Renew "The Expanse," and you'll renew our faith in humanity. (A little.) #RenewTheExpanse
To boil a very long story down to the purest of outraged expressions, I must say I’m devastated by SyFy’s recent announcement that they’ll not be renewing their adaptation of James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse for a fourth season—and not just because I’m a spoiled toddler who has suddenly lost access to the cookie jar.
I’m devastated because The Expanse leaves a gap, a crucially important gap, that no other show on television today can fill. That gap is the diversity gap in science fiction, and if you’ve spent much time at all listening to our podcast over the last two years you’ll know that representation is at the heart of what we do, and every good thing that we love. That there’s such a glut of science fiction cropping up on television—broadcast, cable, and streaming—almost makes this gap more glaringly obvious. Even the best of new science fictional shows, including Imaginaries favorites Star Trek: Discovery* and The Handmaid’s Tale**, struggle to render representation as consistently and effortlessly as The Expanse, which is packed with actors and creators from diverse backgrounds. As if that weren't enough, this season went all-out on centering LGBTQIA+ narratives as well.
Yes, there’s some of diverse material finally breaking through the Hollywood roadblocks, with Ava Duverney’s Queen Sugar leading my personal pack of favorites when it comes to drama, How To Get Away With Murder and Black-ish both renewed for fifth seasons on ABC, Donald Glover’s highly-acclaimed Atlanta entering its second season on FX, and Empire still bringing in the ratings on FOX, which recently bowed to universal exclamations of disgust over their cancellation of Brooklyn Nine-Nine and renewed the fan favorite. There’s plenty more out there that I haven’t yet had a chance to mention, but it seems like a fairly safe thing to say that most of these shows are known more for casting racially diverse actors than they are for LGBTQIA+-friendly storylines—although, again, this is an area where we’re starting to see change.
But no, there’s not a lot of diverse science fiction on television, even today—or rather, there’s not science fiction on television which takes the time to craft nuanced narratives friendly to women, to people of color, and to the LGBTQIA+ community. Brazilian import 3% makes a solid attempt despite Brazil’s own entrenched historical racism, Black Mirror hodgepodges certain strong diverse storylines into a larger mess which reads as rather judge-y middle class white men co-opting other peoples’ stories, and Marvel gave us Luke Cage before yanking the rug out from under our feet with the toxic mess which is The Defenders. And Sense8, gods rest its soul, met a quiet end after just two seasons.
And this is a problem. It’s even more of problem when you consider that may of the biggest science fictional (and fantastical) narratives being splashed across the big and small screens are adaptations, and there’s a superabundance of phenomenal books out there written by diverse authors and for diverse readers. N.K. Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor, and Tomi Adeyemi perhaps lead the pack, but it’s a crowded field out there. (Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone was pre-emptively optioned by Fox 2000 in a landmark seven-figure deal.) Authors like Omar El Akkad, Louise Erdrich, Chris Beckett, Ruthanna Emrys, Ian McDonald, Annalee Newitz, Jeff VanderMeer, Sarah Gailey, and J.Y. Yang have been carving out vibrant spaces for diverse readers for years.
Why, then, are we getting science fictional and fantastical shows which are, at best, uneven and spotty? Netflix’s recent and very expensive Altered Carbon*** was fouled by whitewashing and the commodification of the female body, despite improving upon its source material in several ways. Why are we having to wait months between short series like Star Trek: Discovery and The Expanse to see humanity in all its riotous diversity on screen in our favorite genres? Why are networks like SyFy and Netflix canceling shows like The Expanse and Sense8 after only a couple of seasons?
That last question may bear further interrogation. The @JamesSACorey, @AbrahamHanover, and @TheExpanseWR Twitter accounts have in the past tweeted at length about the importance of first-day ratings for the longevity of shows like The Expanse (this is a problem which, arguably, Netflix ought not to be limited by). The long and the short of it is, SyFy is still a big player in getting science fiction and fantasy to the small screen, but their transition to the cable and streaming age has left their shows vulnerable to ratings drops which are less indicative of declining interest than they are of changing viewership habits. Take me, for example: I can’t afford the cable package it would require for me to get SyFy in rural Motnana, but I would happily pay for a subscription to a SyFy app if that would contribute to the same ratings. (It doesn’t.) As it is, I’m forced to watch The Expanse on iTunes, where I know my viewership statistics mean diddly squat. And also, staying up until two in the morning to catch each episode the moment it goes live in iTunes is hell on my graduate studies. BUT I’M WILLING, that’s what I’m saying. And The Expanse is popular up here in rural Montana! I know, because as a librarian, I’m constantly fielding questions about where to find it and how best to watch it.
In short, The Expanse was walking on a tightrope from the first title crawl, and it couldn’t afford to struggle in a world of changed viewer habits where its persistence through two and a half was already a miracle. It’s the kind of gem which seems tailor-made for streaming services, if they could only kick their current addiction to half-baked representation. I’d advocate for Hulu, which has made improvements in the second season of The Handmaid’s Tale which would seem to indicate that the showrunners are at least listening to critics like Berlatsky and Bastién. And Amazon is still a bit evil****. That aside, I’m hoping at least one streaming service takes a bite at the apple, as The Expanse seems like an easy resurrection, Longmire-style.
But really, I’m in it for the representation. The sheer ease with which this show populates the known solar system with a diverse cast and does absolutely nothing to fetishize them. There is literally no other show out there which takes no prisoners and makes no missteps at the same time. It has the audacity to not just assume that the future is diverse, but that this diversity is both critical to the success of that future and part of the larger tapestry of all that is assumed background noise. Again, I’ve been beaten to the punch by writers like Andrew Liptak of io9 and Chris of Random Chatter and Tasha Robinson of The Verge. The Expanse is important. It deserves, by every reckoning except for the outdated ratings metrics of a bygone era, to grace our screens. Actors of color deserve to feel like they belong in the genre. Actors of the LGBTQIA+ community, likewise. Women, definitely. And while readers are just now becoming citizens of a rich landscape of diverse science fiction and fantasy, watchers and lovers of television are seeing one of their few avenues to visual storytelling of a similar bent being cut off.
It’s painful. And it needs to stop.
Amazon, Hulu, and Netflix—the ball’s in your court. #RenewTheExpanse and prove that you really do care.
* No one’s arguing that Disco isn’t great television; we dedicated a full episode (Ep. 44) to noshing on how great it is. But as Liz Bourke points out for Tor.com, Disco buries its gays and buries them deep, and even in its non-canon coding does some dangerous work with its treatment of bisexuals. And Angelica Jade Bastién’s article for Vulture is equal parts insightful and thought-provoking. How can a show with such good intentions so consistently muck it up when it comes to fitting diversity and representation into a larger narrative that seems prime territory for such conversations?
** The Handmaid’s Tale, too, is fantastic entertainment and soul-crushingly good at turning present trends into a new status quo. Noah Berlatsky’s article for The Verge (“Both versions of The Handmaid’s Tale have a problem with racial erasure … And with using the history of black people to provoke empathy for the suffering of white people”) is as good a think-piece as you can find, and Angelica Jade Bastién once again made Vulture a great place to catch up on the conversation with her own article on the Atwood adaptation (“In Its First Season, The Handmaid’s Tale’s Greatest Failing Is How It Handles Race”).
*** Altered Carbon is a deeply uncomfortable show for me to watch, but less uncomfortable than as a book. Eliana Dockterman wrote an excellent critique for Time on the show’s failings, but I think it worth throwing a major TRIGGER WARNING in here. The book includes an explicit (and pointless) rape scene. For more on why this was not my favorite book, you can always read my full Goodreads review. And I happen to think science fiction and fantasy have come a long way since the book was first published in 2002.
**** They (possibly? probably? seemingly?) support Breitbart News via advertising, even though it’s more or less a basic benchmark of social awareness to ditch that site. Glenn Fleishman of Fast Company covers the basics in a recent article. FlavorWire, HuffPost, TNW, and Gizmodo all have debated the evils of Amazon, so I’m not going to get into that much more here. Just know that it’s a thing.