The Expanse on Amazon Prime
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted December 13, 2019
Updated December 30, 2020 for Season 5 + later edits
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Amazon gave Expanse fans an extra early Christmas present. Season 4 was due to drop today, December 13, but it was available at least six hours ahead of schedule. I saw a notice on Twitter around 6pm Central last night, watched the first four episodes, with another two early this morning, then finished up around 2pm. I'm not sure why they used a different aspect ratio, super widescreen, but it gave it a cinematic feel, and perhaps that would be even more noticeable in 4K. [EDIT: On rewatching ahead of Season 5 I noticed the widescreen was used for the scenes on Ilus, but they used the typical 16:9 ratio for most everything else.] Even though I've read all the novels and stories up to this point, I'm still occasionally surprised by the TV adaptation. Reasons for that include a compression, some times a rearrangement, of story lines, including shifting actions or dialogue from one character to another. There was only one thing that displeased me about these episodes, but I won't elaborate. I kept expecting, hoping, for a different reveal of a character's motives, but I'll give them the benefit of the doubt that they can redeem the situation in later episodes.
All ten episodes were made available at the same time, and I was surprised that they were not much longer than before, averaging about 45 minutes. That makes it even more amazing that they were able to complete the arc from the fourth book, Cibola Burn, considering they also brought in characters early, ones who did not appear until the fifth novel, Nemesis Games. In addition to that, the scenes on Mars with Bobbie Draper (Frankie Adams) included her story from the novella "Gods of Risk", as well as part of her story from NG. It's been about five years since I read Cibola Burn so my memory may be faulty, but I'm sure neither Bobbie or Chrisjen Avasarala appeared, but it was appropriate that Shohreh Aghdashloo was featured again, as she was in the first season. That gave the show a balance of everyone's stories, the political and social turmoils on Earth, in the Belt, on Medina Station (formerly the Nauvoo, then the Behemoth), as well as Ilus, one of the first of the new planets accessible through the ring gates.
Earth calls that planet New Terra, but the first people to make landfall there were refugees from Ganymede, and they named it Ilus after a brother of the mythical Ganymede. Ilus has rich lithium deposits, which the settlers have been mining for a while, then an Earth corp. with an authorized contract shows up. Avasarala tasks James Holden and his Rocinante crew to go to Ilus to settle the dispute between the two parties. Unfortunately, Ilus also seems to be a repository of residual proto-molecule, so nothing goes according to plan. Even though the OPA in the Belt has negotiated for peace and cooperation with the Inners, all the old rivalries are still alive. Holden is once again stuck in the middle of multiple disputes, but it's hard for him to concentrate on them since the dangers of the proto-molecule takes precedence. Add to that mix a charismatic Belter who repudiates what he considers the OPA's capitulation, whose agenda has the potential to bring all of humanity to the brink of war once again.
Great writing and acting, lots of action, but also quieter emotional moments, dramatic tensions between fictional characters and groups that also feels eerily timely to contemporary events. There has been a lot of excellent SF on TV over the years, but The Expanse has a chance to be my #1 favorite of all time. Even if it doesn't match everything in the books. I'm okay with that, and I refuse to make a choice as to which version is best. It's going to be an excruciating wait for Season 5, and the only thing that might ease that pain a bit would be an early announcement for Season 6. Just two points I'm wondering about now. I hope Brian George is doing okay, wondering why he couldn't reprise his role as Arjun Avasarala. Also wondering what Drummer thinks of Naomi's new do. She may have said something about it, but if so I missed it. I suppose I'll just have to watch the season again.
UPDATE: Season 4 is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray. Purchases through our links may earn us a commission.
Posted December 30, 2020
Still just ten episodes for Season 5, but this time Amazon Prime offered only the first three on December 16, with the others each Wednesday after that. Actually on Tuesdays for me, availability varying by time zones. My initial comments are for the first five episodes, updates to come later. In case you haven't heard, Amazon has renewed it for a sixth, and unfortunately final season, so it is inevitable they will have to compress story arcs even more than before, or else hope for some other reprieve, maybe a movie some time in the future. Parts of the fifth novel, Nemesis Games, had already been inserted into the previous season, and those arcs continue, but some of the sixth book, Babylon's Ashes, will likely be featured too. Once again there are alterations to character arcs. It has been over eight years since I read the first book, five since Nemesis Games, and I'm sure my memory is faulty. It is possible Tim DeKay's Admiral Sauveterre may have a larger role than he did in the book, in which he was just a captain, and they may intend to combine his character with another rogue Martian officer. We'll just have to wait and see, and I'll edit that comment if it turns out wrong. [EDIT, with minor spoilers for the book: Sauveterre appeared in only the epilogue of Nemesis Games, but it's hard to tell from the final scene of the season if his fate is the same. The other officer I'm thinking of is just mentioned by name a couple of times, we have yet to see him on the show.]
I've already watched the five episodes twice each, and I might binge them all again after the season ends. There's really not a lot to say without spoiling specific details, but for now a few observations. Either their special effects budget increased, or they've improved their skills immensely. We get a more detailed view of Tycho Station, including cargo holds, docking facilities, offices, and living quarters. If all the ships are strictly CGI it is even more impressive, since many of the exteriors look like miniature models, and I mean that in a very positive sense; think the original Star Wars films versus the prequels. Amazing interior sets include the UN facilities on Luna, an underground prison on Earth, a gangster's loft in Baltimore, along with several ship interiors. Plus there's a robot sequence that will blow you away, as it almost blew Holden (Steven Strait) away. Not the opening scene, but the first following the credits in Episode 2, "Churn," is either a combination of drone footage overlaid with CGI, or if it's all CGI, the way it blends into street level footage of Amos Burton (Wes Chatham) in Baltimore is seamless, a master class of composition and camera movement.
It's still my favorite current show, with the possibility of becoming my favorite show ever, at least the best SF show. As with the books, the fantastic settings and melodramatic plots do not over-shadow the deeply personal human drama, which reflects historical and current events as well as any contemporary scenario could. The writing and acting continue to resonate: a mother's love for the son she had to abandon; a man's sorrow for the passing of the woman he thought of as his mother; the possible redemption of a previously vindictive person; the arrogance of a man who cares more about personal glory than he does honor, along with the selfishness of those who follow him. I continue to be impressed, and surprised, at the complexity of the plots and the dynamic acting, even when things are not as I had pictured them while reading. Book adaptations have to change the story or else you would need ten times the number of episodes if you adhered to the text. I trust the books' authors and everyone else involved that they know what they are doing, and I'm confident next season's conclusion will be satisfying, while still leaving me hoping for more.
Update on June 6, 2021
Episode 4, "Gaugamela" (named after a famous historical battle), was nominated for a Nebula/Ray Bradbury Award, which it did not win. It is also up for a Hugo later this year, but in both cases I wish the entire season had been nominated. "Gaugamela" is a very good, very intense episode, but its impact is made greater by what came before and after it. Hugo winners won't be announced until December this year.
The season ended on February 3, and shortly after that I had watched all ten episodes at least twice. I decided to wait on re-reads of the books before updating this review, mainly to refresh my memory, and determine what parts might be from a book or books beyond Nemesis Games. I started back in January, and got to the fifth novel (and the novella "The Vital Abyss") last week. I've mentioned several times that things have been changed, but in this case the adventures of the Rocinante crew (even if they're not on the Roci) are extremely close to how they unfolded in the book. That includes dialog that is near verbatim. However, the scenes with Camina Drummer (Cara Gee) are either from Babylon's Ashes, or later, or they've completely altered her story arcs. Cara has been on the show since early in Season 2, but it was a few episodes until someone called her by name. Before that time I asked on Twitter if she was Michio Pa, but Ty Franck said she was Drummer. Michio was in the third book, and later, but didn't appear on the show till this season, in an altered arc, whereas Drummer's first book appearance wasn't until Nemesis Games, and those were very brief appearances. There are also a couple of characters who were gender-swapped. Sakai (Bahia Watson) was male in the book, and the same for Karal (OlunikÚ Adeliyi), an old friend of Naomi's and one of Marco Inaros's lieutenants.
I cannot fault them for any of the changes, since they've managed to get the main plot points across in spite of them. And, Cara Gee has been phenomenal, one of my favorites, but if any of the cast deserve special accolades this season my vote is for Dominique Tipper as Naomi Nagata, continually my favorite from the books. She goes through such an emotional whirlwind throughout the season, first the heartache of reuniting with the son she had to abandon, anger at the man who made that separation necessary, and later the physical pain encountered when she is put in a very precarious situation, but for which her brilliance as an engineer saves her. Shohreh Aghdashloo also continues to impress as Chrisjen Avasarala, and not just for her colorful language. One scene alone in Episode 6 is worthy of an Emmy nomination. There are many deaths, and much destruction, the majority to be blamed on Marco Inaros, but most of that is off screen involving background characters. Two deaths hit harder than that, since they are characters who have been around since Season 1. I won't say more about that except that both of those deaths were inevitable, for varying reasons. Now we look forward to how they will be able to wrap up the story in just one more ten episode season. I suspect the producers were given advance warning about the end, hence the inclusion of story lines beyond the fifth book. There is still one more novel to come, the ninth, scheduled for November, and reportedly a final novella that will act as an epilogue for the entire saga. That means four novels and three novellas compressed (or some of it ignored?) in the final season. However it works out, and however long we have to wait for those episodes, I'll be thinking about it a long time, since I will also be re-reading the later books, hopefully finishing before Leviathan Falls is released.
My reviews of the first three seasons of The Expanse on Syfy.
Reviews of the books: Part 1 (first five novels), and Part 2 (books 6-8 so far, 1 more to go).
The Expanse Wiki - concerning both the books and the TV series.
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