The Expanse returns to television tonight with season 2; and even though it’s not much of a season (only 5 episodes are listed on Wiki), I find myself looking forward to it with mixed emotions. (Some season 1 spoilers follow.)
Part of me is dying to see the Expanse universe, one of the most realistic depictions of life in a space-borne future that television has ever seen. This world, in which we have colonized Mars and the asteroids, features low- and zero-gravity environments, locations that aren’t a few hours apart by “warp drive” or somesuch miraculous propulsion system, multiple classes of workers, freedom fighters with feet of well-worn clay, and (to kick off the series) a cop sent to track down a rich man’s daughter… only to discover that she has died through exposure to a strange life-form, a virus from another solar system somewhere.
I really enjoy the characters in The Expanse, as well: They are very well-rounded and believable. Though some of them struggle with the heady concepts being batted around in the series, they still feel like real people who are in way over their heads. The series does unfortunately have what I call Millennialitis… that is, few of the cast look over 30, including most of the leads, who were specified in the book to be older. But I don’t think it adversely affects the production.
And speaking of the production: It’s gorgeous, it’s awesome, it’s hard to stop staring at it until my eyes start to bleed. Everything from the homes to the space ships look incredible, and the special effects are impeccable. Since the movie Metropolis, we’ve had 90 years of special and model effects to build on; The Expanse has delivered one of the best-looking SF shows ever.
If I have a problem with anything, it’s the tropes; they’re so… tropey. To begin with, the idea that Earth, Mars and the asteroids are trade partners, but all opposed to the other and fighting for domination, and about to go to war over their differences. I mean, I get fundamental differences to be worked out, but it seems you just can’t put people on separate planetary bodies, space stations, whatever, and not have a war break out sooner or later. And so much of it is based on labor issues in the asteroids… a place where I’d expect automation to be doing the lion’s share of everything, which begs the question: What are all those people even doing out there?
The next trope is the alien virus that starts up the story. And it’s not the part about its having unexpectedly shown up and killed someone. No: It’s the inevitable conspiracy that quickly grows around it, fomented by a corporation that wants control over this virus they know nothing about. And that the corporation is your stereotypical EVIL corporation… so evil that it traps thousands of people on an asteroid station with the virus, then floods the entire station with radiation, killing the people and giving the virus food to grow on. And so we end up, at the very end of season 1, with—the most egregious trope of all—the giant mysterious alien Cthulhu with an appetite for human flesh. So tropey. So millennial, so video-gamey. So sci-fi space opera-y.
Now, I read The Expanse before I saw it on Syfy. Based on what I’d heard, and the way the book started out, I was expecting a very realistic and reasonable SF story out of the book… but that left turn it took with the alien life form at the end kinda threw me. Once I’d finished, I was very undecided about reading more because of the tropes I’ve described. Even so, I did enjoy season 1, even knowing how it was going to play out… but I choked on that last scene, the one where a human gets grabbed by weird arm-tentacles and pulled up into the nether reaches of the station where the alien lives. I thought: “I was really hoping they weren’t gonna go there.”
But there they went, and ended season 1 on that cliffhanger. Again, I do plan to watch the next five episodes of The Expanse… this time, without having read the rest of the books and knowing where the story is going. I’ve lowered my expectations a tad, in order to not freak out over space-Cthulhu in this nice, tropey-but-mostly-realistic SF story. And I’ll admit, part of me would just like to see more scenes like this:
Hey, a guy can hope.