Less than a month ago, I hadn’t seen what I’d call good science-fiction on TV in a long time (at least that wasn’t reruns of Star Trek: Deep Space 9 and The Next Generation, though even those are not without their problems).
Then my wife suggested we try Amazon Prime’s The Expanse, the initial cancellation of which by Syfy took the Internet by storm. Jeff Bezos purchased the show for Amazon Prime and the rest is, as they say, History. Still, I had my reservations. There are episodes of Watchmen sitting accusingly in my queue. We still haven’t finished the last season of GLOW. At any moment, we might start our umpteenth rewatch of Frasier or The Office.
A new TV show? That seems like a big commitment.
And perhaps it’s a mildly hipstery stance for me to take, but the show’s cult-like popularity gave me trepidation. I felt like I was diving into a world that was already well-loved and well-guarded. Would the later seasons be filled with fan-service that caters to the die-hards who’ve rewatched the first two seasons over and over and over and over and over? I had a streak of defiance but in the interest of marital bliss I agreed to give it a try, fearing, at best, a mediocre sci-fi show.
Boy was I wrong.
The Expanse is seriously one of the best shows I have watched in a very long time. It’s certainly the best new sci-fi I’ve watched in a decade.
I’m a huge Star Trek fan, with my favorites being the above-mentioned DS9 and TNG. Voyager is okay, and I don’t care for Enterprise apart from a few standout episodes. The Original Series, doesn’t hold up quite as well for me personally but it still does a great job of tackling social issues and dilemmas. TOS’s Balance of Terror sits right up there with TNG’s The Drumhead or Measure of a Man or DS9’s Duet.
The less said about the Abrams’ movies the better, though I did enjoy them for what they were: Star Wars movies under a glamour to make them look like Star Trek (more on Star Wars in a bit).
And then came the announcement of Star Trek: Discovery back in 2015, around the 50th Anniversary of The Original Series.
A NEW STAR TREK SERIES. There hadn’t been one since the (painfully terrible) finale of Enterprise, “These Are The Voyages,” where they crammed Johnathon Frakes into an old uniform and let him chop vegetables.
Right out the gate, Discovery left some fans feeling both excited and worried. The teaser trailer was accused of looking unfinished and rushed, and there was some pretty major backlash to the design of the titular hero ship.
Still, I was hopeful. I mean, it’s Star Trek! How bad could it be?
But then more and more details started emerging. Ten years before TOS? Spock has a sister? The klingons look like what? Where’s their hair? It’s tied to CBS All Access, yet ANOTHER streaming service (oh how innocent we were, even then).
I gave it a chance. I had to, I was that desperate for Star Trek.
And it let me down. Criticizing Star Trek: Discovery would be its own series of articles, so let me try to sum it up in three succinct sentences:
- Unlikable lead character
- A weird convoluted plot that feels like it is made up as it went
- Changing established Star Trek lore “just because.”
I’m not going to go into too much detail on those points because the Internet is full of explanations of all of them.
So what makes The Expanse different? Well…
For one, the characters are likable.
This actually comes with a caveat: I hated all of the main characters when they were first introduced. None of them seemed likable from the outset, at least to my perception. And that seems to be a common trend among recommendations to watch the show: Give it a few episodes.
So, by around episode five or six it all started getting froody for me. It clicked and suddenly I couldn’t not keep going. It didn’t rely on big cliffhangers every episode (although there were a few), the stakes only changed when their context changed, and the characters reacted in a consistent, understandable way.
The story and the characters have been stellar ever since their season one learning curve, and the the story continued in a sane way in season two that was a natural evolution from the events in season one.
My wife and I are champing at the bit to get to season 4, which drops on December 13, 2019. In the mean time, we’ve had to look elsewhere to satisfy our science-fiction itch, which brings us to…
Ah, Star Wars. My old on-again-off-again flame. I’m one of the camp that calls Star Wars science fantasy instead of science fiction, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Star Wars is wonderful-ish. IV-VI were a big part of my childhood. I-III… not so much. Rogue One was alright.
A New Hope 2: Electric Boogaloo The Force Awakens was fine.
I haven’t seen Solo.
The Last Jedi… I had some problems with The Last Jedi. And it wasn’t to do with Luke. It wasn’t to do with Rey and her history. It wasn’t even to do with Rose, as a character. It was with the plot.
It was ill-paced and ill-timed, crammed to the gills with jokes that don’t work and pacing that’s all wrong. Also, they killed the wrong Skywalker. But I digress.
I’m sure Rian Johnson’s a nice guy. Really. But he did a number on Star Wars. I’m tentatively looking forward to The Rise Of Skywalker, partly out of a morbid curiosity about how J.J. Abrams will un-Johnsonify this trilogy.
Then there’s The Mandalorian. At its core, it’s about a man in a suit of armor firing guns. That sounds like another Disney-owned property: Iron Man. Granted, the first Favreau-led Iron Man was pre-Disney, but Jon Favreau made super-hero movies cool. Sam Raimi had done an okay job with his Spider-Man movies, but they were also very clearly Sam Raimi movies, too (not that there’s anything wrong with that!).
But they didn’t have that “cool” factor.
But Favreau’s Iron-Man was. It was well-cast (mostly), well-acted, and well-written. And the visual design was on-point, as the kids said a few years ago.
So maybe it was natural that Jon Favreau be selected to helm Disney+’s The Mandalorian. Favreau sees it as a western, and so far it seems to be hitting all the right marks. There’ve been Gatling guns, stand-offs, betrayals, help from mysterious natives, and an attempted reverse train-robbery. And it’s all within the rules of the Star Wars universe.
There have been some claims that it relies too heavily on fan-service, but so-fucking-what? I’d rather have fan-service and a great story (which it is so far, two episodes in) than have my expectations “subverted.” And at least it’s an original Star Wars story, which is more than I can say for The Force Awakens, as much as I liked it. It was the same story beats and plot elements as A New Hope, when you boil it down, while also being full of “fan-servicey” moments.
After two episodes, Mandalorian has me hooked. It’s fun to watch, the effects and costume design are incredible, and the soundtrack is amazing.
If you’re looking for some good sci-fi or sci-fa to watch this fall/winter, you could do a lot worse than The Expanse and The Mandalorian. And in January, Jean-Luc Picard is returning, and hopefully that will be a Star Trek worth watching. In the mean time, I’ll be cruising both the Belt and the Outer Rim.