How 'The Expanse' Makes Use of Toronto's David Pecaut Square
If you’re standing in line for a license, everything looks like a protest
“This is Superconnected” is a monthly series about television in Toronto. In every establishing shot there’s a whole universe of people, ideas, and things with relationships to each other and the city. It's a tested and rewarding method in screenwriting to ground the viewer in the time and place of the story they're watching, and for television fans it will have added value by giving them a central theme with which to interrogate the ideas I'll be writing about in each article.
Elizabeth Mitchell stands in the middle of David Pecaut Square. The protest all around her character, Anna Volovodov, sets up the conflict that will dominate all of her scenes in the second episode of The Expanse’s Season 3: is she a friend, or a foe, of Secretary General Sorrento-Gillis’ administration? Anna is worth an escort of UN soldiers that clearly outrank and outmuscle the armour-clad riot police barely holding a series of barricades against a packed group of sign-waving and yelling demonstrators. When she’s injured saving a young protester with a broken arm from a beating, she shrugs it off, later confronting Sorrento-Gillis as he evinces concern about the bandage on her head. “Your MPs were handing them out to the protesters,” Anna says to him. “You haven’t changed a bit,” he responds.
Even though Sorrento-Gillis has brought her on board to fend off the mobs outside, he needn’t have bothered. Anna hasn’t changed from when she used to be at protests, and she’s not here to change anything for the people. His IFF — the title of this episode, "IFF", is a real life identification system — identifies her as a friend, but we’re supposed to see her as his foe, in opposition to the violence and bureaucracy of his administration. If the threat of the public roused into mass demonstrations and civil disobedience was real and effective, the story in The Expanse couldn’t happen the way it does. The symbolism deployed here is necessary for both the show’s story as well as the show’s ideology.
David Pecaut Square is in the heart of downtown Toronto, in the shadow of the towers of Metro Hall, the fortresses of the municipal bureaucracy of the City of Toronto. The space sees a lot of different uses, from movie or television production, to outdoor festivals, to the occasional demonstration. Tourists walk through it taking pictures of Roy Thomson Hall and the CN Tower, office workers stroll through, and kids run around freely playing. Most of the time when there are a lot of people there, it’s for something sponsored by the city and there’s music or art. The huge protest all around Anna is jarring in this context, reminiscent of the chaos and terror in the 2010 G20 protests in the Provincial Legislature’s Queen’s Park, just several blocks up University Avenue. The scene is certainly not what we usually associate with the plaza renamed from Metro Square to honour a dead liberal philanthropist.
Toronto experiences protests and demonstrations constantly. Almost entirely composed of small acts of political activist demonstrations at a street level, it has the likelihood of interfering with daily city life at a ratio relative to its size. There are small focused political direct actions that can snarl up traffic. Sometimes it’s a strike’s picket line spilling off the sidewalk for a couple of feet slowing cars and pedestrians on a tight side street, and sometimes it’s organized groups blocking major highways. Occasionally there is a huge rally, or an actual series of different protests and demonstrations focused on an international event. Toronto residents have all experienced one of these making our day worse, in one form or another — delaying streetcars, preventing us from getting into the building we need to access, loudly intruding on our work day, shutting down a government kiosk we needed to spend time at arguing with a public servant about something, hearing about a friend arrested and brutalized by the police. Large protests like this one in front of the UN building can be life-changing events full of violence and terror, something many of us living here have experienced also.
Smaller, more focused direct actions can also result in violence and fear. In the intimate space everybody involved ends up sharing with each other, whether picket lines threatened by drivers, or Black Lives Matter shutting down the Pride Parade, the tension that builds expecting and dreading violence is palpable. It makes up for the often surprisingly small size of the groups involved. In Season 1, the third episode shows us a protest on Ceres that turns violent. The hundred or so Belters involved seem like a very dangerous drop in the bucket that is Ceres, until the next episode shows Miller amidst Star Helix’s clean up, after they’ve bloodily put down the insurrection.
The Belters here have a specific set of grievances: their water is getting rationed even more, in no small part due to the destruction of the Canterbury by the inner planets; this is a recruiting station for the Martian terraforming project, therefore the OPA operative on the far left of the shot above leads them into rioting and destroying it.
The danger posed by a small group determined on a quickly achievable outcome is particularly thrilling if you’re caught on the sidelines. Even in genteel Toronto, small protests are organized and acted out by people with specific interests and passion, and confrontation in that context is fraught with tension for all parties engaged. The Expanse makes an effort to simulate that dread and panic to convey the threat of disorder.
I watched the first season of The Expanse with delight as it spent time and effort showing us the OPA’s direct action, especially the fifth episode’s flashbacks to the events at Anderson Station. Even though the UN Marines massacre them, it’s worth seeing the world of the Belt expanded like this – the tension of the occupiers, the tragic backstory that’s driven them to this desperate action. The danger posed by the occupiers is thrilling for the viewer, as they’ve already killed a corporate manager, even if accidentally. Although they’re occupying the station with valid grievances manifested in the literal bodies of their children that accompany them, the disorder these Belters promise is a very real threat.
The trope of a protest is important exactly because the threat of disorder is so important to our narrative television. The Expanse revels in it — the Martians’ anti-colonial superpower conflict with Earth, the OPA’s guerilla war against Mars and Earth, and Belters revolting against local security forces in private corporate spaces in the Belt. The series emphasizes peace, order, and good government through Holden, Miller, and Avasarala. The kind of disorder that protests and mass demonstrations evoke in the real world doesn’t fit well with The Expanse, though. For one thing, every protest is dominated by local concerns but relies on an infrastructure of global issues that frames the entire exchange. The Belters of Ceres aren’t just Belters, they’re from Ceres, and they’re from the Medina. They’re going to have signs and signifiers of their local identity, from picket signs to tirades to songs. Showing that is expensive, both in building sets and precious seconds wasted on character development and plot advancement. It’s also just not that important to the story. When tasked with these presenting scenes of some kind of mass resistance, the show uses easily recognized tropes and gets the point across quickly and coherently for us.
The opening scenes on Ceres did this well. With Kyle Gatehouse delivering a stirring monologue laying out the history of Ceres and Belters’ exploitation, and the wide shot of the crowd becoming a tight focus on him leading an impromptu demonstration, I was drawn in immediately to the scene. It found the rhythms of public rhetoric and matched them to the story beat, ticking like a metronome from the space opera porn of the Ceres docks to the drone flight through the class-stratified layers of the station to the reveal of the Medina’s market space. Right from the beginning, The Expanse sets out that political organizing in the Belt will be something to pay attention to, that the threat of disorder is imminent. Hell, Gatehouse is even framed in one angle like you’d really see him if you were there.
The result of this kind of focus on OPA resistance is that the bar is set high for stories that include demonstrations, strikes, and protests. Side characters need backstories, and there’s no way the show could have filmed Anna’s scene in the square with the kind of depth and care taken in the first season’s episodes where Belters protested, rioted, and violently occupied corporate mining stations. As it’s not easily produced as good television, protests like what’s shown above are meant more symbolically than literally that all is not well on Earth. The political maneuvering by Errinwright and Avasarala has had consequences, especially with the terrifying events of Eros and Venus, and the ongoing war with Mars. The people are pissed off and are showing up in droves to show the government how angry they are.
It won’t change anything, though. The Expanse is driven by the need to explore the adventures of its merry band of heroes fighting villains, and perforce that means most of the rest of the universe’s population of people become vague characters known by their planetary origin – Martians, Earthers, or Belters. Their grievances against States cannot fit into 40 minutes of show a week, with the level of detail previous episodes and seasons have shown.
The other reason why this kind of disorder doesn’t fit is that it threatens the very foundation upon which the show is made and how we consume it. The show, from the people who write it, to the crew that shoots it, to the actors who say the lines, will always be on the sidelines watching protests confront the State. Television producers discuss wealth and its distribution within their industry constantly in Toronto, making it clear that the flowing of funds to them — which provides employment and results in cultural products — is precarious enough without the disruption that mass resistance creates. Like most culture produced within capitalism’s mass distribution networks, The Expanse will not tell us stories that fundamentally challenge how we distribute resources amongst ourselves and present clear alternatives in unambiguous language. Any kind of mass resistance in the world of The Expanse must therefore fail but remain a clear and present danger when called upon.
The Expanse trades in the symbols of that resistance confronting the armed agents of the State for the cachet they deliver from viewing audiences. From the diversity of the protesters (hey-o, Toronto official slogan “Diversity Is Our Strength”), to bodies spilling over a barricade, to the outrageous premise that Anna’s strong will and righteous fury will convince Michael the riot cop to take the injured protester to a UN medic’s station: these are all the important symbols and plot beats that frame the conflict Anna struggles with for the rest of this episode. She exclaims in a different argument with Sorrento-Gillis later that there is an entire testament of the Christian bible that contradicts the older kind of moral framework the Secretary General is justifying his actions within. It contributes to the narrative voice of the show, and its supposed location on the sidelines, apart from the moral dilemma Anna faces.
As an aside, I’ll be surprised if Anna actually does help Sorrento-Gillis change anything substantively. Even introducing her earlier than the place in the books where we meet her (an Expanse tradition, it seems), there’s hardly time before she has to move on to dealing with a behemoth of a challenge. Anna’s values of justice and helping the poor and needy are given bona fides from her earlier efforts at the protest, but her conflict with her old friend the Secretary General won’t have an outcome worth the effort of writing, shooting, and showing the protest. The cachet that scene delivers is really intended to justify the show with a consistent and coherent ideology.
Fighting City Hall sometimes means fighting Metro Hall. Shooting anything in this plaza is bound to trigger some unpleasant memories about trash removal, a bad neighbour, or parking. Even if Toronto ever were New York run by the Swiss, arranging parking for television productions would still be a nightmare. That the show shoots the protest scene in "IFF" as if it were observing the events while waiting in line for a parking licence or something makes it clear to the viewer that these symbols are absolutely necessary.
Anna’s not going to change anything for the people of Earth based on the demands on their placards. She won’t remain a foe of the administration for long, as she has plot to advance later. She has to care for an injured protester because it gives her a reason to be there, and to be elsewhere later. The show doesn’t have time for the protesters’ stories, nor can it genuinely express a coherent and unambiguous program for change. We’re watching her because she’s one of us, on the other side of the fence from the disorder the mob threatens.