— By Carly Twehous —
Let’s be honest. There hasn’t been any decent science fiction on American television since the penultimate episode of Star Trek: Enterprise — I’m still pretending that the last episode never happened — that aired way back in 2005. That’s going on twelve years, for all you math whizzes out there.
An argument can be made for Stargate: Atlantis and Universe, but, if we’re being frank, Stargate peeked with SG1 way back in the late 90’s and, although the spin-off shows had a semi-loyal cult following, they never really amounted to the success of other, more groundbreaking milestones in the history of American science fiction television.
Doctor Who, of course, is a shining example of brilliant science fiction storytelling, but with the combined advantage of British accents, Matt Smith, fifty years of history, and the occasional episode written by the great and ineffable, Neil Gaiman, it must stand in a category completely by itself and separate from that of syndicated American television.
Finally, all indications are that Westworld may certainly be a beacon of hope for a brighter future of the genre, but it is of a more dystopian-Bizzaro-Earth flavor of science fiction, rather than the exploratory optimism of Star Trek and Firefly that I—and many other nerds—fell in love with in the first place.
Long story short, I’ve been starved of good science fiction for more than a decade. Following several re-watches of the entirety of Star Trek (horrible odd-numbered movies included), a reminder of the tragic single season of Firefly, and the horrible fact that Netflix removed Doctor Who, I was going into withdrawals. My days were numbered.
That is, of course, until I remembered I had an Amazon Prime account and finally figured out how to utilize the streaming service.
The Expanse is everything that made me fall in love with science fiction. Eugenics, class struggles, politics, broken families, bounty hunters, and the overwhelming urge to retain humanity, even when the tenants of assumed morality are severely thrown into question. Suddenly, I was that little kid in the unfinished basement, drawn down the stairs by the echoes of the mysteriously beautiful and adventuring-promising theme-song of Star Trek: Enterprise, who plopped herself in front of the TV and made her father explain what a Kling-on was doing in Broken Bow, Oklahoma.
The premise? Distant future. Earth’s population grew to the point of necessary expansion. They colonized the moon and Mars. They set up a base in the asteroid belt to mine necessary materials to fuel the empire. Except, after a few generations, Mars declared independence from Earth. There was a war, a shaky peace treaty, and now, an unspoken war of sabotage, bounty hunters, and political unrest.
The “Belters” remained independent from both and loyal only to themselves. Biologically, they’re human, but physically, they’ve evolved in low-gravity and with limited resources for generations, which means elongated limbs, bone grafts, and an entire language of their own. They are the outcasts, the Bohemians, the Rebel Alliance. Of course, the audience loves them instantly.
The pilot introduces us to our ensemble cast: Jim Holden, our moral compass and reluctant second-in-command of an ice freighter returning from the expanse beyond Jupiter; Josephus Miller, the police detective and morally ambiguous occasional gun-for-hire, who was born and raised in the Belt; Chrisjen Avasarala, our Earth-based, almost-certainly-corrupt United Nations representative, who willingly tortures a Belter in her very first scene.
The plot? The Martians are tired of this cold-war-and-political-sabotage thing they have with Earth and are willing and able to orchestrate a full-scale, intergalactic war with the help of Belter terrorists.
I was convinced that Hollywood forgot how to make science fiction. They traded amazing and iconic characters in for two-dimensional, jargon-spewing morons, in the hopes that amazing premises would hide how much the audience doesn’t care for the supposed heroes. Themes of optimism and exploration and dubious morality were traded in for dystopian settings with absolutely no hope for the future that liked to pretend the world was just black and white. Aliens were replaced with AI that got too smart and stupid, love-struck teenagers replaced the icons like Han Solo and Captain Kirk.
It’s been a long twelve years.
Science fiction is supposed to be a reflection of the present, portrayed in the future, with enough optimism laced in so that we can make it through these trying times to the moment of First Contact. In a basic sense, it teaches us morality in ridiculous situations, but demands that we ask ourselves these questions nonetheless. Ultimately, it’s about maintaining humanity, even in the harshest conditions, even when its torn away.
Science fiction is that little zing of wonder and nostalgia that always begins with the words, “Space: The final frontier…”
If I had forgone my Christmas presents for this whole more-than-a-decade without decent science fiction, with the intent of the retroactive satisfaction of Santa one day—say twelve years down the road—delivering me a masterfully written science fiction story with all of the best tenants of the genre in order to make up for the years of crappy content, withdrawal symptoms, and one-hundred thousand re-watches of Star Trek…
Well, Merry Christmas, Carly. Here’s The Expanse.