The Expanse: Forget Star Trek and Watch This Show

I’ll admit I used to be a Trekkie. I grew up watching reruns of Star Trek and had a Starship Enterprise model hanging from my bedroom ceiling. When the movies came out I saw them in the theater. When Star Trek Next Generation came out, I loved the show so much that the Wife’s father taped it and sent us VHS episodes to us in Japan. I even followed the spin-off Deep Space Nine.

But then it became a bit repetitive. I never got into Voyager with Captain Janeway sounding too much like a dalek. And the remakes? I’ve skipped them. I even hear there’s yet another Star Trek themed show destined for TV. My first question: Why?

My first literary love was SF. In my teens I devoured writers like Ben Bova, Harlan Ellison and Ray Bradbury. I subscribed to the long defunct OMNI magazine which lit my imagination like no other magazine. I learned that there is a lot of good science fiction out there with universes as detailed and inviting as anything imagined in Star Trek. Think I’m wrong? Go read Larry Niven’s Ringworld series and get back to me in a few years.

So I had pretty much given up on science fiction TV even though there is a whole cable network devoted to it.

Then my wife made me sit through the pilot of The Expanse, and the only thing left to decide was where to put an OPA tattoo.

Detective Miller wonders where he lost his hat.

This series is good. Really good. So good I haven’t felt this excited about a show since the second season of Star Trek Next Generation when it began to get interesting. There are great writeups on this show. See here. Here. And here. Why do I like this show?

It’s realistic. When a single threat blows up in space it becomes a threat of a million little pieces. Physics is a harsh mistress, and that enemy ship speeding towards you that you’ve just hit with a rail gun? Well guess what? Now the remains of that ship are punching holes in yours.

It’s well written. The wife and I have seen a lot of good television over our combined 110 years. We’re also very well read. So it takes a lot to surprise us. Well, actually, let me dial that back and say it takes good writing to surprise us, and The Expanse is good writing. It’s unpredictable but not completely chaotic with threads that pass through the episodes and tie the series together in a very well-written ball.

The UN Sucks. Well I am an anti-UN conservative and the portrayal of the UN as world government of an earth where the haves live on the moon and the havenots live in the streets of the cities is poetic justice. Oh and they can’t blame the Republicans because they’ve all gone to Mars.

The Universe is incredibly detailed. The belters, the people living and extracting wealth for Earth and Mars, speak a language that is about what you would expect for a multi-ethnic group of people living together in the asteroid belt. The language has its roots in English but follows the development of creole languages and is carefully constructed. Even the gestures are a mix of Japanese, Indian and other ethnicities. Life in the belt is very Blade Runner-esque, which is a good thing given how great that movie is. Even detective Miller, one of the main characters, wears a fedora just like Gaff.

The future is limitless. The Expanse is based on a series of books by James S. A. Corey, and has only touched on the story in books 2 and 3. There is no limit to where it can go, whereas Star Trek will always be constrained by previous series and movies. A new Star Trek show brings not only the baggage of its audience’s expectations, but the limits of the stories told in its universe. Star Trek Voyager attempted to go beyond that by being teleported to the other side of the universe, but in the end it gave in to temptation and made it back to the Federation. This show has no such limits, and with a new series its audience’s baggage is a small carry-on that can be safely stowed under the seat in front of you. Which leads me to…

It’s fresh. The Earth vs Mars vs the Belt. All three groups are battling to stay alive and independent. Mars dreams of terraforming the planet and his held back by an agreement with Earth. The Belt sees Mars and Earth take and take and give little back in return. No wonder the OPA, the belter resistance movement, flourishes under these conditions.

And it even has a sense of humor. Mormons in Space. Enough said.

The Mormon Interstellar Ship Nauvoo

Oh and Mythbusters’ Adam Savage shows up in the season 2 finale in a bit role. How cool is that?

There is good science fiction around these days, and it’s about time that TV reflected it. We need more shows like The Expanse (and we also need more seasons of it too. So far we’ve only been promised season 3), not another retread of Star Trek. 50 years is enough for that show, let it live on in our collective nostalgia. Instead lets see strange new worlds and boldly go where no TV show has gone before.

Make it so, SyFy Channel. Make it so!

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  1. Jack:

    I’ve greatly enjoyed The Expanse but have found myself wondering what makes it science fiction.

    SF should pose some sort of question such as how would some great technological breakthrough affect our lives? What about contact with extraterrestrial life? Time travel, etc. You need more than just moving class warfare, military conflicts, and political intrigue off-world to make it SF. Using Earth vs. Mars vs. the asteroid belt in place of the United States vs. some other country is certainly fun but what is it saying about the human condition? That no matter when and where events take place humans behave exactly the same? Is that all? It is nice that they try to stay true to space physics, I’ll certainly give them that.

    You mention Blade Runner. That was a story about what happens if technology becomes so great that we can make artificial human beings that are completely self-aware with the full range of emotions. Can they truly be property? Are they slaves? That question was telegraphed in the very title of the Philip K. Dick story it’s based on: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Think about it. It’s a title that poses a question.

    Same with Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradbury, and the better episodes of Star Trek and ST:TNG. Sometimes those shows forgot their purpose and they just slipped into military conflicts and politics. Deep Space 9 completely forgot it was SF. As did the subsequent Trek series for the most part. And the reboot films. I love Larry Niven but he too oftentimes just moved murder mysteries and military conflicts that could be done in present day into the future and into space. Again, I greatly enjoyed many of his novels and short stories but was far more moved when the SF elements sent the story in an unexpected direction.

    One of my favorite novels is The Forever War by Joe Haldeman. It dealt with fighting a war while traveling at relativistic speeds. You might go off to a battle only to return and find your fellow soldiers, that were about the same age when you left, are now 10 years older than you. Or 20. Or 30. And when the war is finally over, maybe hundreds or thousands of years have passed on Earth. Now that’s a f**king science fiction story! đŸ™‚

    That being said, I do greatly enjoy The Expanse!

    The Man in The High Castle and The Handmaid’s Tale are very good too. You should check those out.

  2. Scott Kirwin:

    I agree with you that a lot of SF simply takes current-day issues and strsps jet packs on them to make them SF. I think that’s an established subgenre of the field that allows for examination and introspection. The perfect example of this was the episode of Star Trek, “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” with the different colored faces. But I get your point that it should do more.

    In the Expanse there is the “protomolecule.” In one of the early episodes I thought the characters suggested that it may have been targeted at Earth to perhaps wipe out life, but accidentally smashed into the Mars asteroid. So there is definitely an ET out there. Hopefully the show will survive long enough to explore that more.

  3. Jack:

    One of the things that is amazing with today’s television science fiction is the incredible attention to detail in the production design and lighting. In the past, that detail was reserved for feature films whereas TV sci-fi often looked as though it was on a set. Today, you truly feel transported to another place and time. And the advance in digital effects makes the world seamless.

    Great topic! Thanks for posting!

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