About a month ago, a dear friend of mine had a burning desire to sell me his favourite show of the moment: The Expanse. I was hesitant at first, knowing that it had only just been saved by Amazon, mainly because Jeff Bezos, future ruler of the state of Amazon and Associated World Powers. But he sold me a simple concept that instantly had me on board: Shohreh Aghdashloo in beautiful dresses. In power. In space.
I acquired (hah) the first two seasons immediately.
Shohreh ‘Ironthroat’ Aghdashloo is a majestic actress, who has the power to communicate power, elegance, smoker’s lung and rust with a single syllable. So naturally, make her a powerful figure in the goings-on of the solar system. It is not something she is unfamiliar with, having lent her all-powerful rasp to the Mass Effect universe. But it is here where she truly shines, and where she embodies the reason why you should be watching this show if you are not already.
Despite not being on screen all that regularly, Shohreh Sulfurbreath is the best way to sell the show. She plays Chrisjen Avasarala, the deputy undersecretary of the now world-controlling United Nations in 2300 something something. The solar system is one where planetary and interplanetary expansion alike has been a reality for centuries, with all the obvious problems inherent in the premise mixed with some good old ‘aliens did it’ in order to drive the plot. But what keeps me coming back to Lavalarynx Aghdashloo is that she pins down what makes the show so much more than its premise. Chrisjen is just one of the many players out there to secure their interests, but she is the most notable, and most fabulously dressed, in terms of how far they’re willing to push the idea of moral ambiguity without losing sight of why morality is so precious to humanity. We’re treated to a methodical yet exciting dissection of the various goals driving our 23rd century species. Welcome to the LOST of the 2010s.
The problem plaguing many contemporary sci-fi shows is something that has lingered since the ‘70s, with the arrival of Alien and a new, dark look at what the future promises—how to depict why people do morally tough actions, or even outright cruelty, without becoming a caricature of itself. The Expanse neatly avoids this by remaining dedicated to a very strict rule: everyone has a reason and everyone has the capability to respect as much as they can loathe. There are no mutually exclusive emotions here, no reasons cooked up for the sake of plot advancement. The writers of The Expanse have brilliantly avoided the pitfalls that seem to give other, lesser sci-fi shows their existence, namely the idea that moral ambiguity needs to be completely depressing and soul-destructive in order to be relevant, or even entertaining. I’m looking at you, Altered Carbon. The writers tell us that we are so much more than HBO plotlines and I am thankful for that.
Secondly, it avoids the second major problem plaguing sci-fi in the 2010s: how to tackle diversity. It goes down neither of the two most obvious paths that spring up when lesser writers take on the concept. It does not make diversity the only redeeming factor in the show, but it doesn’t take its existence as a matter of fact that solves all ‘mere’ 21st century social politics. Identity doesn’t disappear just because society now regularly jettisons their piss out of airlocks. Again, looking at you, Altered Carbon. Instead, we are presented with a show that acknowledges both the reasons behind identity politics without it becoming a draining sideshow. We’re even given an undeniable vision into the future of the ugliest ways class exploitation can affect our humanity itself, without the heavy-handedness causing our skulls to fracture.
The irony of Jeff Bezos being a major fan of the show is a rather amusing irony that I can’t help but comment on. The man who increasingly becomes more and more of a comic book villain present in lesser sci-fi entertainment is evidently missing many of the plot points present here. The plight of the interplanetary workers whose bodies are literally misshapen due to the poor standards of their environment, with no hope of change short of outright revolution, hammers down the horrors of productivity without morality guiding it. The horrors of working for Amazon are starting to become near-daily articles, with Bezos himself the one to blame. The show that teaches about accepting moral ambiguity short of exploitation is something you would think would be lost on a man that has made his billions through laying down the groundwork for a kind of corporate exploitation we have not seen before. The irony of a man trying to usher in a low-grade dystopia enjoying a show depicting said low-grade dystopia is… well, you get my point. You have to laugh because there is no other emotion to express the absurdity.
But in some way, this real-life joke enhances the point of the show: much like Bojack Horseman teaches us, we need to be better. Better than our surroundings, better than the failures we see. We don’t have to be perfect. Good doesn’t have to be nice, nor does it have to be comforting. We all have different ideas on what good means. We just have to make sure that when we leave for the new frontier, it’s not because we can’t stand the ugliness of our old one.