Posts Tagged ‘ sci-fi connoisseur ’

The Expanse is the Best Space Opera. Full Stop.

This week brought the dreaded news that the SyFy channel would not be picking up the series adaptation of The Expanse novels for a fourth season. The move was not quite shocking, but still somewhat of a surprise. The show’s productions values are top notch and not cheap, so the fact that it has not garnered a broad fan base like Game of Thrones made its future uncertain. But the universal critical acclaim seemed to suggest that SyFy would want to keep it around for bragging rights, if nothing else.

In the glory days of the SciFi network (before the questionable and to many, odious name change) the network took a similar gamble on an expensive critical darling that never really had the viewership to justify its budget but was a flagship for what the network wanted to be–before it decided to be the home of craptacular fare like Sharknado. Battlestar Galactica was part of the early wave of revitalizations and everything-old-is-new-again fervor that has gripped Hollywood throughout the twenty-first century. The show took name recognition and the outline of the original series’s concept and created a “gritty” and “philosophical” version of a pulp sci-fi dud from the 70s.

It worked and the network spun the long-running show into a prestige piece with a dedicated fan base that still argues for the series as one of the best sci-fi shows of all time.

Here’s the thing, though: The Expanse is better and will continue to be better than Battlestar Galactica.

Early in its life, the remade Battlestar Galactica (BSG to aficionados) promised its viewers that its nefarious android antagonists had “a plan.” But the producers and writers have since admitted that they included that bit in the show’s crawl simply because it sounded cool. Not only did the Cylons not have a plan, neither did the show runners.

The series sometimes raced and other times lurched through a thinky, but often incoherent exploration of man’s relationship to technology and the age-old question science fiction never gets tired of reheating: what does it mean to be human? Along the way there were some great characters rendered in fantastic performances (often having to overcome inconsistent writing) and some truly intolerable ones (looking at you, Apollo).

Many a science fiction series has waded through such unevenness. Star Trek: the Next Generation‘s first season is unwatchable today and rarely suggests the heights the show would someday reach. It’s natural enough for a series to take its time to find its footing.

It would be easy to look at the first few episodes of The Expanse and think that’s what was happening, but the pacing is not a sign of uncertainty, but confidence. The Expanse rewards patience as it builds its world and its characters. Now, in the third season, the complexity of that world and the investment in those characters is paying off in a tense conflict of epic scale.

But that conflict is only prelude to what’s coming.

Many other science fiction and fantasy shows struggle with endings just as much as many flail about for sure footing at the beginning. One only has to look back at the last few seasons of the X-files (to say nothing of the disastrous rebooted seasons) to see how a lack of “a plan” can be disastrous to a show built on mystery and intrigue. The same could be argued of Lost and, if last season was any indication, may taint the denouement of Game of Thrones.

But fans of The Expanse novels have no fear for that outcome. We know the shape of many things to come and they are earth-shatteringly awesome.  Fans like me aren’t worried by this (hopefully momentary) cancellation because it means we won’t ever know what happens in the story. What we’re afraid of is being deprived of the cinematic rendering of that story that we know it so richly deserves.

Hopefully, that won’t come to pass. Hopefully, the press swirling around the cancellation–every article I read reiterates that SyFy’s move is either a crying shame or down right tragic–will find it a new home at Netflix or Hulu and the Cinderella story will inspire more people to watch it.

It is a show that deserves viewers, but more than that, it is the space opera the Golden Age of Television deserves.

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In Praise of The Expanse

I just can’t say enough good things about this TV show…or the books it’s based on.

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Now, I don’t usually read for fun. I read. I read a lot. But I’m usually reading stuff that makes me feel superior and justifies my general snootiness toward others. Yeah, I’m a book snob.

But somehow, somewhere, sometime, I started reading Leviathan Wakes. It was a quick, light read and I enjoyed it as a diversion that didn’t make feel guilty the way certain other pass times do.

Then, I picked up the sequel.

Then the next book. And the next.

By the time I devoured the most recent novel a few months back, I was thoroughly in love with the world of The Expanse and was fascinated when I heard a TV show based on the series was coming to SyFy–which hasn’t had much in the way of a decent science fiction show since Battlestar Galactica, or maybe since it changed its name to, well, “SyFy.”

But they’ve righted that ship, that’s for sure.

I’m hardly the only one singing its praises as a Game of Thrones in space, but frankly, I think it has some advantages over the program that last year would have easily won my medal for “Best Show on TV.” Over at iO9, their spoilery review of the season credits the show runners with not one, but two “miracles.”

I won’t delve into those assertions in order to keep my equally glowing remarks spoiler-free. I will say that I’m intrigued as a fan of the books by the direction they’re heading, having shirked the Game of Thrones model of one book/one season. (This ten episode season has covered about 75% of the first novel, leaving some intriguing reworkings ahead in the forthcoming second season to plug the gaps and keep the intrigue rolling.)

The adaptation is about as good as one could have hoped for, although the books are a little more Firefly than you’d guess from the show, and the cast is stellar (even if the excellent Dominique Tipper should really be undergoing some Lord of the Rings style digital wizardry to match her character’s 2-meter stature in the book).

Game of Thrones has been (quite rightly) criticized for the way the show has or has not coped with the underlying misogyny of author George R.R. Martin’s fantasy world.  Innocuous scenes in the novels were rewritten for the show to sexually objectify and often degrade women in a world that was already not cutting them much slack.

The Expanse, though, is taking an altogether different tack, crafting the “strong” female characters now obligatory in any science fiction narrative (it’s still sad we have to note that they’re “strong” in this way when all we really mean is that they’re well written) against a character landscape that is thoroughly diverse. Yes, according to The Expanse, humanity’s future is pretty brown and nobody seems to give a damn.

Instead, what divides us in the future is political. Belters (those people living in low-gravity out beyond Mars’s orbit) are an oppressed underclass at the whim of the powerful forces of Mars, a purposeful authoritarian state, and Earth, a reservoir of entitled welfare queens.

It’s a backstory that sets up convenient and flexible proxies for the voices in our own political spectrum and lets the events in the story resonate beyond just the sci-fi mystery hinted at in the show’s first sequence.

As the show’s archetypal rag tag crew presses forward into the expanse, they’re running afoul of powerful forces and big questions about the control of information, the ethics of violence and power, and the morality of defending a status quo with so many have-nots.

It’s great stuff. Go watch it.