The on-screen translation of one of the best space opera book series to see the light in recent times has now reached its third season – one that for some harrowing days also seemed destined to be the final one, a subject to which I will return in a short while.
What never ceases to amaze me, in this visual version of James S.A. Corey’s epic, is the fact that even as a book reader I never experienced any dull moment, never took anything for granted, because the pace of the story is such that expectations always run high, even for those who know how the narrative journey develops. This has become particularly true with this third season, where actions and characters have been shifted in unexpected ways, or changed completely, so that the viewing experience has become fraught with uncertainty for book readers as well as newcomers to The Expanse’s storyline. If, with the previous two seasons, I was merely eager to see how certain events would be portrayed on screen – and still found myself enthralled by the way the creators managed that – now I am often speculating, together with non-book-readers, about how the story will move forward, what will happen to the characters, and so on. The joy of seeing this amazing epic brought to the small screen is now combined with the deep sense of wonder and expectation that should always be part and parcel of any such experience.
The actors’ portrayal of the characters keeps being very enjoyable, and the characters themselves continue to gather new facets and offer deeper insights on their psychology and what makes them tick: we are given, for example, an important revelation about Naomi’s past (one that in the books happens much, much later than the point reached by the TV series), one that explains many of her past and present actions, and from my point of view gives some subtext to Dominique Tipper’s choice to always add a veil of wistfulness to her interpretation of Naomi, one that might have been a subtle form of foreshadowing. Another delightful surprise came from Amos and the friendship he creates with distraught scientist Prax, who is desperately trying to find his missing daughter: actor Wes Chatam managed to keep his Amos the strong-armed, borderline psychopathic character we all know and love, but at the same time showed his gentler streak in his support of Prax, all without once changing Amos’ basic ruthlessness – not a mean feat indeed, and one that reached its peak in the famous (if you saw the show) “I am that guy” scene.
Fans of both Bobbie Draper, the Martian marine, and of Chrisjen Avasarala, the consummate, foul-mouthed politician, will certainly have enjoyed as I did their exchanges and how the balance of power shifts between the two of them according to the situation: where politics and the handling of people is concerned, Avasarala holds the upper hand, applying all her skills and craftiness to the manipulation of anyone unlucky enough to find themselves on her path, and at the same time she acts as a teacher to Bobby, who is indeed an amazing warrior, but suffers from a form of innocence where interpersonal talents are required. On the other hand, when they are in danger and fighting for their lives, the roles become reversed, and it’s Bobbie’s turn to impart vital knowledge that can make the difference between life and death: the shared dangers they faced and are still facing have created a bond of mutual trust and respect between them, so that they know that any advice coming from the other is based on sound experience and can be heeded without reservations.
And these are only a handful of examples of what one can expect from this set of remarkable characters…
Story-wise, the third season looks more articulated and far-reaching: the mystery about the origins of the alien protomolecule now encompasses the questions about its goals (especially after the creation of the huge space ring), and intersects in a dramatic, breath-stealing way with the conspiracy to weaponize the alien substance and use it to affect the already precarious political balance of the Solar System. We spend more time on Earth, witnessing the power play between contrasting political forces, but we are also afforded a much closer look at Belter society and interactions as the Belters ask for a front seat on the general playing field thanks to their retrieval of the Mormon ship Nauvoo, now renamed Behemoth. And speaking of space, it’s worth mentioning how well The Expanse shows the mechanics of life in vacuum, be it on a ship or a station, and the effects of microgravity on day-to-day existence or on the human body: space is vast and dangerous, we are all aware of this fact in one way or another, but it’s through some details of this show that the full impact of this reality hits home. One of the most striking scenes I can remember is that of the corridors of a damaged ship, where the bodies of the dead keep floating in an upright position because their magnetic boots keep them anchored to the deck; or the information about the effects of microgravity on a wound, because blood clotting cannot happen in gravity’s absence.
This attention to detail is one of the series’ distinguishing marks, and one of the aspects that many commentators have touched on, together with the excellent writing and the high-quality of character portrayal, so that it is unanimously acknowledged that The Expanse is one of the best genre shows on air at present. Which leads me to the inevitable discussion about the proverbial elephant in the room, i.e. SyFy’s decision not to carry the show after its third season, a piece of news that came as a very cold shower around the middle of Season 3’s run.
When I wrote my review for Season 1 of The Expanse, I commended SyFy’s choice to commit to a quality story (and as a book reader I knew it had quality to spare), taking a step into the right direction for the network’s own chosen field, that had been neglected for some time in favor of other kinds of entertainment that had little or nothing to do with science fiction. You can therefore imagine my dismay when I learned of the decision to take The Expanse off their schedule, because of insufficient ratings due to SyFy’s distribution contract, which provided only for live viewing, a choice that apparently was not enough for the network’s goals.
Now, I have no idea about the workings of such contracts, so I might be barking up the wrong tree here, but it would seem to me that SyFy did not take into account the huge changes in the way TV viewing is approached now: live, direct viewing has dwindled in favor of streaming services or the more mundane recording of a show – not everyone can be in front of their TV on a given day and hour, our lives just make that difficult if not impossible, so that it’s far easier to record something we are interested in, to watch it later. So, basing the ratings of a show just on live viewing seems like a very narrow-minded interpretation, or an imperfect understanding of the modern dynamics of viewership, or both. Which leads to what, in my opinion, was a short-sighted and unfortunate decision that, despite the words of praise for the show expressed in the official announcement, immediately recalled other equally unfortunate and short-sighted decisions taken by SyFy in the past, as titles like Stargate: Universe or Farscape, just to name two, come to mind.
Luckily for The Expanse, though, the show is not produced by SyFy themselves but by Alcon Entertainment, and they immediately set to work in search of a new home for the series, backed up by a huge, really huge, fan involvement that included the signing of a petition to save The Expanse, and which brought on the involvement of Amazon and its owner Jeff Bezos – a fan of the book series even before the show aired – with the result that Season 4 (and the next ones, we hope…) will see the light on Amazon Video. While I am relieved to know that the Rocinante and its crew will keep on traveling through space, I am also sad to have witnessed this further misstep from SyFy, one that – in my opinion – once again undermines their reliability as a network dedicated to quality science fiction. And quality is always something one should strive for, especially in this genre…
That said, I am happy to close on the positive note of The Expanse’s new – and certainly more trustworthy – home and look forward to what Season 4 will bring. Please, keep the Roci flying!