What Almost All Sci-Fi on TV Gets Wrong

Now that the season finale of the excellent SyFy series The Expanse has come and gone, it’s a good opportunity to reflect on what makes this show so special. Hailed as the heir to the Battlestar Galactica reboot, The Expanse combines a nuanced, realistic portrayal of politics in the far future corners of the solar system. The SyFy show captures the spirit and feel of the books even as it modifies the stories for television — unusually successfully, too.

But there’s something about this series that leaps out at me, as it is something you almost never see on TV or film science fiction: it’s universe-realism. Not everything is realistic, but it gets a lot of things right about any vaguely realistic portrayal of space travel in the future: things are very far apart, there’s no magical artificial gravity and you only feel it when you’re accelerating or in a centrifuge, oxygen and air are vital and sometimes in short supply, and so on. It’s great.

But even a show as great as The Expanse relies on some cheat-y MacGuffins to make the universe work. Fuel, for example, is more or less infinite; most ships can accelerate enough to generate normal-feeling gravitational force for weeks or months on end without refueling (something that is impossible with our current generation of rocket technology).

Still, despite little things like that, The Expanse goes way above and beyond other shows to get a basic physical plausibility right. And in looking at it as a created universe, it highlights somethings that all other science fiction on TV and in movies simply gets wrong.

  1. Gravity
    Probably the biggest reason sci-fi TV shows in particular do not grapple with gravity is because it is expensive to film actors on cables to simulate zero-G. We still aren’t sure exactly what gravity is, though we can observe it and measure it and we are reasonably sure it is a fundamental attribute of all objects with mass. But for a civilization to be able to control gravity would imply a depth of understanding, and skill to manipulate, the fundamental forces of our universe to such an extent they might appear god-like. Which leads to the next bit:
  2. Seat belts
    If you can control gravity then you don’t need seat belts. And yet: if you don’t need seat belts because you can control gravity, then you won’t be shaken off your feet because something goes boom nearby. This happens a lot and I get it: it’s an easy, physical way to convey drama and danger. But let’s be real: if you can control gravity and accelerate fast enough to zoom around the universe, anything that can hit your ship hard enough to knock people off their feet can probably also pulverize the ship. And if the power goes off and you somehow don’t lose gravity as well? Meh.
  3. Travel Times
    The universe is a very big place. One thing that is so great about The Expanse novels is that when characters have to fly between planets, there is a LOT of downtime where they aren’t able to do much — weeks usually, sometimes months. But in almost all other sci-fi, especially space operas, ships just zoom around the universe like it’s nothing. But the reality is that our solar system is so large as to be difficult to comprehend. The fastest spacecraft we’ve ever built take years to reach other planets, to say nothing of other star systems. The nearest maybe-habitable planet we know of, Kepler-452b, is around 14,000 years away, assuming we develop the technology to travel at 1/10th the speed of light. We’re nowhere near doing that. Our solar system is plenty big for several lifetimes of adventure, but so few sci-fi shows ever explore it.
  4. Fuses
    Why on earth (…) aren’t sci-fi space ships built with decent fuses? From Star Trek to Battlestar Galatica, Stargate to Star Wars, space ships seem to erupt with sparks whenever things go boom. Much like the gravity issue, this is a often a production choice: it is easier and cheaper to convey tension and drama with a shower of sparks. But when you think about it, these are spaceships that are designed to harness unfathomable energies to zoom around in space and travel faster than light; why don’t they have a fuse box in case there is a surge of electricity?
  5. Guided Weapons
    Star Trek has its torpedoes, Stargate has spaceships that can actually aim their laser cannons, and so on. But by and large, science fiction seems to take place in a universe where guided weaponry just doesn’t exist (or it isn’t very common). The U.S. military, right now, is working on guns that shoot guided bullets; surely, in the future, even a laser pistol or whatever can be set to hit its target? And when spaceships are fighting spaceships, we can at least get a few direct hits? Star Wars is arguably the worst offender: they have all the wonders of artificial gravity and interstellar travel but they can’t aim in a dogfight. The Terminator series, too, has hyper-intelligent robots who cannot hit fleeing humans with a laser (which requires no aiming since it travels at lightspeed). Such a story decision, made in an effort to draw some parallel to Vietnam or World War II or whatever and thus (again, cheaply) drive up the drama, ends up destroying the feel of the story. Robots, even humanoid cylons, should never miss when they’re shooting at you!
  6. Imagery
    Something that leaps out in the early episodes of The Expanse is the use of imagery. It avoids the cheap trope of zoom and enhance, which is an obnoxious cheat that kills the story by introducing a bizarrely advanced capability into a story. In The Expanse, you see heat signatures (why don’t more aliens and advanced robots use infrared?) of ships that are distant and incapable to photograph with visual light, and people fret that they are stealth ships and therefore inherently destabilizing instruments of war. This is fairly accurate, as far as it goes. Yet the role that imagery could play (along with other forms of intelligence gathering, from MASINT to ELINT) is very rarely explored. The best example was the end of Season 2 of Battlestar Galactica, when it took the Cylons two years to see the light from a nuclear catastrophe, because they were two lightyears away. But that is a rare exception.
  7. Camouflage
    In a series like Star Trek, we never get a convincing explanation for why the Federation cannot use cloaking devices on their ships (it would make production easier — fewer expensive exterior shots, but less spaceship drama), and they never grapple with how destabilizing it would be to have undetectable cloaked Romulan warbirds flying around everywhere (and even the Klingon use of their own cloaking devices was only used rarely, for dramatic or plot purposes). The Starfleet uniforms are silly: they can create force fields, holograms, and basically have infinity power, but they can’t shield their foot soldiers? Even the Stargates were a bit twee on this front: an actual military command couldn’t even muster up some basic camouflage when sending special operators into high-risk, unknown environments. Again: this sort of thing tends to break the illusion.
  8. The Internet
    There is a strong plot element in The Expanse of following a person’s social media and video trail through various networks. It is one of the only times there is something like an Internet that is even sort of feasibly incorporated into a future story. Because space is an ocean, most shows treat the Internet like it doesn’t exist, or like it cannot be accessed. In many books there is a good explanation for this — in Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space series, for example, lightspeed makes it impractical to transmit messages when you can just have a lighthugger courier a note to the next star system — but on TV, for some reason, people can communicate instantly over vast distances but can’t look up information on a computer. A lot of that can be boiled down to era (in the mid-80s, the idea of an Internet at all was crazy) but still: it seems like a glaring absence, something that becomes retrofuturist.
  9. Politics
    Ahh, politics. My big bugaboo. Frankly, almost everyone who tries to do science fiction and future-y things either doesn’t even acknowledge politics, or they treat political processes like a bad thing, or they demonstrate such a shallow grasp of politics that it becomes silly. TV is especially bad at this — as a mass media tool, it is rare for TV shows to grapple with politics at all, especially not in niche genres that have very slim margins for viewership. Hence the only politics in Stargate are an evil Senator who wants to defund Stargate Command for reasons, or who wants to manipulate the command for his own nefarious ends. On Star Trek, Admiral Necheyev is always a wet blanket, but we never see why that is: is it her philosophy of command, some other political pressure elsewhere in the Federation, or what? This is, arguably, the weakest part of the Star Trek utopia: there are just no factions. Humanity is portrayed as one dreary, homogenous whole. In Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, we learn that there is a President of the Federation, but we know nothing of why or how he is the President; we learn on the Next Generation that there is a Council, but know nothing of how they are elected or what they believe. In the cases where people do exert local democratic tendencies — choosing or voting as a society to direct their own future (the horrible-when-you-think-about-it displacing Indians one and the entire storyline of the Maquis) the story is of the Federation crushing political movements. Battlestar Galactica does one of the best jobs of portraying the role of politics in space, but even then, democratic challenges to President Roslin are presented as bad things for the characters to overcome, and an attempt to revolt against her unconstitutional rule are portrayed as acts of villainy. Politics are good for drama, but you don’t want actual democratic change because the result is always disaster.

So there we go. This list doesn’t mean the TV sci-fi that flubs these basic things is inherently wrong; Star Trek violates most of them but has still created some of the most thought-provoking, well-produced stories ever put on screen. Same with Battlestar Galactica, which even a decade later is incredibly rewatchable and impressive for its staying power. But they are the sort of basic-blocks of world building that can become a distraction if they become too ridiculous.

This is one of the reasons I have been such a fan of The Expanse, first as a book series and now as a TV show. In that universe, the politics of the solar system are integral to the stories and characters. There are no homogenous factions, people go rogue, people get burned out, and there is constant conflict and violence at the edges where these ideologies all meet. Even though the series is not an explicitly political one, and the focus is rarely about the politics, those politics are nevertheless integral to its success as a story.

The same can be said for the other items on this list. It actually portrays space travel in a somewhat realistic way, with no magical gravity generators and no magical force fields that can save you from the vacuum of space if someone punches a hole in your ship. Weapons are either guided or travel so fast they don’t need to be guided. People wear armor to protect themselves from bullets, and there are attempts to camouflage ships and people. When ships are in combat there aren’t just sparks flying everywhere, there are holes punched in the hull of the ship and people die from it.

None of these worldbuilding things are the point of the stories in The Expanse, but the authors of the books, who write under the pseudonym James S.A. Corey, incorporate them so well into the fabric of their stories that it becomes invisible. It makes The Expanse feel like a real universe, not some sort of thought experiment, where there is real history and real hardship that creates its own drama — not through plot MacGuffins, but through the structural forces that guide the world. And most interestingly of all to me, with the one exception of fuel for their magic space engines, the universe does not cheat for the sake of plot; it actually creates successes and failures that make sense within the boundaries, rules, and constraints of its own universe. That’s why it is so damn interesting, and so damn compelling: it is a story that does not insult you with its quest for drama, but rather lets the drama unfold organically from the universe itself.

joshua.foust
Joshua Foust is a writer and analyst who studies foreign policy.