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Review: The Expanse: Season One (Blu-ray set)

With season two of the critically-acclaimed SyFy series The Expanse set to premiere on February 1st, I thought it was high time I went back and took a look not only at season one, but at the Blu-ray set of season one!

I have a weird relationship with The Expanse. I read the first book and thought it was only okay. Then I re-read the first book, along with the second and third, and hated them all. Then the show came out and for some reason, I was drawn to give the books another try (note: I do not usually re-read books I previously hated). This time I found I adored the books. Yeah, I don’t know either.

The books, and the show, take place about 200 years from now. The books’ authors, Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck (writing together as James S.A. Corey), have stated their intention was to explore the often-overlooked period of sci-fi between now and when humanity becomes an interstellar species. In the universe of The Expanse, humanity has colonized the solar system but gone no further. Earth and Mars are the main powers in the system, locked in an uneasy cold war stalemate, while the inhabitants of the outer planets and the asteroid belt mine the system for resources. These “belters” have grown up in low-gravity environments and become essentially a new offshoot of humanity; they are the downtrodden, exploited working class of the solar system, doing the dangerous work of collecting resources for Earth and Mars, while not reaping any of the benefits. A group called the Outer Planetary Alliance is trying to change that, but even the more “legitimate” branch of the organization is seen as little more than thugs and terrorists by the inner planets.

It’s into this volatile situation that the story of The Expanse begins. An ice hauler is destroyed. A Martian warship is attacked. Someone is recruiting the criminal gangs of the asteroid belt for something big. And a privileged rebellious rich girl from the inner planets sees something too strange to be believed …

Season one of The Expanse covers, roughly, the first half of Leviathan Wakes, the first book of the series. I say roughly because the show, in the course of its adaptation, is pulling from the entire series of books (that have been published so far). Revelations we won’t get until book five are being teased here in season one, and characters who aren’t introduced until later in the series (most notably fan-favorite UN Assistant Undersecretary Chrisjen Avasarala, played by the always-great Shohreh Aghdashloo) show up in prominent roles here in season one as well. This is the elegant piece of the adaptation, and it works well.

The adaptation does falter in places. Certainly one expects things to be different when adapting from one medium to another, but some of the choices made are a little strange. The main characters — the five surviving members of the Canterbury, the aforementioned ice hauler that’s destroyed in the premiere — are far more antagonistic towards one another than they are in the book. What’s more, one of the characters, Amos, who in the book was a generally good-hearted person who’ll nonetheless go to extreme and often brutal lengths to protect the people he cares about, has been changed here into a near sociopath. Some plot decisions are likewise clunky — there are a couple digressions (one involving a uncle-nephew pair of belters, the other a corporate spy) which feel strange and unnecessary. And some of the plot points which perhaps should have been highlighted more than they were — the criminal gang subplot, for instance — are barely mentioned at all.

That said, for all its quirks and faults, the series is strong. It’s one of the best science-fiction shows we’ve gotten since Battlestar Galactica; the fact that good sci-fi on TV is in short supply shouldn’t be seen as damning The Expanse with faint praise. This is strong, high-quality drama, with a fidelity both to the world of the books and to the hard sci-fi elements they employ. What’s more, the cast is almost universally great, bringing an interesting and diverse (both in terms of their gender & racial backgrounds as well as their personalities) group of characters to vivid life. Quibbles with the pacing or certain elements of the adaptation aside, I can heartily recommend The Expanse.

But what about the Blu-ray? The first thing you need to know is that the show both looks and sounds great on disc — with some caveats. The Expanse can be a visually dense show at times, especially in FX shots of the exterior of spaceships and space stations. Indeed, the camera doesn’t always pull back as far as one would hope, and so FX shots — though gorgeously rendered — can sometimes be a confusing muddle. The crystal-clear image the Blu-ray — ten episodes spread out over two discs — provides helps with that to a certain degree, bringing out details and clarity which just weren’t present in over-the-air broadcasts or online streaming. Cluttered interior shots are likewise improved, with the details from computer screens and machinery beautifully sharp.

Caveat the first: this is a dreary-looking show, by design. There are a lot of greys and blues, and character skin tones are likewise muted as a result. This, again, is not the fault of the disc; on the few occasions where there are bright colors (Avasarala’s cloak in episode 7, for instance) they do pop. But if you’re looking for a Technicolor palette, this is not the show (or the set) for you.

Caveat the second: The 5.1 sound mix on the disc is excellent. The dialogue tracks are clear, the music and effects mixed well, and the rear channels used to sparing but good atmospheric effects. However, the 5.1 mix is the only one on the disc, and when played on a 2.0 system, the mix becomes a little muddied.

The lack of a separate stereo mix brings me to my main complaint with this Blu-ray set: it is appallingly bare-bones. No 2.0 mix, no foreign language tracks, English-only subtitles. The only special feature is a handful of deleted scenes — snippets, really — from episode one, mostly concerned with the aforementioned crime gang subplot (I should add that even if these snippets survived the cutting room, they still would have been insufficient to give that subplot the significance it deserved). Even the menu screen is laughably basic — no video or animation, just a static image of the main season one promo image, and not even any words to help one navigate the menu screens. Just a series of five inscrutable pictograms. You get the feeling that this Blu-ray was put together in an afternoon using a template. To make things worse, disc one is saddled with a series of ads which, while you can skip using the chapter jump feature of your remote, you can’t jump over completely using the menu buttons. This is especially frustrating if you don’t binge-watch the series — or at least the first disc — in one go, since every time the disc loads up you have to wade through the ads.

For a series that’s been as lauded and as popular as The Expanse, there’s simply no excuse for a set this sparse. Where are the series and episode trailers? The interviews with cast and crew? The episode commentary tracks? Where’s the 2.0 audio mix, the foreign language audio or subtitles, hell, the words on the menu screen? This is really shoddy work, and SyFy should know better.

Hopefully the success of the show leads to a more robust Blu-ray release for season two. I wouldn’t even object to a double-dip on season one at this point, if they were able to put together a more complete “special edition” set. For now, though, the picture quality (and sound, if you have a 5.1 system) makes the Blu-ray worth having, but really only if you’re able to find the set on sale.

The Expanse is an excellent show, though, and season two promises to be even more interesting and exciting than season one. However you watch the show, it’s well worth your time to get caught up before the season two premiere.

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