The Expanse’s aliens were always just an extension of its politics

Polygon - Fri Jan 14 20:00

Sidelining the extraterrestrials in season 6 was the point

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The crew of the Rocinante staring at the camera in a still from the final season of The Expanse Photo: Amazon Studios

[Ed. note: This article contains major spoilers for The Expanse books and the end of the TV show.]

The American physicist and philosopher Thomas Kuhn first coined the phrase “paradigm shift” in his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions to describe the point at which scientists are confronted by a phenomenon that proves their previous understanding of how the universe worked was flawed. While Kuhn was describing transitions like the move from Newtonian mechanics to quantum mechanics, the term became a useful way to talk about other major changes in the way humans saw the world, from the first images of Earth from space jumpstarting the environmentalist movement, to the way COVID-19 changed how people view remote work.

The best science fiction isn’t about predicting the future but commenting on the present, and The Expanse ultimately reflected on all the ways humanity has dealt with recent paradigm shifts. Throughout the series’ six seasons spread across Syfy and Amazon, the origins, abilities, and motives of the show’s aliens remained fairly cryptic.

But Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, who wrote the series of science fiction novels the show is based on under the pen name James S. A. Corey, seemed to mostly be interested in how humans handled the discovery of extraterrestrial technology. Those extraterrestrials were never really characters so much as an external pressure that pushed the show’s various characters and political factions to quickly adapt.

Plots involving the protomolecule, a sort of self-sustaining probe sent to Earth’s solar system by a long extinct alien civilization, often felt at odds with the very recognizably human stories that the writers of The Expanse were otherwise telling. Viewers initially tuning in to the tales of the well meaning and scrappy crew of the Rocinante, or the sci-fi noir of Detective Josephus Miller investigating a disappearance that turns out to be at the heart of a conspiracy, might have been understandably baffled as the stakes ramped up to include an asteroid gaining sentience and heading on a collision course to Earth.

That divide was perhaps never as keenly felt than in the series’ sixth and final season, which wraps on Friday, where most of the alien weirdness was taking place in an entirely different solar system from the main action, on a Martian colony called Laconia. Considering the truncated length of the final season, and that the interludes on Laconia had little payoff beyond setting up a theoretical spinoff, it’s easy to feel like time spent there was replacing more moments of sweet bonding on the Rocinante, or tense standoffs between the United Nations fleet and the Belter Free Navy. Instead, precious screen time was dedicated to worrying about how some dog-like aliens were able to resurrect people.

The crew of the Rocinante sitting at a table and eating dinner together in a still from the final season of The Expanse Photo: Amazon Studios

Yet the brilliance of The Expanse was in placing almost all of the agency in the hands of its human characters. The creators of the protomolecule had the fairly benevolent desire to explore the galaxy and share it with other lifeforms, but their work became the center of numerous all-too-recognizable conflicts.

The protomolecule kills or transforms most people who come into contact with it, but it has no real malice. In fact, the vast majority of the harm it causes is directly orchestrated by humans looking to understand and weaponize it. In season 1, the ruthless tycoon Jules-Pierre Mao conspired to kill hundreds of thousands of Belters as part of an experiment designed to unleash the protomolecule’s power, and worked with Mars to create human-protomolecule hybrids to use as super soldiers.

And so, the protomolecule set off a new arms race, with various factions scheming to ensure they weren’t left behind (or at the mercy of the protomolecule). Rocinante crew member Naomi Nagata secretly gave a sample to Belter leader Fred Johnson, only to have it fall into the hands of Marcos Inaros after his loyalists assassinated Johnson. Inaros in turn sold it to the rogue Martian admiral Winston Duarte in exchange for the technology Inaros used to attack Earth.

While its origins may be extraordinary, the paradigm shift of the protomolecule has more in common with the early days of nuclear physics than more conventional first contact stories. As the series progressed, the writers effectively retread post-Cold War human history with the protomolecule serving as the primary catalyst for change. Individual leaders certainly had huge influences on how the people they represented responded to the all-too-interesting times they were living in. But the primary conflict always boiled down to how well a faction could react to radical changes in the world order they were used to.

The Martian marine Bobbie Draper represented successful, if turbulent, adaptation to the times. She was betrayed by her own people, the sole survivor of an attack by a protomolecule-human hybrid and wound up defecting to the United Nations to uncover the conspiracy. She was cleared of treason but then got in trouble again when the first Ring appeared and she tried to diffuse the situation there but her own soldiers disobeyed her orders to stand down.

Photo: Syfy/Alcon Entertainment

Mars, which built its civilization on noble sacrifice for a terraforming project that would benefit future generations, all but collapsed when the Ring gates gave its citizens the chance to immediately live free under blue skies. Bobbie struggled to find new purpose, at first resorting to criminal activity, but then choosing a different path after seeing the harm her actions caused. She became a symbol for cooperation between old enemies as she allied herself with United Nations Secretary General Chrisjen Avasarala, and even helped push Avasarala to rethink her previously monstrous treatment of Belters.

Duarte expresses many of the same emotions Bobby went through in a monologue that serves as one of the most powerful moments of season 6. He mourns the dream that he and his people lost while sharing his ambitions for Laconia as a new force in the galaxy. “I needed something to make it more than just death,” he said. “I needed to make it a sacrifice.”

Ultimately, his position of power helps sidestep much of the awkwardness Bobbie experienced: While all of The Expanse’s protagonists are focused on stopping Inaros, the Belter leader is just being used by Duarte as a distraction so he is unhindered in his efforts to learn more about the technology of the Ring Builders and use it to make himself the self-appointed protector of the newly expanded galaxy. The breakthrough he reached is only hinted at within the finale, but in the books Duarte turns Laconia into a new empire.

The distance between what’s happening on Laconia and the fight against the Free Navy may seem great, but the two plots are tightly connected. Duarte is a symptom of the collapse of Mars that Earth initially viewed as a victory, their long-time rivals demoralized and fragmented, and he’s empowered by the desperate Belters using violence to get the Inners to take them seriously. The fact that almost everyone in the show is oblivious to what is happening on Laconia underscores one of the defining themes of the show: humanity is terrible at predicting the next threat because we have such a hard time looking beyond our current paradigms.

Those few people who can see what is on the horizon must struggle to make themselves heard, often fighting entrenched interests. Holden has a unique connection to the protomolecule, which allowed it to communicate with him through a manifestation of his dead friend Miller. He understands its incredible power and always pushes humanity to work together to deal with the danger it poses, constantly appealing to the better natures of the more morally ambiguous people around him.

That connection allowed him to understand that something was becoming angered by humanity traversing the galaxy. In season 6, that force took action by destroying ships. Like the Ring Builders, the new threat is not something that people can talk to. It’s more akin to climate change, a terrible side effect to the rapid expansion of human progress that can only really be grappled with through collective action — the kind of cooperation Holden urges throughout the series, exasperating the powers that be even if he does earn credibility by repeatedly saving the world.

The Expanse could have used more time to give its rich characters the sendoffs they deserved and explore the ways that the Ring gates and scientific advancements made with the protomolecule were changing the world. Yet the final season stayed close to its central themes by showing that dramatic change is inevitable, but humanity should meet new innovations and crisis with collaboration to make the best decisions possible. The writers ended the show on an optimistic note, with the creation of a new governing board for Ring travel formed with the help of Holden and all of the factions that started the series at each other’s throats. The transportation union not only allows for safe exploration of the galaxy but finally places the perpetually oppressed denizens of the Asteroid Belt on the same level as the residents of Earth and Mars. A new threat is coming from beyond the Ring, but the crew of the Rocinante once again saved the day and earned themselves the status of legends not only within the show’s universe but within science fiction canon.

Independence Day, Watchmen, and Star Trek imagined that making first contact with aliens — whether violent or peaceful — would get humanity to put aside our differences and work towards something greater than ourselves. Abraham and Franck took a less simplistic view but one that still feels radically optimistic at a time when factionalism seems more pronounced than ever. With a crew representing people from Earth, Mars, and the Belt who have repeatedly saved humanity by acting as a voice of reason, the Rocinante could feel as utopian as the U.S.S. Enterprise.

The future of The Expanse is very recognizable in a world when space exploration is being dominated by billionaires who imagine Earth will eventually be a place people can just visit on vacation. If we do take to the stars en masse, we will likely bring with it all the worst aspects of capitalism and nationalism imagined in The Expanse. Yet, if we’re lucky, we’ll also heed the show’s message by occasionally pausing to question our assumptions about the way the world works and seeing if we can actually build something better.

The Expanse is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.