The Books Are Better

Spoiler Alert for The Expanse books and TV series.

Among my favourite book series of all time is The Expanse.

Among my least favourite TV series of all time isThe Expanse.

To address the inevitable, “The book is always better,” argument, I’ll just ask you to believe me when I say that I rarely see it that way. I’ve always been able to separate the book version from other media – primarily, I think, because I’m not a visual reader, so I have no preconceptions in my head as to what things are supposed to look like. I don’t mind if characters get cut, or multiple characters consolidated in one, or entire scenes or even plotlines are eliminated. So long as the adaptation is true to the book in an overarching sense in terms of tone and message and characterizations, with at least a basic shout-out to the plot, I’m okay with it.

So I went into The Expanse TV show assuming I’d enjoy it. I was looking forward to filling the gap between book releases with seeing some of my favourite characters in a new way. But ultimately, it was the ‘new way’ many of those characters were written for TV that ruined my enjoyment of the show.

Specifically, the female characters.

The women in The Expanse novels are among some of the best I’ve ever read. They’re capable, unique, interesting, fully fleshed out, well rounded people.

Such is not the case in the show, where their roles have been altered to the point that, while they may have the same names as in the books, the characters themselves only bear a superficial resemblance. Much of their depth is gone, replaced by stereotypes.

And it’s not a one-off problem. It’s evident in most of the female characters.

Naomi Nagata

At the core of The Expanse is the crew of the Rocinante – James Holden, Naomi Nagata, Amos Burton, and Alex Kamal. Holden is the Captain, Naomi is the engineer, Amos is the mechanic (as well as the muscle), and Alex is the pilot. Because they’re running the ship with a skeleton crew, each character’s specific role is very important, and the work each does in those roles is clearly spelled out in the books over and over again.

The male characters transition to the TV series mostly intact. Holden is the Captain, being the face of the Rocinante and generally heroic. Amos knows his way around an engine room and a barroom brawl in equal measure. And Alex can fly the hell out of any ship he gets behind the controls of.

Naomi, meanwhile, seems to be in the series mostly to be confused and say, “Huh?” a lot.

Naomi of the books is a very internalized, thoughtful character, who gives little away, biding her time until her actions will have the best chance of succeeding. She’s stoic, rarely shows her emotions outside the family of her crew, and is driven by logic and a strong preservation instinct. And I do understand the challenge with portraying a character as centred and self-contained as she is in the books. I also understand how boring it is to watch someone tapping away on a computer, which is what the bulk of her engineering work entails. So I can see why Naomi might be a more ‘active’ character in a visual medium.

But holy crap, did that pendulum swing hard.

Naomi is a Belter – someone who was born and raised in the asteroid belt. Because they spend their lives in a low gravity environment, Belters bodies are different from Earthers and Martians, with greater overall height, longer limbs, and larger heads. (Naomi and other Belter characters looking like ‘normal’ humans is not one of my criticisms of the show. I understand how the special effects required to digitally alter the actors’ bodies would be prohibitively expensive.) It also means that the higher gravity of planets like Earth is tortuous to Belters. They can undergo medical treatments to strengthen their bones to tolerate higher g environments, but the treatments are painful, the success rate of taking them as an adult isn’t great, and even with them, Belters have to essentially learn to walk again, fighting against gravity, when they make planetfall.

While Naomi takes a lot of criticism from other Belters for shipping out with two Earthers and a Martian, she is proud of her heritage. One of the most admirable things about her character is how she doesn’t compromise herself. Naomi is Naomi, and if you have a problem with that, well, that’s your problem. One of the ways this manifests itself in the books is that she refuses to undergo treatments in order to visit Earth to meet Holden’s family and see where he grew up. If the family wants to meet her, she says, they can come partway, to the lower gravity environment of Luna Base, on Earth’s moon, and she’s fine with never seeing his childhood home in person. Holden, with whom Naomi is in a relationship, is disappointed but understanding.

(Oh, and speaking of Naomi and Holden’s relationship, book Naomi enters into said relationship carefully, after much discussion. TV Naomi, meanwhile, jumps him in an airlock.)

In the TV show, Naomi insists on undergoing the treatments, against Holden’s objections, simply so she can experience what it’s like being planetside because that’s Holden’s background. It’s not Earth, mind you, but some random planet they have no connection to. The storyline carries a strong whiff of Naomi thinking she, as a Belter, isn’t good enough and must ‘improve’ herself. And when the treatments fail, she hides it, ultimately putting the entire crew in danger when they have to rescue her because she quite simply can’t run away from the bad guys fast enough.

Naomi’s engineering skills all but disappear in the TV show. When the Rocinante and a transport ship are stranded in rapidly decaying orbits, with only thrusters for maneuvering, instead of Naomi devising the plan to manufacture and attach cables between the two ships and tow the transport higher to buy them time, she stands on the bridge looking hella confused while a teenager – a teenager – on the transport floats the idea and does all the calculations.

Naomi also has a secret – that not only does she have a child, she left him behind with her psycho ex, Marco Inaros, in order to save herself. In the books, no one knows that, not even Holden, not even when Naomi leaves to seek out her son. In the TV show, she speaks of her son multiple times to multiple people, and she even asks another character to help her track him down.

That’s not the independent, cagey Naomi from the books. Neither is the Naomi who, while being held prisoner by Inaros and discovering he’s implanted a computer virus in the Rocinante that will cause it to explode when it’s brought online, whacks someone over the head with a wrench, grabs their communicator, and sends a shrieking message to warn Holden while her captors try to wrestle the communicator from her grip. In the books, Naomi uses her engineering knowledge to hack Inaros’ ship’s system and send a coded message instead, hoping Holden will find and understand it in time, while realizing he may not, and accepting she’s done all she can do. In this way, she manages to keep Inaros’ trust, and her relative freedom on his ship, in order to continue her surreptitious work to undermine his plans.

Ultimately, the Naomi of the TV show is little more than a bunch of female stereotypes, generally getting where she needs to be through screaming and crying and depending on others, rather than observation and calculation and independent action. It’s very sad to see such a strong and capable character reduced to tropes.

Chrisjen Avasarala

This one hurts. My fuck, this one hurts.

Avasarala is one of my favourite characters of all time – any genre, any medium, any anything, she’s one of the fucking best of all fucking time.

There are a lot of reasons for that. She’s power personified, not just in her profession – she’s a Deputy Undersecretary in the UN when we first meet her, and eventually becomes Secretary General – but also in how she simply doesn’t give a fuck about playing nice. She’s devastatingly intelligent, skilled at reading people, wields her political power astutely, and is uncompromising in her dedication to making the universe a better place. For everybody.

Plus, she swears like a motherfucker.

I had high hopes for Avasarala in the TV series, even though I knew the profanity would be heavily toned down, if not absent entirely. I was excited to hear that the brilliant Shohreh Aghdashloo had been cast in the role. I believed she had the strength of presence to pull off the character, which was only reinforced when I watched this clip – the first scene I ever saw from The Expanse – of Avasarala confronting her boss.

Oh, to have such a shiny spine!

Alas, it was not to be. Avasarala starts out well – that scene is from quite early in the series – but as time goes on, her edge disappears. So does her drive. And her competence. So, basically everything that makes her who she is.

There are lots of examples of Avasarala’s devolution in the TV series, but I’m going to focus on one – the debate between her and a character named Nancy Gao, as they vie for the position of Secretary General. This might be a bit surprising, as the storyline doesn’t even exist in the books. But its presence neatly encapsulates multiple issues with Avasarala’s TV incarnation at once.

First: Avasarala doesn’t know how to debate. Yes, a career politician and a Deputy Secretary of the UN, doesn’t know how to debate.

Second: She sees no point in the debate and prepares for it grudgingly, spending most of her time whining and complaining instead of honing her arguments and delivery. Even when the Avasarala of the books feels her time is being wasted, she doesn’t whine. She gets angry. And then she gets effective.

Third: Avasarala’s husband, Arjun. He rarely appears in the books, and when he does, it’s usually in a phone call meant to drive home how strictly separated Avasarala keeps her personal and professional lives. Which is why it’s jarring when Arjun is her main coach for the debate. He’s not on her staff, he has no experience in politics, he’s a fucking poetry professor, and yet Avasarala’s relying on him rather than people she’s hired for this exact purpose.

Fourth: During the debate, Avasarala gets all misty-eyed and uses the death of her son to tug at people’s hearts. As already mentioned, Avasarala doesn’t mix her personal and professional lives. But beyond that, the woman who speaks to her boss the way she does in that clip has no need to rely on sentimentality.

Fifth: The reason this debate didn’t happen in the books is that Avasarala didn’t run against Gao in her bid for the Secretary General position. She supported her. (Sadly, women don’t seem to do that in the Expanse TV universe, as several positive female relationships from the books are either adversarial or non-existent in the show.)

After Gao wins, she sends Avasarala to Luna to get her out of the way, where she spends episode after episode on the sidelines, sitting alone in her office or conspiring futilely with the one and only person who will still give her the time of day, and this brilliant, larger-than-life character shrinks to insignificance.

It’s such a fucking waste.

Roberta “Bobbie” Draper

Bobbie is a good-natured Martian marine, and a exceptionally skilled one, at that. It’s the only job she ever wanted, and she excels at it – weaponry, hand-to-hand combat, battle tactics, she understands it all. Nothing means more to her than her fellow Marines, to the degree that when she’s fuloughed, she works at the VA to continue looking after them.

Too bad the TV version of Bobbie falls victim to The Worf Effect and loses practically every battle she’s part of. She’s also a walking anger management issue, a terrible soldier who picks fights with her squad mates, and when she’s furloughed, she turns to a life of crime.

But while Bobbie’s arguably the most poorly adapted character of all, the change in her relationship with Alex is what bothers me most. Instead of being best friends – Bobbie even stood with Alex at his wedding – she clearly can’t stand him, and snaps and snarls her way through their interactions. In much the same way as women don’t support each other in the TV universe, it appears that men and women can’t be friends, either.

Camina Drummer

Drummer’s case is really interesting. She’s a side character who slowly becomes more prominent in the books, but on the show, she’s front and centre, in a position of power, right from her first appearance. She’s driven and forceful and she takes no shit from anyone. She is my absolute favourite part of the show. Beyond Cara Gee’s brilliant performance, the main reason I love her so much is that they’ve taken a secondary character and developed her considerably, making her even better than she was in the books and, as Captain of The Behemoth, more important to the story, as well.

So I literally facepalmed when, after Drummer’s been running ships and space stations for years, she gets a new second-in-command, an older man named Ashford, and suddenly she doesn’t have the faintest idea what she’s doing and is constantly relying on him for guidance.

It seems extra insulting that in the books, Ashford was the Captain of The Behemoth, and he became so mentally unstable he almost destroyed the human race and had to be removed from his command and jailed.

Drummer’s story arc in the TV series ultimately runs pretty much opposite to that of the books. Instead of climbing further up in Belter leadership, she keeps backstepping, until she ends up on a pirate ship, obsessively hunting for Ashford’s killer.

Now, to be honest, Ashford is a great character in the TV show, probably my second favourite.

It’s just a shame that his strength came at Drummer’s expense.

Clarissa Mao

Claire fights like a girl.

Yep. That’s pretty much it.

To clarify, Clarissa has had implants installed in her body that augment her strength and speed for short bursts, to enhance her fighting skills. They were originally military technology, but Claire isn’t a soldier. She clearly has had formal fight training of some kind, though – given her character history, and the way her fighting style is described in the books, most likely martial arts based.

And yet, the one and only time we see her activate the implants on the TV show, it looks and sounds like this.

Way to slap fight there, Claire!

Expansively Disappointed

It’s interesting, the effect all of this had on the way I experienced The Expanse. Normally, whatever the genre, I’m all about the people. In science fiction, I rarely have much interest in the science or technology of the universe , and I’m not blown away by special effects. I’m aware it’s all there, but it’s on the periphery. I only pay attention to it enough to understand how it’s affecting the lives of the characters and driving the plot.

But in The Expanse, I found myself paying more attention to the ships and stations and equipment, because … well, there wasn’t much else worth watching. I found myself noticing details I wouldn’t normally, such as the way the seats pivot on the Razorback racing pinnace. And I thought the launch of the generation ship, the Nauvoo, was genuinely beautiful.

Overall, though, it wasn’t enough to counteract the irritation I felt, as the female characters I love were reduced to stereotypes. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out why this was the case. Was it lazy writing? Is it conventional thinking, that a television audience will only accept women portrayed in such narrow roles? Are there not enough – or even any – women on the production team to share their perspective?

I don’t know. And to be honest, at this point, I don’t much care. Because hate-watching The Expanse had one very surprising side effect. I’m even more excited for the release of the final book than I was before.

I didn’t think that was even possible.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.