By Isaac Butler
(This will contain spoilers for The Expanse)
The Syfy network has made some big bets for scripted television this season, and at least one of them, The Expanse, has paid off and then some. What started as an unevenly acted show that cared about plot at the expense of all else has evolved over its ten episodes into an unevenly acted but riveting thriller of interplanetary intrigue. Which is why it’s so odd to read a rave review of it based on the idea that it is good because it “really, truly doesn't feel like sci-fi”:
"The Expanse" is the best sort of future-set sci-fi — the kind that you can believe, all too easily, would evolve out of our present. At some point in the 23rd century, the smart phones look fancier but their screens still crack. There are people in straight relationships and gay relationships and group marriages. There are still Mormons, who are preparing for a whole new level of mission. The rich live well. The poor struggle. It's not "Star Trek" — there's no grand glorious yet vague cause to which our heroes have devoted themselves. Survival is what matters.
Setting aside that the “cause” in each of Star Trek’s shows is specific and explicitly articulated, there’s two assumptions baked in here that are worth unpacking. The first is that science fiction doesn’t normally involve real-feeling people having the same problems that we would have today. Even ignoring shows like Almost Human or Fringe or, screw it, even Alien Nation or Quantum Leap and just focusing on Space Operas, this only really holds for Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation while Gene Rodenberry was still alive. Rodenberry’s utopian vision of the future included a resource abundant universe in which we had transcended most interpersonal problems. That is definitely a creative world-building choice worth unpacking and critiquing, but it’s not a genre rule of science fiction, even on television. The best of Rodenberry-era Trek always found a way around both of these things anyway. After Rodenberry’s death, the possibilities for inter-character conflict opened up, changing the nature of the Trek universes. Deep Space Nine often includes drama between a widower and his teen-aged son. “Survival is what matters” could be the logline for Voyager. Picard has problems with his brother and family traditions back on Earth. There are love triangles.
Ronald D. Moore, who wrote for The Next Generation and went on to be the showrunner for Deep Space Nine of course later created the remake of Battlestar: Galactica, a series where plenty of things “still crack,” (there aren't even networked computers!) where “on the personal level, things are equally intense” even as killer monotheistic robots from outer space try to exterminate polytheistic humans. That Universe didn’t really feel like ours (it turned out to be our past in the finale), but this gets us to another assumption: that for some reason a science fiction universe that could believably flow from our current present is somehow preferable. Or, in fact, “best.” This is arguable—in fact, a piece arguing that would be way more interesting—but I’d still end up disagreeing. Battlestar’s other-dimensional setting allowed it to be the most powerful television contemplation and critique of the war-in-and-occupation-of-Iraq, and it was amongst the most philosophically minded shows ever made. Firefly’s universe supposedly flowed from ours, but what made it work was the mashup of Western and Space Opera laced through with Whedon’s trademark wit.
The Expanse might not feel like science fiction to reviewer Liz Shannon Miller but it is a straight up classic Space Opera, and contains many of the genres hallmarks: interplanetary intrigue, laser blasters, zero-g sequences, first encounter narratives, and asteroid belt miners. On a structural level, it also follows its sub-genre's directives by cooking up a deliciously derivative stew of tropes from other genres and its predecessors. The ship whose captain’s motives are unclear that might turn a cold war hot? That’s The Hunt for Red October. Setting a cold war submarine movie in space? That’s Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. The alcoholic detective who starts rediscovering himself while searching for a lost girl? That’s the plot of dozens of hardboiled novels, films, and tv shows. Marrying the hardboiled detective to a science fiction setting? That’s Blade Runner. Belters, and intrigue amongst same? Look no further than the novels of Larry Niven, who coined the term. A deadly alien life form intentionally unleashed on civilians? That’s Aliens. Religious fanatics doing it? That’s Dead Space. What we know of those fanatics’ backstory? Essentially Event Horizon.
To Miller, this integration is about the creators of the show and their desire to “move things forward for the genre,” on television. But this kind of remixing is what science fiction (and particularly Space Opera) have always done. It's part of what makes Space Opera so wonderful when it works. They’ve even already done it on television in Firefly and Battlestar. Firefly was for the most part a western in space, but like The Expanse it featured interplanetary intrigue over a missing girl and a cast of space truck drivers. Battlestar even had a disastrous one-off where Lee Adama essentially becomes Sam Spade. While I agree with the review that it’s exciting “when we don't shove genres into boxes,” because we can “let them evolve into something new,” the only one shoving anything into a box here is its writer. If we should really “reevaluate the importance of genre” (which I’d love to do), premising your whole review on something being good because it “doesn’t feel like sci-fi” is an odd way to go about it.