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‘The Expanse’: The Syfy Drama Takes On TV Faith in a New Way, By Actually Using Real Religions

The introduction of a new character in Season 3 serves as a reminder of just what makes this show so different.

THE EXPANSE -- "Iff" Episode 302 -- Pictured: Elizabeth Mitchell as Anna Volovodov -- (Photo by: Rafy/Syfy)

Elizabeth Mitchell in “The Expanse.”

Rafy/Syfy

[Editor’s note: Spoilers follow for “The Expanse” Season 3, Episode 2, “IFF.”]

In Wednesday night’s episode of “The Expanse,” fans were introduced to a major new player for Season 3, and Anna Volovodov (Elizabeth Mitchell, most memorable as Juliet from “Lost”) sure did make an impact: because in a sea of screaming men and women, she was the only nice person around.

We first see Anna attempting to enter the United Nations on Earth while scooting past a mob of anti-war protestors. When a young man collapses through the barricade and breaks his wrist in front of her, she demonstrates immense calm as she directs a nearby guard to help the guy, not taking no for an answer but handling the situation with firm grace, even after getting hit in the head.

So it’s not that much of a surprise when we find out that she’s not just a nice lady: She’s a Reverend Doctor who leads a small Methodist congregation, who just so happens to be a longtime friend of U.N. Secretary-General Esteban Sorrento-Gillis (Jonathan Whittaker).

Sorrento-Gillis wants her help writing a speech to unite Earth behind the war that’s now erupting between the planets; she’s reluctant to do so, feeling that she has changed. Based on the Secretary General’s comments during their conversation, Anna’s commitment to her faith is a relatively new thing; that said, she does seem earnest about it.

Prior to the introduction of Anna, the most prominent example of religion in the world of “The Expanse” were the Mormon missionaries Detective Miller (Thomas Jane) met in Season 1, who later attempt to go on a future version of the pilgrimage that brought Joseph Smith and his followers to Utah in the 1800s. (There is also a fictional religion established by the books, The Church of Humanity Ascendant, which is more of a secular organization and hasn’t been fully introduced by the show yet.)

THE EXPANSE -- "Iff" Episode 302 -- Pictured: Elizabeth Mitchell as Anna Volovodov -- (Photo by: Rafy/Syfy)

Elizabeth Mitchell in “The Expanse.”

Rafy/Syfy

But it’s the fact that Anna’s a practicing Methodist that is interesting, as it’s one of the touches that makes “The Expanse” stand out. While other shows might create fictional religions, the series chooses to keep this one specific aspect of the show’s universe recognizable and relatable to today. After all, when you consider just how long a lifespan many of today’s religions have had, it’s more than believable that in the 23rd century, Mormons and Methodists would still be around.

That said, a few centuries does lead to change. Not only are Mormons using spaceships now instead of covered wagons, but the Methodists have evolved since the year 2018 in an important way. Anna, we learn soon after her introduction, is married to a woman, and the two have a daughter together. Currently, modern-day gay Methodist ministers can be defrocked for marrying their partners.

It’s all just another layer of texture that makes “The Expanse” so interesting a show to follow. After all, it’s not that religion doesn’t come up in sci-fi TV, but it’s rare that a series is so direct about it. “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry was an active atheist who has been quoted as saying, “Religions vary in their degree of idiocy, but I reject them all. For most people, religion is nothing more than a substitute for a malfunctioning brain.”

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Paramount Television/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5884715ad)Michael DornStar Trek - The Next Generation - 1987-1994Paramount TelevisionUSATelevision

Michael Dorn in “Star Trek.”

Paramount Television/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

In the “Star Trek” universe, Chakotay on “Voyager” does also practice rituals connected to his Native American heritage, but the primary practitioners of faith tend to be the non-humans. “Deep Space Nine” is the series with the most direct engagement with the topic, as not only is Worf (Michael Dorn) a believer in Klingon religious tenets, but Kira (Nana Visitor) is a true believer in the Bajoran faith, which the show challenges from time to time but never to the degree where she might lose it.

Meanwhile, the modern-day “Battlestar Galactica” featured two competing religions — the Lords of Kobol, a polytheistic system of worship, and the Cylon concept of “God.” But the show’s narrative, in which the remnants of the human race journey to find “Kobol,” has been said to directly relate to original “Galactica” creator Glen A. Larson’s Mormon faith.

While both shows, and many more, find ways to talk about religion, the trend is more often towards adding a fictional layer to the storytelling than utilizing an established faith, one which is recognizable and familiar to modern audiences. There’s nothing wrong with either approach, depending on the execution; beautiful storytelling about faith has been done utilizing metaphor in a sci-fi context. But sometimes it’s nice to just get to the point — something at which “The Expanse” often excels.

“The Expanse” Season 3 airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on Syfy. Seasons 1 and 2 are streaming on Amazon Prime.

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