Discovery’s bridge, but from right-to-left instead of left-to-right! How crazy is that?

CR: Are… Are you kidding? Is this a wind up?

WU1: Thanks for having us, it’s great to be here! What great questions! Of course this isn’t a joke! We are only programmed to deliver humour in the form of a red-headed sidekick who demonstrates no agency. Would you like to ask another question?

CR: No. No, I think I’m done. I think I’m done for good.

WU2: Well, thanks for having us! It’s great to be here! And on such a lovely day!

The First Episode of ‘The Expanse’ Season 3 Gets An Early Release, Sadly Phones It In

We live in surprising times. I don’t think anybody anticipated the run-away success of ‘The Expanse’, the TV adaptation of James Corey’s series of novels. Following the conclusion of its second season, many fans feared a long wait until the next installment, or worse – cancellation.

But in a peculiar move, SyFy seem to have released The Expanse’s third season a year early, and without any particular fanfare or promotion. And that’s not the only risk taken – many of the series regulars fail to make an appearance, and one prominent character has been entirely re-cast.

‘Context For Kings’, the first episode of the third season, opens cold inside a prison transport. We are immediately greeted with three familiar faces: Kenzo, the spy who was discovered aboard the Rocinante; Janus, the commanding officer of the UN science vessel in season 2; and Doris, the botanist who helps Prax following the attack on Ganymede.

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Kenzo, Janus and Doris, the last time we saw them.

What’s interesting is that these three characters all seemingly perished in the previous two seasons. Kenzo was abandoned by Holden to the protomolecule, and Janus also died to the creepy blue stuff when his ship was dismantled. And we last saw Doris floating out of the airlock of a Belter rescue ship.

How these three characters survived, and how they came to end up all together on a prison shuttle, isn’t explained during this episode, but will presumably be revealed later in the series. What we do know is that they travel with a former UN Fleet officer called Burnham, who has been imprisoned for mutiny.

Their shuttle is disabled by what appears to be the protomolecule, draining power from its engines. However, the prisoners are rescued by an advanced UN vessel, called Discovery. The prisoners are greeted with suspicion and insults as they are brought aboard the secretive vessel. Paranoia and secrecy seem rife on the Discovery, and it doesn’t take long before enough hints are dropped that the ship is a military research vessel, engaged in experimentation with the protomolecule itself.

It seems the UN has gone ahead with its plan to purchase the protomolecule from Mao and his company, and placed the research project under the command of Lorca, a UN officer who ticks all the boxes of a classic ‘Expanse’ character – mysterious, untrustworthy and manipulative, Lorca is par for the course of utilitarian and calculating leaders we’ve come to expect in the dark and gritty view of the future that ‘The Expanse’ presents.

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Lorca, prior to his reveal as a futuristic Nazi scientist.

Lorca’s background, however, brings up one of the main weaknesses of this episode. It seems that the UN finds itself at war, and Lorca is happy to do anything he can to seize an advantage, willing to use the protomolecule and the mutant monsters it creates, if he can turn them into effective weapons.

But one thing that’s really missing is his motivation – he tells us that he’s fighting a war, but barring a single enemy combatant, we have no idea of how this war is progressing. Is the UN winning, or losing? How come we don’t see anything from the perspective of Mars? Or the OPA and the Belters? Lorca’s role as an unscrupulous warmonger is fine, but it needs the context of the larger story to fully explain why such sinister research is required to win.

Absent from all of this is our usual cast of characters. The Rocinante and her crew don’t appear, and neither does Chrisjen, her fate left hanging from season 2’s finale. Whilst the show runners clearly want to set up this new string of developments, it felt more like an introduction for viewers new to the show, which is a shame, as everything in this episode is already incredibly familiar to fans of ‘The Expanse’.

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One of ‘The Expanse’s newest protagonists, Burnham, as she realises that all is not well on the Disovery.

What’s more peculiar is the fact that the three characters we do recognise are pretty quickly put on the space-bus, in favour of following Burnham. Confusingly, our party of three resurrectees attack Burnham without reason during a meal break, after which we don’t see them again. Burnham, however, is brought onto the Discovery‘s crew by Lorca, who needs her skills and experience to assist with the protomolecule research.

This offers us probably the first main dump of solid information on the protomolecule. It seems that the research aboard the Discovery has revealed that the molecule is fungal in nature, and spread across the cosmos. There’s a lot of pseudo-scientific poetry spewed by the chief researcher, which sounds more like Qui-Gon Jinn’s explanation of midichlorians than it does the hard science this show is known for.

We also get to see more of what the molecule can do to living beings. The Discovery‘s sister ship, the Glenn, suffers an accident whilst conducting identical research, and Burnham is sent with a few other members of the crew (who we’ll get to in a moment) to find out what happened. Once aboard, we see that the crew have been violently twisted into broken heaps of flesh by the effects of the experimentation on the fungal protomolecule. It’s all very gory, and exactly in keeping with ‘The Expanse’s level of violence and occasional body horror that would be out of place in any other franchise.

This begins a short ‘Alien’-style romp through the abandoned ship, as Burnham and crew attempt to escape without being devoured by a hulking monstrous creature, some twisted form of an animal that was presumably kept aboard the Glenn. We don’t find out if this is an intentional part of the research, although the episode closes with the reveal that Lorca is keeping the creature securely in a creepy lab filled with skeletons.

This felt very on the nose for ‘The Expanse’ – the show usually deals with grey morality, with the ethical spectrum, and giving Lorca an actual skeleton-filled secret laboratory seemed like a very clumsy means of highlighting his villainous nature. We’re all adults here, we can reach our own conclusions, thank you.

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I mean, there’s a display cabinet full of skulls – whatever happened to subtlety?

Overall, this episode was a bit lacklustre. I’m hoping it’s just because it’s laying the groundwork for what’s to come, but we didn’t get any of the politics that make the universe of ‘The Expanse’ so interesting. Getting to learn more about the protomolecule was neat, but it seemed to be more to service the characterisation of Lorca.

And this also sadly telegraphs what I believe will be the ultimate story path for this set of characters. With Burnham being established as a mutineer, and already setting up Lorca’s betrayal of his promise to her following her challenging him on ethical grounds, it seems obvious that she will eventually hold him accountable and seize control of the ship itself. I hope it’s not that predictable, but in any case, hopefully next episode we can get back to Chrisjen, the Rocinante and the real meat of the story.

I also just want to briefly talk about the departure of Frankie Adams from the cast, and the decision to recast her character, “Gunny”, with Mary Wiseman. It was fun having the socially-awkward super-soldier back on screen, but it was jarring seeing her in a UN uniform and a wide grin. Not as jarring as the shift in her character, however, which has taken her from a brooding idealogue to a preppy, very-nearly insufferable sidekick for Burnham. I’ll wait to see how this plays out, but I’m cautious about how this bodes for the rest of the season.

And one final, final aside, I quite liked the Discovery‘s first officer, Saru. We don’t learn much about him, but given his lanky frame he seems to be a belter. How he came to be the second-in-command of a UN vessel should be an interesting bit of backstory.