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[investigatory synth music]

The joy of non-diegetic subtitles

This is a screenshot from the third episode of the fourth and current season of The Expanse. That’s Amos, one of the series’ main characters, with his back to the screen, surveying the wreckage of a spacecraft that came hurtling down to this questionably habitable planet at the opening of episode one. We already know something is amiss, and if you’ve read Cibola Burn, the book on which this season is largely based, you know the anger and heartbreak yet to come.

As is often the case, mere note symbols aren’t used in the subtitles to signal what the score, by Clinton Shorter (District 9, Colony), is offering up in terms of emotion and narrative. Here, even the standard “[moody music]” apparently wouldn’t do. At some point along the production Gantt chart, someone wrote and presumably someone else approved a description, “[investigatory synth music],” that is so literal (the characters are, indeed, investigating, and the music is, indeed, quite evidently performed on synthesizers) that it transcends its own literalness and suggests a whole new genre. (One that would retroactively include, for example, the entire run of The X-Files.)

The moment also reminded me of a comment by one of the two writers who, under the shared pseudonym James S.A. Corey, write the Expanse books and collaborate on their translation from page to screen. This is Ty Franck speaking, and the Daniel is Daniel Abraham, Franck’s co-author: “I know Daniel had a real epiphany when he realized that all the prose tricks to convey the emotional state of a scene could be replaced with a good musical score. And I love finding ways to lay a scene out for the camera instead of a reader. Cameras are very literal. It’s a completely different way to think of story.”

By Marc Weidenbaum

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