Monday, January 4, 2016

"The Expanse:" Heating Up

Syfy's "The Expanse" is billed as Space Opera, but--if the setting was on Earth--most of the first three episodes of that series could have been police procedural or political thriller.

Consider the action on Ceres: murders, bribery, theft.  The setting is new, but the action could have fueled a typical episode of "Law and Order." The data smuggler could have been found in any contemporary thriller, renamed as an industrial spy.

I associate Space Opera with battles between starships. Yes, the ice hauler Canterbury was destroyed in the first episode, but that was hardly a battle, since the Canterbury didn't have any weapons.

However, Episode Four (titled "CQB," military-speak for "Close Quarters Battle") finally delivered. The flagship of the Martian fleet, the MCRN Donnager, fought six smaller vessels. Plenty of excitement there: the pride of Mars was overcome by the mysterious, technologically-superior attackers. The Commander destroyed the Donnager to prevent boarders from taking the ship.

A few observations:

The Commander of the Donnager was an Asian female, which was a nice contrast to the typical rock-jawed Anglo-male ship's captain that we usually see.

On the various "Star Trek" shows, the bridge set was elaborate, while the hanger bay was almost featureless. The art director of "The Expanse" went the opposite way. The Donnager's Commander ran the battle from a fairly small room (I was unclear whether this was the bridge or the CIC, since both were mentioned). The special effects for the sensors were good, but the overall impression was underwhelming. Ah, but the hanger bay was spectacular! It was a multi-story structure with gantries and catwalks and various cool stuff. The walls looked like a theater with box seats that went all the way to the ceiling. It didn't make much sense, but damn! It looked great, even if it was mostly CGI.

On the negative side, the final ten minutes of the episode featured everyone in space suits...and you couldn't tell who was whom. Martian marines in black spacesuits fought boarders in similar suits. They were as indistinguishable as Stormtroopers on "Star Wars."

Now, I accept that, since soldiers fight in uniforms, space-suited Marines might wear identical suits. But there was no reason for the four surviving crew of the Canterbury to be in identical spacesuits!

Yes, their spacesuits were different from those used by the Marines. But, once again, we couldn't tell who was whom! With their suits on, I couldn't even tell which of the four was the sole woman!

Look, the crew of the Canterbury were civilian workers, not soldiers. There was no reason for them to wear identical spacesuits. In fact, since the corporation they worked for was so cheap, they might well have had to purchase their own spacesuits. A single line about how one penny-pinching character was wearing an older, bulkier model of spacesuit would have explained all of that.

In my last post, I mentioned Larry Niven's Gil the ARM stories. In one of them--I believe it was "Death by Ecstasy"--he mentions that a spacesuit is the most expensive possession a belter owns. It's almost like a home, and they usually spend a fortune customizing it. And after they customize it with gizmos, they paint it.

If the art director of "The Expanse" had followed that precedent, we would have had no trouble figuring out who was in each of the belter's suits.

Overall, though, "The Expanse" has improved as it's gone along, and I expect to watch it to the end. 

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