Back in 2015, “Babylon 5” creator J. Michael Straczynski said something interesting in an interview: “My hope is that what this will do ultimately is transform the science fiction genre.” It was a point he was making in relation to “Sense8” — the Netflix series he co-created with the Wachowskis, about eight strangers who find themselves psychically connected on a level beyond gender, race or sexuality — that the show’s emphasis on complex human relationships marked it as a new evolution.
Because I’d only seen three episodes at that point, I wasn’t in a position to agree or disagree with him on any level, but the thought stuck with me. While the full first season of “Sense8” turned out to be delightfully weird (but perhaps not the gamechanger Straczynski had promised), the concept of a new evolution in sci-fi — a generational perspective on the genre — was interesting. After all, we’re always looking for the new when it comes to TV, and “Sense8” could definitely grow to become the sort of show it aspires to be.
In the meantime, though, Syfy’s “The Expanse” is already there.
The thing that’s so exciting about “The Expanse,” based on the books by James S.A. Corey, is that it’s the first sci-fi show I’ve ever watched that really, truly doesn’t feel like sci-fi. By that, I mean that it’s the sort of show where its official genre feels almost inconsequential in the face of the complicated character-driven story being told.
I don’t want to reveal too much about the plot because it’s worth discovering for yourself, but over the course of its first season, which reaches a close Tuesday night (February 2nd), we’ve tracked many different mysteries and witnessed many tragedies. Life is hard in space thanks to limited resources and complicated living situations. And it’s made those who live in this world hard, as a result.
“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.
On the galactic level, there’s a three-pronged political battle brewing, rich with secrets and conspiracies. Earth, you see, is on the verge of losing control over its colonies on Mars, not to mention the Belters working hard in the outer asteroid belt. (And there are private corporations who might benefit from the wind blowing one way or the other.)
But on the personal level, things are equally intense. The story technically kicks off with the disappearance of rich girl Julie Mao, which not only becomes an obsession of Detective Joe Miller (Thomas Jane, wearing a totally awesome hat) but a mystery that draws in Holden (Steven Strait) and his ragtag team of fellow space truckers, who find themselves in a constant fight for their lives in the outer reaches of space. Balance that with Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo) on planet Earth, caught in a political quandary of her own that nonetheless has implications for the fates of Miller and Holden, and you’ve got a narrative that spans planets but feels extremely well-connected.
There are some high-concept curveballs tossed about over the course of the series; elements which do remind you what kind of show you’re technically watching. But when the genre does become a factor, it’s in unexpected ways always driven by science over fantasy. That’s because the science of the series is of particular interest for the creators. When I spoke with executive producers Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby and Naren Shankar at the TCA Summer Press Tour last August, we ended up talking for over an hour, just because all three gentlemen were so engaged and excited about not just the show, but how science fiction has worked on television before and how they might be able to move things forward for the genre.
It makes you reevaluate the importance of genre in general, to be honest, especially in an environment where the best sort of shows come about via crossbreeding. Whether it be the way shows like “Transparent” and “Orange is the New Black” blend comedy with socially conscious drama, or the way “Breaking Bad” brought crime and family together in new and exciting ways, the fact is that exciting things happen when cross-pollination is allowed; when we don’t shove genres into boxes, and let them evolve into something new.
“The Expanse” is something new, and it’s worth watching. Get caught up. Get engrossed. It’s worthy of that.
The season finale of “The Expanse” airs tonight on Syfy. It has been renewed for a second season.
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