The hard-working staff here had hoped to find distraction on television in this Golden Age of political shows. Unfortunately, “The Americans,” while still excellent, has taken on a surreal air given the ongoing FBI probe of Russian activity in the United States. “Occupied” would have the same problem, but it hasn’t returned for a second season yet anyways. And, most unfortunately, Netflix’s “Iron Fist” has turned out to be the “Star Trek V” of that otherwise-quite-excellent universe of shows.
There is one political show I have enjoyed recently, however. It’s about international relations. Well, sort of. It’s more about interplanetary relations. It’s Syfy’s “The Expanse”:
The basic set-up of “The Expanse” is that it takes place 200 years from now in a world in which interplanetary travel is pretty easy. Mankind has colonized Earth’s moon, Mars, the asteroid belt and some of the outer moons, such as Ganymede. Earth is run by the United Nations. It controls the moon and a large, albeit aging, fleet. It is still the most powerful actor in the solar system, but appears to be on the decline. Mars is independent, with newer spaceships, a very cohesive culture, and an ambitious plan to terraform its own planet. Both Earth and Mars view the residents living beyond Mars’ orbit — the “Belters” — as close to subhuman. The Belters work in the extractive sectors to send resources back to Earth and Mars. There is a loose-knit politico-military group, the Outer Planets Alliance (OPA), trying to organize this fractious population. And then events are set in motion.
“The Expanse” pulls off a few world-building gambits that make it pretty nifty to watch. It’s not as funny as “Firefly,” but like that show, it successfully resets the domain of politics from a planet to a solar system but no further. Also like “Firefly,” the space of “The Expanse” feels genuinely lived-in. The economics and identities that are guide the actors are well-structured.
Unlike “Firefly,” the politics on this show are the text and not the subtext. The possibility of conflict, both interpersonal and interplanetary, is ever-present. And “The Expanse” does a great job with the science. There’s are space battle sequences that seem scientifically sound and are all the more gripping for it. And the connection between the science and the politics also makes sense. The Belters and Martians are distinct cultures because they grow up in different environments from Earth — lower gravity and such. And their complaints about Earthers — a civilization that despoiled the one planet in the system with a blue sky — seem particularly trenchant.
“The Expanse” also has my favorite fictional politician, United Nations official Chrisjen Avasarala, played by the magnificent Shohreh Aghdashloo. She is a politician to the core, dedicated to advancing Earth’s interests. She is also keen to avoid an unnecessary war with Mars, however, and is willing to act opportunistically to achieve that end.
In this scene below, in which she talks to one of her superiors, provides an example. Chrisjen suspects him of being on the take from a private tycoon who has been responsible for a recent crisis and is now on the run. But she can’t exactly come out and say that. So she does this instead.
That’s some good scenery chewing right there.
The Expanse recognizes that space travel doesn’t end political division — indeed, it creates opportunities for new cleavages to form. That’s just a fact of life. And, right now, it offers the optimism of the Earth actually existing 200 years in the future. I need to believe in that right now.