If you've never heard of The Expanse, I don't blame you too much. My wife and I watched it pretty much on a whim a while ago. We both like the occasional sci-fi show, and we were mostly just browsing when we came across it. Sometimes that's a good thing, sometimes it isn't, but hey, there's a lot to choose on Amazon Prime. So we watched the first three seasons and both of us were blown away.
Not only is it really good sci-fi, it's really good for all the right reasons. Mainly, it's pretty realistic. It presents things as they are likely to be in the future instead of some kind of slightly unrealistic dystopia. I love a good dystopia, but the chances of most of them actually happening are slim. Instead, things will probably continue as they always have: some people are at the top, some are at the bottom, and overall, the struggles between those two groups are at the heart of most conflict.
That alone is a good enough reason for me to like some sci-fi shows, but this one was all about the ideas too. It investigates themes about economics, poverty, our willingness to exploit others, religion, and mankind's place in an ever-expanding cosmos. In other words, it was a really heady show. Just the way I like it.
I did say "was all about the ideas" for a reason. The show was cancelled after season three, and that was a great place for the show to stop. It wrapped up a lot of story lines and left just enough ambiguity to speculate on how things really ended. It was a nearly perfect wrap-up to the show.
Then Amazon bought it.
Amazon produced the fourth season, and while that season is still decent, it is nowhere near the great story that The Expanse was before. I'm not sure if there's a kinder way to say this, but it was significantly simplified when Amazon started working on it.
There are probably explanations for that. New writers maybe, editorial decisions to abandon certain themes, and just generally making something more palatable for a streaming audience. But overall, the result was a much smaller story with a lot less to think about. And this in a story that is, ironically, called The Expanse.
I'll give some examples of what I mean, but first, here are the basic plot points. The story follows the life of James Holden, a relateable everyman that is only trying to work and live in a complicated political environment. That environment just happens to be an interplanetary cold war. Earth, now run by the United Nations, and Mars, a breakaway colony that has established its own planetary government, are not outright fighting, but it is a shaky truce at best.
But those aren't the only groups. The story also has The Belt, a loose confederation of people who live their entire lives between Mars and Jupiter. These people are self-governing mainly, but their representatives are the Outer Planetary Alliance, a group that is some mix of a worker's union and a terrorist organization. The Belt is fighting for its own rights and recognition in the middle of a spat between the superpowers of Earth and Mars.
This creates an interesting theme of class conflict that the story carries through from the beginning into season four though, again, it is vastly oversimplified after Amazon's season.
This would be great fodder for a sci-fi show just on its own, but into this interplanetary conflict you also have the first discovery of evidence that aliens exist. James Holden is caught up in all of through a series of events that eventually leads to him and his crew to uncover an extensive plot to create hybridized soldiers from kidnapped children and the alien technology. You should note here that this is not alien life itself. What they discover is a technology created by a long-dead extra-terrestrial civilization.
There is a lot of intrigue that I am skipping over for the sake of brevity, but in the end, the alien technology forces the main governmental actors in the drama to temporarily set aside their differences and deal with the existential threat of alien existence.
That is where season three ends. Hey look, it looks like I was able to do a mostly spoiler-free summary too. The internet would be proud. Anyway, there's a lot more detail, so I would really suggest watching the show yourself.
Watch season four too, but here's my main critique. Season four took all of what was good about the first three seasons and took a lot of the complexity out of it. Overall, The Expanse is a show about shades of grey. No character is really good. Quite a few are bad. And in the end all that matters is that when faced with the choice, the characters make the best decisions that they can. The show has an interesting take on utilitarian philosophy, and it really is worth watching for that.
But let's talk about season four. It wasn't bad. It just wasn't as deep as the other seasons were. This was clearly the case when it came to the main villain. I highlighted the interesting shades of gray that The Expanse was able to investigate, but these were basically removed for this character. He's just a bad guy. And what makes him bad? Well, he hates the underclass. Anything more complex than that? Nope. He might as well have been twirling a curly mustache and wearing a black hat.
And that wasn't the only area where the complexity was entirely removed. One of my favorite characters in the show is Gunny the (former, at this point in the story) Martian Marine who gets herself caught up in what has got to be the most predictable subplot I have seen in years. She gets involved in a (shock) life of crime after being down and out about getting discharged from the military. She ends up (gasp) in way over her head and gets caught up in a suspicious deal. The deal goes (who woulda thought?) completely south and her boss gets killed. This causes her to (oh no!) go back to her friends for help.
A child could have written that. There were a lot of moments like this. A whole lot of what was really great about the show was just turned into the same bland material that is on any other streaming show. I was disappointed
Overall though, The Expanse is a decent show. I have my critiques of season four, but it ended on a good enough note that I would watch season five. Despite all the negative things about it, there were some genuinely good moments and some really great cliffhangers. It's not irredeemable, but I would really like to see a return to form for the show. Really thought-provoking sci-fi can be hard to find, so I hope the are able to get back to some more of that.