– By Paulie Spiceflow –
SPOILER WARNING: Season 2 Finale of The Expanse
Another great sci-fi show finished its second season to minimal fanfare. The first show, Humans, is arguably one of the best AI shows of all time but doesn’t seem to be on the radar of many sci-fi fans outside of the UK. The Expanse, an American space opera on SyFy, is something fans have been begging for yet aren’t watching. For a while it looked like it was going to be yet another sci-fi show fans love after it was cancelled (Luckily, SyFy renewed it for season 3). There is a lesson here and we need to pay attention before it is too late.
Despite critical praise, The Expanse ratings have remained low. The question is why? The second season brought us an epic race to destroy the protomolecule on Eros, some fascinating political intrigue, excellent production values, and strong performances from a strong cast. War between Earth and Mars was averted thanks to the work of Chrisjen Avasarala and Sergeant Draper. Plus we learned about the first generation protomolecule weapon, a monster that can survive in space without a vac-suit.
Is that not enough nerd awesomeness?
A Cold War in Space
The Earth/Mars dynamic evolved into a metaphor for the Cold War. It is not an ideological conflict or one where viewers can clearly identify the “good guys” and the “bad guys.” The metaphor fits any bipolar system where two great powers are in competition for dominance. This Cold War in space has military confrontrations, espionage, tense peace conferences, secret weapons programs, and defectors.
In some ways, it is relevant to the growing tension between the U.S. and Russia today, but for the most part the Cold War angle is a little obsolete. The other political angle, one that is not dated, is the perspective of the non-aligned worlds: the Belters. The Belters are essentially equivalent to all the small countries that were caught up in the Cold War. Countries like Korea, Vietnam, Guatemala, Egypt, Turkey, and China (before it became a world power) suffered because of someone else’s great power rivalry.
The show has room to grow in this area. The Belters are an interesting bunch complete with cyberpunk looks, bizarre accent, and distinctive culture. They give some color and dynamism to the more conventional bipolar power struggle. The Belt also possesses the most interesting characters including Fred Johnson, Anderson Dawes, Drummer, and of course the crew of the Rocinante.
Blue Glowy Monster
When the protomolecule creature made its first appearance, I was disappointed. The Expanse has a pretty healthy production budget but they decided to go cheap with their blue, glowy monster. The protomolecule looks like it came from the imagination of an EDM clubber who had seen Avatar too many times. An alien organic substance, designed to give you the greatest visuals and auditory hallucinations. Come on, really?
The idea of an alien protomolecule being at the center of an interplanetary conflict is pretty cool but its physical appearance has been a bit of a let down. It stretches the suspension of belief when an alien can take any form it desires without any scientific rhyme or reason to its nature (i.e. Prometheus). The series has set up an organic substance that appears capable of bending laws of physics to the point that it may as well be magic.
Science fiction usually demands a little more from its speculative technology. I am also not too psyched about watching a glowy molecule arms race. Maybe the show shifts to a human-unifying political angle, where the three factions are united by the protomolecule threat. That is a pretty successful trope and sit nicely in the space opera/futurist subgenre.
The Crew of the Rocinante
Science fiction TV needs a human element. Futuristic settings and big production budgets is not enough. The characters are what elevates a show past the campy nonsense that gives the genre a bad image. The Expanse has the Rocinante: Jim Holden, Naomi Nakata, Alex Kamal, and Amos Burton.
Holden is the overly-idealistic leader who is constantly putting his crew in the center of interplanetary politics. He is pretty irritating at times and has had moments that are out of character, but overall a solid main character. Naomi has evolved into an idealist as well and Holden’s new girlfriend. The romance and inevitable conflict between Holden and Naomi was compelling by itself but has gradually separated them from the dynamics of the rest of the crew.
Alex Kamal’s former Martian patriotism is surfacing even as he becomes a Belter celebrity. His “odd couple” friendship with Amos was a cool side plot but vanished from the last few episodes. Amos is struggling with his violent nature, questions about his lack of empathy, and the complicated feelings he has for his crewmates. Naomi is like a older sister figure to him yet she largely withdrew from that role in season 2. Alex is getting to know his troubled crewmate and there were some very cool scenes with them but then it had to be tabled in favor of Holden’s obsessive pursuit of the protomolecule and Avasrala political intrigue.
The show needs to continue developing the Rocinante crew dynamic and stop dividing them into Holden-Naomi and Alex-Amos. There are some other potential dynamics here that should be fleshed out.
Why Don’t We Watch?
How many science fiction shows have fallen, only to become cult classics years later? Firefly, Farscape, and Stargate: Universe still capture the imagination of fans years after the last episode aired. The Expanse was almost added to that list. I am willing to bet that if it was cancelled after two seasons, it would join the ranks of cult classics. There’d be a fan-driven campaign to resurrect the show years later…maybe.
Why is it that fans cannot bring themselves to watch these great sci-fi shows when they are actually on TV?
One theory: networks are naturally skeptical of science fiction and do not give the shows a fair chance. They do not spend much money promoting them, put them in bad time slots then cancel them prematurely. That may be true in some cases but that doesn’t explain the mediocre ratings of The Expanse, which just finished its second season. How much time does a show need?
Others say fans are too skeptical and resistant to giving new shows a chance. They prefer watching new episodes from their favorites, or re-watching classics. As a fan myself, I must say I am guilty of this from time to time. Once a fan has a favorite, they dive deep into the material, memorizing lines and technical details. That doesn’t leave much time to watch new shows.
A Weakness of Geek Culture?
Many geeks are known to be more exclusionary, using terms like noob, poser, or other slurs to divide the real fans from the casual or fake ones. Some geeks are all too eager to point out something, or someone, doesn’t belong.
Conventions have had issues being welcoming environments for new fans, in particular female fans. Stories of sexual harassment and lack of response from convention organizers have given the convention circuit a black eye. Rather than welcome new members to its fandom, some seem fearful that they are losing control of their exclusive clique.
It is possible that attitude extends to new TV franchises, new stories, and new characters. They don’t like newbies encroaching on Picard’s territory.
Maybe its Healthy Skepticism…
There is one additional theory I would offer: fans are naturally skeptical in general. Science is a all about skepticism and evidence. A new hypothesis must prove itself before being accepted by the scientific community. It is the same with new shows. Fans need evidence… perhaps a little too much.
They analyze, critique, and downgrade works in their own genre careful that nothing challenges the classics (proven and accepted hypotheses) for primacy without paying their dues. This conservative nature causes them to be slow to recognize greatness in new shows.
It sounds contradictory since most science fiction is about the future or the new. Yet it seems as a group, we are tough, conservative critics. If you compare the reader ratings of new sci-fi novels to new fantasy novels, you’ll see the difference. While top fantasy novels almost always average well above 4 stars, many bestselling sci-fi novels average below 4 stars. Some of the classics are close to 3.5 stars.
The realities of television make it problematic for sci-fi geeks to maintain their skeptical ways. Science may involve skepticism and a demand for evidence but it is also open to new ideas. In order for scientific knowledge to advance, scientists must allow new hypotheses the chance to be tested and proven. Today, many fans simply are not giving new hypotheses a chance. As a result, the genre is poorly represented on television (unless you count the thirty or forty Marvel properties, but I don’t count them and you shouldn’t either).
If we want real science fiction to have a bigger presence, we need to stop watching Star Trek reruns and give some of these new shows a chance.
Paulie Spiceflow is a regular contributor, movie reviewer and unbelievable smart ass. He prides himself on his excessive knowledge of movies, TV, books, internet memes, and pop cultural references. During college, he spent minimal hours studying but took full-advantage of the free internet and lack of bills to broaden his knowledge in numerous genres including spoof comedy, fantasy, Shakespeare, military history, zombies, and cartoons.