Quick, name the last great science fiction TV show you’ve seen. HBO’s Westworld might count, though that’s almost as much western as it is sci-fi. Orphan Black and Black Mirror have some of sci-fi elements, sure, but they aren’t quite representative of the genre. You may have to go all the way back to Battlestar Galactica, which went off the air in 2009, to find a show that’s done for sci-fi what Game of Thrones has done for fantasy or The Walking Dead has done for horror.
But here’s the thing: There is a great science fiction show currently airing new episodes Wednesday nights on SyFy. You’re just not watching it. It’s called The Expanse. And it deserves your attention ASAP.
James S.A. Corey’s popular series of space novels was first conceived as an online RPG. (Corey is, in fact, a shared pseudonym for authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.) Surprisingly, this plays to the show’s advantage: The detailed background required for a video game gave TV writers Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby (who co-wrote Children of Men) a vast storytelling universe with which to play when it came to adapting the novels. Set 200 years from now, the show imagines a future in which tensions arise between our planet and a colonized Mars; a ring of blue-collar space stations called “The Belt” houses the solar system’s lowest social class. A distress signal leads to the mysterious destruction of a ship, stranding Captain Jim Holden (Steven Strait) and his ragtag crew in deep space. Meanwhile, a Deckard-esque police detective named Josephus Miller (Thomas Jane) becomes obsessed with a missing girl named Julie Mao, who may be the key to understanding an escalating cosmic Cold War.
Over the course of The Expanse‘s first season, which started running in late 2015, three main narratives unfolded: the investigative arc; the ship’s crew caught between warring space factions; and the political machinations of those in power on Earth and Mars, headed by the savvy U.N. leader Chrisjen Avasarala (Shoreh Aghdashloo). A little bit of Blade Runner, a pinch of Firefly, some BSG sprinkles here and there – the formula worked. When the show returned for its second season in early February of this year, it expanded its scope, introducing a rebellious Martian soldier Bobbie Draper (Frankie Adams) and further broadening the first season’s conspiracy theories and interplanetary espionage aspects.
Even more remarkably, the show has found a way to be politically relevant to the current moment without depressingly reminding you of the state of our nation. There’s no #FakeNews subplot (yet), but The Expanse has a facility for sliding between the political machinations of those in power and the people impacted by these interstellar political decisions. A two-party – sorry, two-planet – system that divides those caught in the middle? Sound familiar? And it’s no coincidence that Bobbie regularly refers to Earth soldiers as ” Blues,” while she’s from the ” Red” planet. (Aren’t we all Belters, caught between the “Blues” and “Reds” of 2017?)
In other words, this is not a Star Trek exploration saga about discovering new aliens every week – it’s the story of real people fighting for their small corner of the universe day after day. (A world where water is scarce and air is rationed isn’t that hard to envision right now.) And that focus on human behavior allows the show to explore issues like empathy, martyrdom, poverty and how fear can dictate one’s actions. At its core, The Expanse is all about people responding to fear – fear of the other, fear of the new, fear of inequality, fear of death.
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With all these grander issues in mind, the show wouldn’t work if we didn’t care about the characters, and it’s Captain Holden’s crew that resonates most of all. Strait makes for a good square-jawed leader, but most people would probably follow engineer Naomi Nagata (Dominique Tipper), pilot Alex Kamal (Cas Anvar) or scene-stealer Amos Burton (Wes Chatham) into battle just as willingly. In particular, these characters have been allowed to loosen up as the series progresses – they have been given sex lives, moral dilemmas and individual arcs that make them, and the world around them, refreshingly three-dimensional. And this is a show with real stakes, allowing “good guys” to kill people when they need to and showing a willingness to ice a familiar face or two, particularly in a shocking, Red Wedding-caliber turn of events in Season Two. There are no red shirts here. Everyone is expendable. Everyone is putting their life at risk.
As with a lot of science fiction, The Expanse could stand to take itself less seriously now and then, and its latest run of episodes has also lost some of its noir-ish charm from the first season. However, its willingness to mix up tones, and even its protagonists, has been laudable. The writers have reached a point where you can tell they feel completely confident in the world they’ve created and can do whatever they choose within it. Political intrigue, likable characters, detailed world-building, expensive action – why isn’t The Expanse a mainstream hit? Hopefully, between now and the upcoming third season, which Syfy has thankfully greenlit in an act of good faith, the buzz will continue to build and the show will start to get the audience it deserves. Mars needs viewers, people. The Belt is counting on you.