This week, Syfy made the announcement that it would not continue airing The Expanse after the currently-airing Season 3. It’s nothing personal; it’s business. Syfy gave The Expanse—which is critically-acclaimed and beloved by pretty much everyone who watches it, but is studio-owned and doesn’t draw in very many viewers—a chance for three seasons, which is more than other networks might have given this relatively expensive space show.
As a TV critic, it’s my job to understand the realities of this business. People don’t make TV shows out of the goodness of their hearts—or, if they do, that motivation doesn’t negate the necessity that the TV show also make money. For a cable TV show, that money relies on a combination of viewers and cable TV subscribers. In addition to cable TV subscriptions, the viewers are the product the network sells to the advertisers. If you don’t have eyeballs watching, whether it be live or through other quantifiable methods like streaming on the Syfy website, then the network can’t sell ads for as much money.
But, every once in a while, there’s a show that comes along that makes you revert from clear-eyed TV critic to hopeful fan (not that those two identities aren’t always intertwined in some way, or that fans can’t understand the realities of the TV business). The Expanse is one of those shows. With Alcon Entertainment, the production company that makes The Expanse for Syfy, looking to find a new home for the show past Season 3, I am taking some time to add my voice, both as a clear-eyed fan and a hopeful TV critic, to the many that are exclaiming dismay over the potential cancellation of The Expanse. The world needs this show, now more than ever.
If you’ve never seen The Expanse, let me break it down for you. Based on a series of ongoing science fiction novels by James S.A. Corey (the pen name used by collaborators Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham), The Expanse is set 200 years in the future when humanity has colonized space. The solar system is broken up, more or less, into three factions: superpowers Earth and Mars, and the working class “Belt” (inhabitants of the asteroid belt). As political tensions between Earth and Mars rise, and war threatens to erupt, the show follows multiple storylines in multiple settings across the solar system.
The Expanse isn’t the only show on TV dealing with the defining issues and anxieties of our time, but it is one of the best at addressing society’s big questions in complicated and humane ways. As Americans (or perhaps as humans?), we like to have simple answers to our biggest questions: Are people good or bad? Is America good or bad? Am I good or bad? Obviously, the answers to these questions are much more complicated than the dichotomy of their framing suggests. To pretend otherwise, especially in these difficult times, is not only frustrating, it is not particularly helpful and perpetuates systems of oppression.
As a society, those in power need to believe, on some level, that those without power are less deserving of it in order to maintain the status quo. The Expanse is a show that refuses to default to this flavor of pessimism when it tells its stories. Too often in contemporary pop culture, a lack of faith in humanity is used as a stand-in for complex or mature storytelling. The narrative trend—which I blame partially on the critical and commercial success of the admittedly brilliant The Dark Knightand partially on the fact that, for a very long time, Hollywood pretty much only ever told stories with simplistic happy endings—is lazy and relies on a belief that most people can’t be trusted with the power to decide their own fate. In other words, it’s just as dangerous to always answer “Bad, bad, bad” as it is to always answer “Good, good, good.” To explain how The Expanse avoids this kind of thematic simplicity, I am going to use a specific example.
This is a scene that comes near the end of the second season, in an episode called “The Monster and the Rocket.” In it, Naomi—a Belter engineer and one of the show’s main characters—has a spot on the last ship off of an imminently failing colony station. Though the crew of the ship had been trying to load refugees from the station onto their vessel to save as many as they can, the crowd panics, people are hurt, and the ship shuts its doors in order to save themselves.
The ship has enough air for 52 people, but there are over 100 desperate people on the other side of the docking bay door. Of the handful of people on the ship, Naomi is the only one who thinks they should open the doors to let anyone in. You can see both sides of the argument. If they open the doors, too many people could rush in and/or it could get violent, and everyone will die. On the other hand, there are people on the other side of that door who will definitely die if they don’t do something. They may not have actively caused the problem that will lead to the Belters’ deaths, but they are all part of the system that did, and they do, in this moment, have the power to do something about it.
Naomi is a Belter herself, and she knows what it’s like to be born into a hard life, a life that is valued less than the lives of the people who live on Earth and Mars. She also was one of the last people off of another failing station where many people died in Season 1. She feels like she hasn’t done enough, so she makes a choice.
Here’s the clip…
For my money, this was the best scene in the best episode in all of TV last year. It is not only well-executed and well-developed within the context of the show, but, I think, if you haven’t watched any of the rest of The Expanse, it is still massively affecting. This is because it touches on issues that are all-too-real in our own world. This is a scene about refugees and the choices we tend to make about whose lives are valuable and whose lives aren’t.
It’s particularly affecting to me that, when Naomi and the other Belter create a system for loading people onto the ship, they include just as many men in the lottery as they do women and children. All lives have equal value here; everyone deserves to live, even if many of them won’t. This is what a complicated happy ending looks like.
That’s not to say the story ignores the difficult realities of the situation, or that things always work out on The Expanse—far from it, on both counts. These people are panicking, and that is dangerous. Naomi almost isn’t able to convince the Belters because she can’t even make her voice heard over the cacophony of people who understand they are about to die. Even when things “work out,” the people remaining on the station are most likely going to die. Many if not most of the ones who do survive will lose at least one person they love; families are torn apart, which means the suffering will go on long after the question of who lives and who dies is settled.
However, this is a scene that rewards a character’s faith in humanity in a way we rarely see in serious TV drama. It shows a character risking everything to save others, and having it actually pay off. It gives the masses their humanity back in a way we rarely tend to, in either our pop culture stories or in real life. (Because it’s easier to categorize whole groups of people as one thing based on one characteristic. It’s a simple answer.) It recognizes that, often, when you give the powerless their rightful power back, they will be better at wielding it then the elite ever were—and, even if they subjectively aren’t, it’s still the objectively moral decision. This scene is only one example of the brilliant, vital storytelling The Expanse is doing on a weekly basis.
As the world gets more difficult, we need to get better at recognizing its complexities, at actively understanding the difference between what the easy decision looks like—the ones that tend to perpetuate the status quo—and what the moral one does. We need shows like The Expanse to help show us the way. After all, that’s what science fiction is for.