SyFy Channel Archive

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The Expanse Will Fail if it Emulates Battlestar Galactica: A Mathematical Proof

Let’s talk about The Expanse.

Despite what you might think from the title of this post, I enjoyed the pilot episode of The Expanse. I’m happy to see contemporary science fiction trying to repatriate the interplanetary empire trope from the pie-eyed and often crackpot notions established during the Heinlein-era. The Expanse shows humanity’s colonization of Mars, Ceres, and presumably the Jovian moons, coming at the cost of our baseline humanity. Being a belter is not some romantic callback to the Jeffersonian frontier; it is a fundamental rejection of terrestrial humanity as a genetically engineered post-human.

Likewise, The Expanse comes by things like gravity in an honest way. Gravity is either the product of celestial mass, simulated through rotation, or a product of constant acceleration. There’s a bit of handwavium in terms of how humanity engineered itself to endure high/low gravity, but I’m content to let it slide. Magic gravity juice helps spacers endure 30G emergency accelerations? Okay, sure. I’ll bite. It’s an easier sell for the near-future than gravity plating a la Star Trek or inertial dampeners a la figuratively every space opera ever.

Cut to, space battles.

The Expanse’s first episode gets space battles completely, utterly, and miserably wrong. It gets space battles so wrong I might as well have been watching Star Wars. The likes of Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda gets space battles better than The Expanse. Here comes the math.

In the pilot episode, a shuttle called “Knight” is 50,000km from its parent ship, the Canterbury. When a pirate ship appears, it is at a range of 12,00km from Knight. Put the two together and we have space battle occurring at a maximum range of 62,000km. The opening, and only, fusillade of the battle sees the pirate launch four nuclear-armed torpedoes at the Canterbury. Those torpedoes connect with the Canterbury a mere 60 seconds after launch. And this is the exact moment where I call bullshit.

Do you know how fast those torpedoes would have to be going to connect with a target 62,000km away after only 60 seconds? Very goddamn fast. Almost impossibly fast. Fast enough that the fuel they expend getting up to speed would make directed energy weapons a more cost-effective choice. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I have no idea about the acceleration and maximum velocity of a torpedo on The Expanse. So let’s take an Earth example and do a little extrapolation. The fastest contemporary anti-ship cruise missile I could find on the internet is the experimental BrahMos-II missile. It has a maximum velocity of 2.382km/s or 2382m/s.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume the space torpedoes of the 23rd century can accelerate to 10x the speed of the BrahMos-II. In this case, that’s 23,820m/s, which is a little more than double the Earth’s escape velocity. Frankly, this seems a bit over-powered, but it’s 200 years in the future; I’m inclined to be generous.

Bearing this in mind, a torpedo launched from a ship at a velocity of 23,820m/s, assuming it launches at maximum speed – likely not possible but I don’t want to over-complicate this by factoring in an acceleration curve – would require 43.38 minutes of flight time before contacting a target 62,000,000m distant. This is also assuming the torpedo flies in a straight line, free of interference from gravity wells. It’s also not withstanding any Delta V bonus the torpedo might get from the pirate ship already being in motion. However, such a bonus would be negligible to this problem for reasons that will soon make themselves evident.

So now that science has killed the action buzz on the 60 second torpedo run, we can ask ourselves how fast those torpedoes would have to be going to have a 60 second time on target.

To cover 62,000,000 meters in 60 seconds the torpedoes would need to be travelling at approximately 1,033,333m/s. For context, the speed of light is 299,792,458m/s. Thus, The Expanses‘ torpedoes would need to be travelling at roughly 0.35% of the speed of light (C) to make the scene congruent to the laws of physics. And before you say that .35% of C is no big deal, consider that the fastest man-made thing ever was NASA’s Juno mission that hit 40,233m/s after executing a slingshot around Jupiter. Quite a ways to go before hitting 1,033,333m/s.

Given this ludicrously impossible speed, there’s really no need for a nuclear warhead on The Expanses’ torpedoes; a suitably dense piece of dog crap travelling at such speeds would have more than enough concussive force to blow up something as flimsy as a pressurized spaceship.

Now to answer the big question: what does all of this have to do with Battlestar Galactica? BSG has many strengths, but it’s depiction of warfare in space is cartoonish, at best – yes, I am talking about Ron Moore’s BSG. Vipers and Raiders engaged in dogfights driven by Newtonian physics look unbelievably cool. Likewise, fighter pilots make for accessible character archetypes. Both of these elements help make BSG an exciting and engaging piece of television (at least in the first two seasons). As a point of practicality, Vipers and Raiders are a brain dead way to wage space warfare. Recall your Douglas Adams: space is very big. Battlestars and Baseships using kinetic weapons and missiles would inevitably do better to wage war at long-range using math and thrust equations to generate shooting solutions. The ranges depicted in BSG (e.g. single digit kilometers) would result in little more than mutually assured destruction. As an audience, we forgive these things because BSG was concerned with providing spectacular looking space battles amid big political/philosophical questions. If BSG kept it real, then Adama ordering the ship to condition one would instantly cut to a team of junior officers pulling out their scientific calculators.

Unlike BSG, The Expanse is selling itself on the strength of its serious, thoughtful, and practical(ish) approach to telling a story in space. Yet in its inaugural space battle, it is very much taking the Battlestar approach. Such a choice subverts the very aesthetic the series is trying to cultivate. And frankly, I might be willing to give this utter physics fail a pass were it not for the fact that the 60 second battle becomes a setup for a broader plot arc.

The Canterbury’s navigator is about to tell something seemingly important to the ship’s XO, in command of the Knight, only to have the phone call interrupted when the Canterbury is nuked. Shenanigans!

Even if Knight and Canterbury were right next to each other when the pirate fired her torpedoes at a range of 12,000km, there should have been – working within the model explored in this post – 8.3 minutes of flight time before impact. This would be more than enough time for the navigator to say her piece and for the XO send her a final dick pic. What? He seems the type.

In no uncertain terms, the math of The Expanse’s first space battle is a joke. If the series wants to dedicate itself to showing the complexities of life in space, then it needs to abandon the Wing Commander elements of Battlestar Galactica and channel a lot more of The Martian. While I might be content to let the space battle faux pas slide once, frequent occurrences will take the shine off the series’ “hard” SF hull plating. Once that happens, they might as well give their starships FTL drives and inertial dampeners.


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SyFy’s Defiance: A Gamble in Transmedia Storytelling (and Marketing)

A few days ago my friend Will and I were talking about the upcoming SyFy original series Defiance. When we began speculating on why SyFy would opt for a transmedia approach to Defiance, releasing both the TV series and a tie-in video game at the same time, we defaulted to snark. “They like money, that’s why.”

But what if there is more to Defiance than a shameless cash grab?

Premise: The management at SyFy recognizes that their original programming (movies not withstanding) has more critical appeal than popular. Consider the recently cancelled superhero series Alphas as people’s exhibit A.

Exhibit B: The most recent trailer for Defiance (the series).

 

Assuming the trailer is an honest representation of the show, Defiance seems like the perfect series to win over critics. An alien channels Tony Soprano with his Mafioso rationalization, “I’m doing this for my children.” A single line of dialogue from Graham Greene manages to bring the entire conceptual framework of indigenous rights into a science fiction setting. What sort of savvy media consumer wouldn’t pay attention to the poignancy of having a native American actor paint humanity at large as a marginalized people in the face of a technologically superior colonial power? At the same time, I’m not so delusional to think that near future alien-human politics is universally appealing; we learned that lesson from Babylon 5. It sounds to me like Defiance is the perfect sort of show to win over critics while boring the broader audience with its weekly discussions of individual rights versus the collective good. Hey, I think we just re-invented Outcasts.

Enter Defiance (the game)

 

Other than the name and SyFy branding, is there anything to indicate these two things are related? The series looks like Mad Max meets Firefly featuring Farscape; whereas the game channels Lost Planet and Mass Effect. Even the cover girl for Defiance projects a FemShep vibe.

Left: Female Commander Sheppard as seen on the cover of BioWare's Mass Effect 3. Right: Promotional cover art red head pulled from Defiance's homepage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When we peel back the layers on Defiance’s video game it further seems to be positioning itself as an amalgam of everything that is popular in gaming.

“Join the futuristic online open-world shooter where thousands of players scour a transformed Earth competing for alien technology. Hunt alone or with others as you improve your skills and level up, unlocking powerful weapons that will help you survive the massive battles that await.”

So there’s the Borderlands franchise covered with just a hint of Planetside tossed into the fray.

“Fight for survival in a constantly evolving environment with regular content updates and dynamic events. Play solo, or join tens of thousands of simultaneous live players in a futuristic San Francisco Bay Area that’s a fully-realized open world. You’ve never imagined a 3rd-person shooter this huge.”

World of Warcraft? Check. Gears of War? Check. Now here comes the clincher.

“Experience dynamic missions, massive co-op battles, and endless exploration across a gigantic game environment. Plus, brought to you by Syfy, the Defiance TV series is a revolutionary weekly drama that impacts the game, and gives you the chance to change the show.”

Play the game, and change the show. Wasn’t that the slogan for Heroes’ terrible third season? Considering the game is set in San Francisco and the series in St. Louis, I expect the changes will probably be of the blink-and-miss-it variety. Otherwise, SyFy had best be prepared for a whole lot of 4chan inspired trolling.

This combination of television and gaming amounts to an interesting gamble on the part of SyFy. On a cable channel where a few hundred thousand viewers can make the difference between renewal and cancellation, a cross branded video game might just be enough to bring in an audience for a show which already looks to draw on conceptual themes from other one season wonders.

The down side of gambling is that the consequences can often be ugly. Case in point, it would not take much to turn Defiance into Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future. Shitty light gun games built into Captain Power’s action sequences doomed an otherwise well written series after one season. If Defiance (the game) is anything but a masterpiece it’s going to make the show look bad in the eyes of gamers. And at a $60 price point – $100 for the deluxe edition – god help the series and everybody who works on it if the game turns out to be a turd. If SyFy thinks it has an image problem for its dedication to low cost reality TV and syndicated wrestling, imagine how bad it will get when the internet accuses the network of pandering to/plagiarizing from A-list of video games as a means of raising capital. The same problem emerges if the show is garbage and the game is great; TV wonks could accuse SyFy of throwing a series under the bus to leverage itself into the video game market. Though if SyFy was intent on making a fast buck they would have revisited the free to play model of Battlestar Galactica Online.

Whatever else it is, it’s hard to see Defiance’s transmedia experiment as anything but an all-in bet. Both the game and the series need to resonate with their respective audiences while also seeing some of the game’s following tune into the show. It’s a risky proposition on all fronts, but if it works Defiance could be at the forefront of a new evolution in genre entertainment. At the very least, April will see a renewed discussion in the ongoing “video games as art” debate.


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Podcast #17: The Airing of Grievances


Featuring Adam Shaftoe talking to himself sans guest.

Topics under discussion include: Genre things that pissed Adam off in 2011.  As well, some important thoughts on the Stop Online Piracy Act.  Also, my thanks to my various guests who came on the podcast during the year.

NB: Matt Moore’s thoughts on the first half of The Walking Dead season 2 can be found at here.

Right click “download” and “save link as” if you are having trouble downloading.