Recommendation: The Expanse (season 4)

The Expanse season 4 poster, showing the cast, spaceships, and a planetSeason 4 of The Expanse TV show was released Friday on Amazon Prime, so I just spent today binging on it.

There was a lot of uncertainty about the show last year when SyFy canceled it, but within a short period Amazon stepped in and saved it, renewing it for a fourth season.  And earlier this year it was preemptively renewed for a fifth season, so Amazon seems to have committed pretty thoroughly.

The production values remain high, possibly higher than previous seasons.  A lot of the action this season takes place on a planet, which I imagine spiked both the exterior location and CG costs.  And the ships, both interior and exterior, still look great.

One thing I love about this show is how the spaceships operate according to Newtonian principles, where it’s necessary to accelerate and later decelerate to reach a destination. And when coasting, the realities of free fall are acknowledged.  There is compromise a bit in portraying this, having everyone walk around with magnetic boots, but considering how much it would cost to have actors constantly swinging around on cables, and compared to it being completely ignored on most space shows, I give them a pass.

There are other compromises, such as having sound in space.  The book authors, who are producers on the show, are defensive about this, insisting that it’s necessary for the space scenes to work.  As I noted in my post on Ad Astra, I think this underestimates audiences.  But again, it’s relatively minor compared to most shows.

The season is mostly an adaptation of the fourth Expanse book, Cibola Burn, but there are differences.  Many of them simply reflect the realities of telling a story in novel vs TV form.  Others seem like enhancements.  The show tends to develop the villains a bit more than the books, which is good, but it also tends to, I think, have a darker edgier feel.  Some of the characters get additional challenges.  And I think the show handles the departure of a major character much better than the book.

Some changes seem related to the practical need to employ all the actors, including the ones whose characters were mostly absent from Cibola Burn.  So we have a lot of parallel plot threads that weren’t in the book, related to Avasarala, Bobbie, Drummer, and Ashford, all in events taking place away from the main story setting.  In some cases, this seems like completely new material.  In others, it front loads developments for upcoming seasons, particularly events in the fifth book, Nemesis Games.

It’s difficult to get into details without also getting into spoilers, particularly if you haven’t seen the earlier seasons.  And if you haven’t watched the show yet, you’ll want to start with the first season.  Someone could jump in on season 4, but they’d be missing a lot of backstory.

So if you’re looking for intelligent space opera with excellent production values, I highly recommend it.  And don’t forget that this is based on an excellent book series, which is worth checking out, if it’s your cup of tea.

14 thoughts on “Recommendation: The Expanse (season 4)

  1. I’ve fallen in love with the books, and I’m looking forward to watching the series. But I want to make sure I’m caught up with the books first before I start watching the show. I’m even avoiding the trailers because I’m afraid of spoiling content from the books.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The books are awesome!

      Season 4 matches up with the fourth book, Cibola Burn, but it does slightly spoil stuff from the early part of the fifth book, Nemesis Games, so once you’re though that, you should be good to go. Although it’s kind of fun knowing what happens much further down the line and seeing how the show sets things up for it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I binged the whole season yesterday. Well, last night, actually. I’d forgotten about the Doctor Who marathon culminating in a new episode the evening of New Year’s Day. So I didn’t started on The Expanse until almost 10 PM. I only intended to get started — watch two episodes, but that grew into, “ah, why not watch half,” but the fifth episode ended in such a cliffhanger I thought, “okay, one more,” and that grew into the whole damn thing. Which I finished just before 5 AM this morning.

    So I obviously liked it. 😀

    The other three storylines (Avasarala on Earth; Bobbie on Mars; Drummer and Ashford in space) did kind of stick out. What I noticed is how time seemed to pass differently in them — something I’ve noticed in the series before. The main storyline seemed to take place over a matter of a few days with maybe a week or so hiding from the flood? The Earth and Mars storylines seemed to cover much longer periods of time. Maybe that’s just me. I’d be interested to know if the writers used a formal timeline.

    The one “complaint” I might have is that the main storyline seemed a little claustrophobic for a space show. The other storylines compensated, but the entire 10 episodes really concerns the short time Holden and crew are on the planet. Compared to all the ground they covered in previous seasons, it just felt overly contained to me.

    I’ve never known whether to see Avasarala as a white hat or black hat. Now I’m thinking black hat. I think she’s wrong. Humanity goes out, explores, does its best, and gets through it. I agreed, mostly, with Nancy Gao. That said, species extinction would be a Bad Thing.

    The science is definitely way better than most, but being such a hard SF show means the science gets more scrutiny, and they definitely take some magic-seeming shortcuts. (In contrast, the science in Doctor Who is generally absurd, but that’s expected in that show. The show often comes very close to magical realism and sometimes even sticks its toe over the line.)

    I think I agree with the creators regarding sound in space, at least on this one. Soundless space has a beauty that doesn’t seem quite right for this (but was right for 2001 and what Ad Astra wanted to be). For me the roar of those engines works. Try hitting the mute button during a space scene and see what you think.

    (As I recall, Roddenberry and folks tried the title sequence without the “whoosh” and decided it just didn’t work. I think that was the right decision, too.)

    Maybe this is characteristic of space opera, but I found the series of events the settlers, RCE, and Rocinante crew to be a little plot-driven. One threat after another, and it seems writers still haven’t learned that we know certain people have to survive, so putting their lives in jeopardy isn’t as compelling as it might be in a novel or movie. (Or Game of Thrones. 😉 )

    They just ain’t gonna kill off Naomi or Amos (or any of the core actors).

    I also wondered if their door would really hold the water out. 😛

    Still, overall I’d give it an Ah! rating.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good deal. Glad you enjoyed it!

      I can get the claustrophobic feeling from the planet storyline. The book, aside from the very beginning when Avasarala sends them on the mission, only has the planet parts. (And the parts in orbit of it.) Although they didn’t feel as claustrophobic as the show did. There were also a lot of differences, but it’s been years since I read the book, so my memory of the details is hazy.

      The Avasarala election thread was actually a complete add on from the books. (Well, unless it was in one of the novellas. I haven’t read all of them.) I learned just how weary I am of any political theater with that sequence. I had to resist the urge to fast forward past the debate. And the show plays up the dystopian nature of Earth a lot more than in the books.

      “Try hitting the mute button during a space scene and see what you think.”

      I agree total silence would be tough. But that assumes they couldn’t work in any music to offset it.

      On character jeopardy, it’s worth noting that one of them did die at one point: Miller. (And there was the stuff with his ghost this season.) But yeah, most of the jeopardy is the other characters on the show. That said, the overall death count (for named characters) does seem relatively low compared to a lot of shows.


      1. “The book, aside from the very beginning when Avasarala sends them on the mission, only has the planet parts.”

        Well, one thing about writers is they don’t have to keep their characters under exclusive contract. If a character isn’t seen for a book or two, no actor is disgruntled!

        (Someday photo-realistic CGI will eliminate actors entirely, and we’ll see Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in new films!)

        “And the show plays up the dystopian nature of Earth a lot more than in the books.”

        All in the name of relevance, I suppose. (Maybe I shouldn’t be so cynical. Could be the filmmakers are expressing genuine outrage.)

        “Miller [died].”

        True. He was a tragic figure, and it was pretty clear his narrative path had to involve either redemption or doom. It became clear pretty early on it wasn’t going to be redemption, I thought. I will miss the character.

        Now that I think of it, we also lost Ashford. I’ll miss him, too. Didn’t care much for him at first, but he won me over. (At least I still have Drummer. My kinda lady. 🙂 )

        Pretty high background death count, but, yeah, we haven’t said good-bye to too many name characters.


        1. On actors, yeah, I think that’s a big part of it. If they want to ensure the actors will be available in future seasons, they need to give them work this season. Their options are to work them into the main story somehow (which could have repercussions in future seasons) or give them separate threads. The latter option being cleaner, it’s what the show went for.

          I like Bogart, but I don’t know if I want to see his ghost in a lot of future stuff. I think about how disappointed I find all the post Mel Blanc Bugs Bunny’s.

          On Ashford, the show made him a much more sympathetic character and expanded his role. Drummer’s role was expanded (consolidating away some characters from the books I actually missed), but I agree the result on the show is pretty good.

          “Pretty high background death count,”

          (SPOILER ALERT)
          Yeah, if the show follows the books, that’s only going to go up, way up.


          1. “I think about how disappointed I find all the post Mel Blanc Bugs Bunny’s.”

            And who knows what uncanny valley issues there might be. The goal would be a neural net version that captured as much nuance as possible, kind of like they’re trying now with text generation (which is getting scary good).

            “On Ashford, the show made him a much more sympathetic character and expanded his role.”

            I almost wonder if they changed him a bit for season four. He seemed a lot more sympathetic this season. (In fact, in some ways he did seem “tamed” — exactly as radical Belters saw him.) I found myself a little surprised by the extent of his change.

            “…that’s only going to go up, way up.”

            Oh, dear! (But I can imagine. Shows about civilization can get that way.)


          2. On Ashford, I think that’s a result that he filled two particular roles. In season 3, he was the source of conflict that led to the final battle in ring space. (The whole ring space sequence, which was awesome in the books, was frustratingly cut short in the TV version. Apparently the showrunners knew SyFy was considering cancelling, and wanted to ensure they wrapped up the initial trilogy by the end of that season, just in case). But in this season, he served as a tie in to bring out information on Marco Inaros, a lot of which was given in exposition in the books, if I recall correctly.


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