Every time a successful book (or series of books) is translated to the screen, readers always deal with some nagging doubts: fear that the source material will be changed too much from the original; that the actors chosen to portray the various characters will not be equal to the task; that the switch from the imagined to the visual will prove a huge disappointment. Now that I’ve finally watched the first season of The Expanse, I can say to my extreme satisfaction that those fears were groundless: the show managed the transition from the book(s) quite successfully, and it also kept my attention riveted to the story-line even though I was familiar with it. And that’s not an easy feat.
On hindsight – and after a careful re-watch – I understand that the show had an uphill road to travel, and one that was charged with a doubly difficult task: on one side there were the book readers, like myself, who expected to see a faithful rendition of a compelling story (or as faithful as the medium allows, of course), while on the other there were the viewers with no prior knowledge of the facts and who needed to be guided into the story, to become invested in the characters and in their journey. And in the meantime it needed to deliver a product with good enough ratings as to be eligible for renewal. Enough to give anyone nightmares…
Despite this intimidating prospects, The Expanse‘s screenwriters were not afraid to take their time to develop the story, the background and the characters: it’s a proof of both courage and confidence at a time when viewers rarely possess the patience to wait for a slow buildup, and can decree the premature end of a promising show by killing it with poor ratings. Because, for some reason, while people at large can accept and even welcome a slowly-developing story in a book, they want to cut to the quick when watching a tv show, as if they thought that the visual medium should be pared down to a minimum. So I was surprised when I discovered that the pace of this first season was quite leisurely, but after a while I understood how the “big picture” was being painted in incremental brush strokes that expanded (no pun intended…) a viewer’s understanding of the playing field and the characters, while raising the stakes little by little – it was something akin to Sherazade’s game: keep the listeners interested, grab their attention, but don’t reveal too much, so they will be back for more (and possibly decide NOT to kill you in the morning…)
This narrative choice also avoided another danger, that of long exposition that can slow a story’s momentum. There was a great deal of information to impart here: the reach of human exploration in space, the living conditions in various environments, the technological level and the politics of it all. Through those little brush strokes, and the almost subliminal clues offered by visuals or by small bits of dialog, the show kept building that information in a satisfying way that nonetheless never interfered with the story-flow. One of the best examples is given with the Belters: it would have been impossible (and quite costly) to show them all with the elongated bodies resulting from a life in micro-gravity, so we were given just a couple of glimpses of extreme cases, and several references were made to the fact, reinforced by the cultural and behavioral patterns that were present as visual clues. It all added up in underlining the Belters’… other-ness without need for lengthy explanations.
While our subconscious was being fed all this information, the story developed under our eyes through three main points of view: this is the only major change from the book, and one whose wisdom I understand – not to mention the fact that it brought one of my favorite characters on stage much earlier than anticipated! Adding Chrisjen Avarasala as a point of view, besides Miller and Holden, makes for a more complete picture of the complex political currents flowing in the area of space inhabited by humanity, and for a more dynamic change of scenery between the various playing fields. Detective Miller can be our eyes and ears in the Belt, offering a view of living conditions on the frontier and on the impact of corporate interests on the inhabitants; Jim Holden and his crew show us what it means to ply the distances between planets and outposts, and the dangers inherent in this kind of life; Avarasala, the consummate politician from Earth, helps us understand how it all comes together, how the power plays between the home planet, a proudly independent Mars and the Belt colonies can affect it all.
The show was also very successful in giving us a version of the future that is all but highly technological and glamorous: the frontier – here represented by the Belt – is dirty and drab, the living quarters cramped and grungy. Water and air are rationed, and the latter’s quality can be contaminated by sub-standard filters. Spacers fare no better: their ships suffer from poor and careless maintenance, and traveling between worlds with cargo or equipment is as fascinating as carrying a truck-load of vegetables from one city to another. And there are the inherent dangers of such a life, because – for example – gravity can kill you: it does so when it’s too much and you need drugs to sustain the crushing force of too many Gs of acceleration, and it also kills you, more slowly, when it’s not enough and your bones don’t fuse properly, or become too brittle to live in an Earth-like environment.
As if all of the above were not enough, there are the risks coming from human greed and the convoluted plot that the characters struggle to unravel…
This leisurely, incremental progress represents the winning strategy to lure viewers into the story, as I understood by reading various online comments about people having to pay close attention to detail in order to keep abreast of the developments. And yet it felt somewhat frustrating: part of me wanted to see certain events from the book, and as the number of remaining episodes dwindled, I knew that this first season would not cover the entirety of Leviathan Wakes. It was really my only disappointment, and I can rationally agree that it’s only a minor one, even though there’s still a small, quite childish voice insisting that she wanted it all, that what I was given was not nearly enough. Still, it’s a measure of how much I loved this translation from book to screen, and of how it successfully engaged me: knowing that a second season is already in the works is a comfort – a small one, granted, but a comfort anyway. The journey is not over.
It would not be a complete review if I did not speak about the characters, and the actors who gave them life: I imagine it’s a tricky job to find the right person for any given character, especially when he or she has been fleshed out over the course of several books, and there are huge expectations from the reading crowd. As the cast choices were announced over time, I was both happy and thrilled by learning that Shohreh Aghdashloo would play Chrisjen Avarasala: having seen this actress before, I knew that the strong personality she can project and that peculiarly husky voice she possesses would be perfect for this character – and they were, indeed. Her portrayal manages to balance the shrewd, ruthless politician with the person who still retains her humanity but knows it can be a liability in her chosen job. No casting could have been more spot-on that this one.
My uncertainties concerned instead the rest of the cast, for no other reason that I knew none of them, but again, seeing them on screen, those doubts disappeared soon. For example, I feared that Thomas Jane would not look seedy enough for detective Miller, but he played the part perfectly, showing the various sides of the man in a very believable way: the slightly corrupt, disheartened cop who suddenly finds a cause he believes in and pursues out of sheer doggedness; the cynic who is capable of unexpected acts of bravery and sacrifice; the man walking on the razor’s edge between two worlds, who knows he does not belong to either one anymore.
Cas Anvar as Alex and Wes Chatam as Amos have replaced my mental image of their book counterparts for me: they both felt right from the very start, as if they had been playing these characters for a long time and were more than comfortable in their shoes. Alex’s cockiness, so typical of ship pilots, is portrayed with flair and the right dose of humor that provides a counterpoint to that arrogance, while a few visual clues give us a glimpse of the man’s innermost turmoils. Amos, on the other hand, required an equally difficult balance between a killer’s soul and a sort of basic innocence, a dichotomy that’s carried off with successful, and admirable, credibility.
Dominique Tipper as Naomi Nagata (a figure I’ve come to appreciate even more with the last book in the series) is the best choice from this group: she manages to bring Naomi into sharp relief with all her contradictions, the things left unsaid or buried deeply, the sense of a harsh past that nevertheless has not prevented her from becoming a strong, independent person. There is a hint of layers upon layers here, that’s conveyed by looks and silences more than words: I can’t wait to see how she will further develop the character in the future.
The jury is however still undecided about Steven Strait as Jim Holden: I admit I was a little prejudiced because he looks too young for my mental image of this character. Granted, Holden is a young person, but still in the book he carries that air of gravitas that makes him look and act as an older one. And what I saw on screen did not exactly match that mental image, but in the course of the show I saw some progress, and growth, that made me hope he might become more comfortable in this role.
With The Expanse there is no doubt that SyFy has made a grand return to the genre it used to be know for: I know I’m not the only one hoping that this will be only the beginning of a long-awaited rebirth.
(and a gold medal)