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 used to be a foreign policy maven. Now he helps organizations communicate strategically and build audiences.