My last post was about my disappointment in the science fiction novel series, The Expanse, starting with book four. As it turns out, for me, that’s just the start of my disengagement — it goes seriously downhill from there. To be clear I’m speaking strictly in terms of my personal taste. As the saying goes, ‘One person’s mead is another person’s poison’ (not that I’m a fan of mead).
Given the steep downward trend, book four seems better in comparison. While I like it much less than the first three, I like it much more than what follows. It has some good protomolecule bits, and frontier colony stories are pretty standard science fiction fare.
But I’m particularly struck by what the TV version changed and added.
That’s true for all four seasons of the show so far. It’s generally true of any adaptation. As I’ve posted previously, there are three areas of concern:
- Existing things that are removed.
- Existing things that are changed.
- New things that are added.
The last one is where most adaptations let me down. Something new bolted on — often for reasons out of sync with the tone or intentions of the text. Sometimes it stands out like window air conditioner even without knowing the source text.
A big one for me, which I’ve mentioned before, is the added conflict in the TV series. A simple example: Bobbie Draper’s Marine squad. In the book, although we see much less of them than in the TV series, they are trained disciplined professionals.
In the TV series they’re squabbling undisciplined children Bobbie must ride herd on. All in the name of what — making them more relatable? Is that who we relate to? Undisciplined squabbling children?
I don’t. I find it annoying. (As any parent would.)
In any event, last night I watched episodes 3–7 of The Expanse, season four. (I’ve been re-watching the series along with reading the books. Paused season four until I’d read Cibola Burn.)
For Sci-Fi Saturday, I thought I’d record a few notes I made…
And by the way: Spoilers!
Adolphus Murtry (Burn Gorman), the insane murderous security chief for Royal Charter Energy (RCE). He (the character, not the actor) is a large fraction of my dislike for the story.
The book presents him as an off-the-chain version of Amos (who recognizes Murtry immediately for what he is).
The thing about Amos (made clear in the books) is that Amos knows he lacks, but needs, a moral compass, so he aligns himself with people he perceives as having a strong one. That is the basis of his relationship with Naomi and, later, with Holden.
The book version of Murtry is Amos-unbound plus blood lust, which Amos lacks. Both are psychopaths, yet still different people.
The TV version adds a passing financial incentive for Murtry. He gets a bonus for making sure the colony fails. This is a matter of a few lines of dialog and isn’t really referenced again.
(In contrast, I read an article the other day suggesting that simple greed is no longer a primary goal in villains these days. Instead they’re tortured lunatics who actually have our best interests at heart. Think Samuel Jackson in the first Kingsmen movie, for instance, or James Spader as Ultron.)
I couldn’t help but wonder about a more nuanced version of Murtry. (Both the book and the TV season make him a cartoon villain easy to hate.)
What about someone principled, basically honest and intelligent, but conservative and narrow, and bent solely on doing their job as they see it. What if it was possible to see their side of it?
Doesn’t that make for a better dramatic conflict? Isn’t it more interesting when it’s hard to pick a side?
[I’ll never forget how, during Babylon 5, creator JMS told fans that, once we knew the full story, many of us would identify with the Shadows, the supposed villains of the piece. He was absolutely right, because I did. Both sides of that story had a legitimate view — it’s part of what makes Babylon 5 stand out. (Also wonderful characters and outstanding performances.)]
So suppose they’d told a story in which one might agree with Murtry? Imagine if he was able to cogently and convincingly argue his point? What if, at least sometimes, the viewer couldn’t help but think he was right?
Compare book or TV Murtry with the book’s Carlos “Bull” de Baca (who is completely absent in the TV series). Bull does a lot of “bad” things, morally and plot-wise, but we can sympathize with him because he’s trying to navigate between loyalties to his job and boss versus his ethics.
Bull ultimately redeems himself and comes off as a good guy. Murtry never could. That’s what makes him a cartoon.
Something interesting about the TV show is that it dodged what felt like a repetition to me in the books: Insane cartoon Captain Ashford in book three is echoed by even more insane cartoon Adolphus Murtry in book four.
And then we get Marcos Inaros in book five and even worse cartoon villains in the latter books, from what I gather. (And no protomolecule until way late in the series, so I’m bailing at this point.)
Captain Ashford is a positive character in the TV series, so Murtry is really the first clearly insane character (although maybe Clarissa Mao qualifies).
Actually, for that matter, there was Praxidike Meng and Basia Merton, both of whom were a bit unraveled, so the books use the “insanity defense” a bit too much for my taste.
My point is, the TV series has done a better job of not doing that. All the Mao characters had their reasons, generally sufficient ones IMO, and the Evil Scientists were chemically-induced psychopaths. Even Marcos Inaros is presented as having a point. (His speech in the airlock pleading for his life was pretty good, I thought.)
And there does seem occasional flashes of rational intent in TV Murtry, but they never really develop into sympathy. (Apparently Wei is the only subordinate who even slightly questions his behavior, so the entire rest of his crew is essentially just cannon fodder clowns.)
The show seems more intent on pulling the colonists down, in making them unsympathetic, rather than trying to elevate Murtry. It’s this kind of “we’re all just rats in the sewer” storytelling that gets under my skin. They were successful, though. I don’t find the colonists sympathetic, either.
That ultimately really weakens the season for me. I don’t care about the colonists, and I certainly don’t care about RCE. I have no dog in the fight. Really, the only ones possible to care for are the crew of the Rocinante, and we know they’re going to be okay.
The TV series changed the terrorist to the wife, Lucia, rather than her husband.
(Their last name is Mazur, and her husband is Jakob, so this is not the family of Basia who lost their son Katoa to the protomolecule on Ganymede. In the book it is, which was one of the coincidences that annoyed me a bit. In the book, Basia lost his mind over Katoa and fell in with the terrorists. Lucia appears to be part of it by choice.)
There is also reversal in that it’s mom who hates daughter going off to study engineering rather than father. The swapped sexes put mother Lucia on the Rocinante fretting about her daughter rather repeating father Prax fretting about daughter Mei.
All those changes deal with my objection to some apparent repetition in the books, so, as they say, “Change Approved!”
The part about Naomi taking gravity drugs and going down to the planet is added. It appears to be so that she can take Lucia back to the ship.
It adds drama because the gravity drugs don’t work, and things go bad for her. We also get scenes of the painful injections.
(There’s another medical bay scene with Lucia when her wound opens due to stress that feels very bolted on. Nothing like it in the book, and it was boring to boot. How many times have we seen scenes exactly like it?)
All the stuff about Bobbie getting involved with the criminal class on Mars is new to the TV series.
In the books she leads a simple civilian life on Mars until she hooks up with Alex in book five. (Not “hooks up with” hooks up with, but you never know. I think Alex kinda has a thing for her in the books.)
Things get interesting for Alex and Bobbie on Mars in book five. When they first meet, she has a line about helping her nephew out of a jam involving drugs. That’s a whole sub-plot for her in the TV series.
(I wonder if maybe one of the short stories or other works that take place in The Expanse universe get into it. That line to Alex kinda jumped out at me as a reference to something solid.)
TV Bobbie grew on me more in season four. I didn’t care for her much previously, but I’ve always liked the book version. The TV series makes her more undisciplined and unprofessional.
All the election stuff with Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo) is new. I think it’s mostly filler to give the actress screen time. (She’s a pretty good character, so maybe rightfully so.)
But given what happens to the Secretary General in the next book, it all seems a bit pointless. It really feels like padding.
(There is something strange to me in how the actress delivers lines. The phrasing feels off — strange pauses. I don’t know if it’s breath control or what, but I find it weird. I do enjoy the character, though. Even more in the books.)
It’ll be interesting to see what season five amounts to. Will it be, as book four and season four was, essentially book five (with deletions, changes, and additions)? Or will it (as earlier seasons did) bring in elements from later books?
Given my reaction to book five, I have very mixed feelings about the coming season five. I’ll definitely check it out and see how it goes.
Stay safe, my friends! Wear a mask in stores and such. Covid-19 is airborne!