Wednesday, February 08, 2017

[Review] The Expanse Review S 1

SyFy series are either hits or misses. They can make an absolute genius-infused ones or a complete rubbish. There's nothing in between. The Expanse belongs to the former category. I have to admit, their series are the first ones I ever check out; maybe because of my penchant for science-fiction or maybe I just am a masochist.

The Expanse starts somehow in the middle of something. An ice-hauler Canterbury picks up a distress signal, but the captain and the CO decide to ignore it. Little the crew knows that the CO, James Holden, logs the call in the dead of the night. The company the hauler works for has no other choice than to send the crew to check the signal. The small unit embarks on the smaller ship called Knight and goes out to check the abandoned ship, called Scopuli. Turns out - it's empty and worse, it has a Martian beacon stuck under the console in the control room. Things heat up when an unknown, but presumed Martian, ship appears and blows Canterbury to smithereens, leaving no one only the crew on the Knight as witnesses. Holden comes to one, available conclusion - it was Mars who blew the hauler and he sends such message through the dark space. To make things more spicy - a Martian naval ship, Donnager, appears - and captures the Knight. The whole crew learns there a chilling truth - they might have fallen right into a middle of a scheme to start a war between Earth and Mars (an independent military force).

Meanwhile we get the puzzles pieces from other parts of the Sol System - from Earth and Ceres. On Earth, a power play is in motion where Chrisjen Avasarala, a lovely sari-wearing lady, an Undersecretary of the UN, goes ahead with the subtlety of a bulldozer. She doesn't shy from the torture, manipulating, pretending, lies, and framing her friends. She also likes to stargaze, just so you know.
And on Ceres (the biggest dwarf planet in The Belt), a detective Miller works to find missing daughter of one of the most (if not THE most) powerful man on Earth - Julie Mao. She disappeared on Ceres and the trail leads to... Scopuli, yes, the empty ship our Canterbury crew had found. What they didn't find (not until the last episodes anyway) was the fact that Julie was taken from Scopuli to the ship that attacked it - to Anubis. Little the Anubis crew knew, Scopuli crew was infected with some glowing substance that quickly took over the main core. And Julie got infected by chance too.

What fascinated me here was the complex society of The Belters - along with their allegiance, political convictions, Belter creole language, beliefs, cuisine and traditions.
Belters are the inhabitants of The Belt - and it's a real thing. In Solar System there are (nominally) Inner Planets and Outer and the border lies between mars and Jupiter. Between those two planets there is something called The Belt, with thousands of dwarf planets and asteroids. One of such planets is Ceres, the other, and significantly smaller - Eros. The Earth colonized Mars, but the denizens of Mars quickly became an independent power, so Earth (no countries, ruled by UN) had to find the source of the metals and other elements elsewhere. Ceres seemed like an ideal place - so people were sent to mine the elements. Quickly Ceres became the colony working not for the society on Ceres, but for the Earth. The living conditions are horrible, the air filtration system and water system is prone to failures (often the failures are sponsored by corrupt administrators). No wonder that the workers union formed something called OPA - Outer Planets Alliance. OPA is considered as a social movement or a terrorist organization. Depends on who's judging. After the tragedy of both Canterbury and Donnager, OPA was blamed as the side responsible for the massacre, but it soon turned out there's another side in play...

The science is spot on - the characters wear mag shoes. In how many sci-fi shows you see people wearing mag shoes to keep vertical? Usually the show uses some, more or less defined, "artificial gravity" (obtained through centrifugal force) and here too, but often our lovely-lethally crew uses the damn shoes.Also, the Belters are taller than people from Earth, have differently developed lungs and bigger heads. And you know what? IT IS A GODDAMN SCIENTIFIC FACT! Astronauts coming from the space are 7-10 cm "taller" than before (the height comes back to normal, cause damn you gravity!).

There is also one interesting point to make - SyFy is probably the only network that has such various cast. Granted, the worlds created in these sci-fi shows (12 Monkeys excluded, it's a special case) belong mostly to space sci-fi balancing on hard sci-fi. The action is set deep into the future, where ethnic groups no longer matter because there are other classes of humanity (like off-Earth or Earthlings). The cast is multi-ethnic and shows multiculturalism displaying both its best and worst qualities. Just like in Killjoys or Defiance.


What else? The references to Earth with its rich culture: ship Anubis (Egyptian god of death), Canterbury (well, Chaucer is gloating with pride), The Knight, Scopuli, ship Scipio Africanus, Roci(nante) - the little ship under James' command given by Fred Johnson, a leader of OPA... The references are filling up the universe.
Also - it's beautifully shot. The scenes are gorgeous, rich in colors, especially Chrisjen's modified saris, but also the blue hues of the ships' internals. The framing, the lighting - this all builds the way in which we get to know the characters more and more.

It's one of the most complex and intelligent sci-fi productions of the last years. Hell, scratch the sci-fi, because it tells us more about ourselves than any documentary would. I saw here a perfect depiction of the Other, as proposed by B. Waldenfels for whom the Other is "excluded from the collective sense of >we<", the Other doesn't belong and the series shows it - the people from Earth or Mars are shunned by the Ceres population, they are visible, they are different and they are treated with a dose of fear and a dose of hatred. Which is easy to understand, given the Ceres was treated like a mine and its inhabitants like a cheap, expendable labor. There is a nice scene in which a Ceres woman tries to teach the outsider, Miller's coworker, how to say something in their creole - turns out even the gesture makes a difference (palms up/out/more open/slanted). This was such a great moment.

* I started to write this review on June 30th 2016, and maybe it's better I waited so long to finish it? This way I avoided any mistakes I could make when describing something freshly seen.
And yes, I know it's based on books. I read them.