Followers of the blog might know that I’m a big fan of The Expanse series of books written by the team of writers under the pseudonym James S.A. Corey. The books have their ups, and their downs, and they’re certainly not highfaluting tomes. I was quite reticent when I heard that the SyFy channel would be adapting it to a television series. Despite the involvement of the original writers, I was pretty sure that the money SyFy would spend would not create what I had in my mind while I read. The production stills that were released certainly gave the impression of Babylon 5 (lights shining through colored gels and grates onto gray-painted MDF).
Then, over the weekend, there were some rumblings on Twitter that the first episode might come out very soon. Turns out, it was Sunday night. You can go watch it online, for free, on YouTube right now. I only mention this because I hadn’t seen any marketing about this happening at all. It appears that it’s still going to premiere on TV, but that’s not until December 14th. So … Weird, right? Surprise, it’s online, you can watch the first episode for free, and it’s not broadcast for almost a month. That’s certainly the most unusual television show premiere I’ve ever heard of. Typically science fiction shows have a very difficult time getting nerds to watch broadcasts when shows air because nerds use time shifting services (or other services) to watch things on their own terms. Fans of series like Stargate Universe might recall the cast on Twitter basically begging people to tune in when new episodes came out so that they could stay on the air (they did not).
I can only assume that a month worth of watching the first episode for free will only harm their premiere numbers. There will be a new episode out the following night, December 15th, but I have no idea how that will shake out either.
It’s a bold strategy, Cotton, let’s see if it pays off.
Now I’m going to start blathering on about the episode, so if you haven’t watched it yet, then don’t read this. After that, I’ll have spoilers for people that read the books, and have seen the episode. Seems pretty fair, no?
The episode starts with a pretty nice title sequence, and we get the general impression that people might have ships that have explored places and stuff. Then there’s a lot of exposition that fades in. Turns out there’s some political tension with belts and stuff. But you know how belts are.
Then we have a montage of a woman with CG hair floating around. She’s locked up in a thingy, and would like to be let out of said thingy. I found the hair really distracting. I get that they wanted to convincingly portray that she was in zero gravity, but it’s moving more than it should. Go watch videos of astronauts with long hair in space. It’s more like she’s underwater in a pool. Don’t worry, they save money by having her tie her hair back. Then they also save money by having magnetic boots.
She has a jump scare and then finds a room full of totally harmless-looking blue stuff that might be absorbing someone. This will all be fine, I’m sure. She screams and we cut away to some ships being maneuvered around in some sort of time-lapse sped-up way.
Ceres station, as the narrator informs us, is kind of a bummer of a place to be. Earth and Mars took all their ice and stuff. Which seems like a pretty lame thing for them to do. The camera fly0through is really, really, really, distracting. I know they wanted to make it feel big — expansive, one might say — but there’s only so much CG space station you should really fly through. Particularly air shafts which are too shiny.
We land on the guy giving the big speech about what jerks planets are, and we see the crowd the man is addressing. Thomas Jane is enjoying a shot of booze, and he’s addressed as a “badge” so we can tell he’s an edgy cop. We can also tell he’s one of the belter people, and his buddy is not.
We start to get the idea that Thomas Jane, as Detective Miller, is maybe a corrupt cop. Maybe. Also his handheld device has a crack, which is a nice touch. He’s going to go find Julie Mao, who looks suspiciously like the woman from the beginning of the episode. Almost like these stories all tie together or something.
We meet the Canterbury ice hauler. A guy gets his arm casually chopped off, and then we cut to a zero gravity sex scene. Hello, James Holden’s ass. Then we get a guy who’s very casual about that missing arm. Really, really casual.
I’m not sure how they got Adam Lisagor to agree to be the captain, but he does a pretty good job. The X.O. is … unwell, and Holden is trying to get out of getting promoted to his job.
Then we go to earth and have a nice family moment.
This is about the time when you realize that no matter where we are in the solar system, you’re going to be looking at blown-out highlights and crushing color correction.
Granny is not super-nice.
The crew has to go respond to a distress call, and there’s a very dramatic high-G maneuver they execute. It bugs me a little because the blacks of the ship are blue against space. They should be the same value as space. Holden and Naomi have a little chat about the distress call they’re responding to.
Back on Ceres, Miller is being Millery and he’s talking to someone about the missing person he was tasked to find.
When they approach the Scopuli, the ship is having some moire issues. It might just be something YouTube’s doing to the image, but it’s crawling when I checked it on my computer and on my Apple TV.
They board it and find … nothing. A suspicious amount of nothing. It’s not like it was at the beginning of the episode, and there’s a hole in the hull. They also find the source of the distress signal. They do some helmet cam stuff, but it’s a little strange because it’s not supposed to be helmet cams that are actual cameras in their world, just cameras for us as the audience. There’s also an error just above the bridge of Holden’s nose where we lose data. So… that’s kind of unfortunate. If you watch the “well it wasn’t pirates” you’ll see the flickering rectangle.
They realize this is a trap and there’s another ship that was using some sort of stealth tech.
Back on Ceres, Miller comes across a father and daughter. The daughter is playing with a bird. The bird is animated and rendered. They probably wanted to make it move like it was a bird in a low-G environment. It wouldn’t need to flap as much, and would basically be a little floaty. Unfortunately, the result is something really unconvincing as a bird. The unconvincing bird, and the coughing kid, inspire Miller to go beat up and suffocate the guy he took the bribe from earlier.
We go back to the Cant, shuttle, and mystery ship. The mystery ship fires torpedoes! They’re way too blue and saturated! Blue without a white core isn’t really how things flare. Then there are a couple torpedo shots where it has a white core and it’s a little more purplish. Not sure if these were divided up between different artists, but they’re not quite the same. This is particularly weird when the Cant blows up we get a strange mix of things including super-saturated anamorphic flare lines.
The effects are better than I thought they would be but while I can excuse the bird as potentially being an issue with time and money, the stuff with the black levels of the ship, and the weird hyper-saturated flares have very little to do with time or budget.
Hopefully we’ll find out what happens to people with the things and the stuff.
If you haven’t read the books, but have watched the episode, get in touch with me on Twitter and let me know how you feel about the episode. Was it clear what was happening, or was it disjointed?
Some of the casting decisions are not what I had pictured. Naomi in particular is very polished from what I had envisioned from her description in the book. Amos also doesn’t seem quite as rough, and thug-like as I had pictured. It’s not really throwing me out of enjoying it, but it is strange.
Also Chrisjen isn’t in Leviathan Wakes, so I’m not quite sure what her character will be doing for this series. I don’t outright object to it, but I’m curious to see how they’ll integrate her. I haven’t read any spoiler sites, so if you know, don’t tell me.
Are there any changes people felt were egregious? I don’t see any.
I still think I prefer the big-budget epic in my head more than what I see on the screen.