The Perseverance recently landed on Mars looking for extraterrestrial life, so it’s timely to consider how the popular TV series, The Expanse, depicts aliens. Any science fiction worth its salt needs cool aliens. Extraterrestrial life heightens the drama and allows intriguing issues to be explored including inter-species contacts and communications. However, The Expanse’s aliens are derivative – sometimes in a thoughtful way, sometimes not. Too bad since, overall, the series is imaginative with interesting characters, rousing themes, and a setting spanning the solar system (and beyond).
Aliens needn’t always be monsters, but in The Expanse, they almost always are, starting with the ‘protomolecule’, a mysterious, gooey substance. Expose humans to it, add a little energy, and presto the hapless individual transforms into a creature that’s a heroin chic version of the Swamp Thing.
The Expanse’s intrepid heroes dispatch one such creature by luring it out of their vessel into space and then toasting it in the blast from their spaceship’s fusion rocket drive. This seems to be a direct homage to Ridley Scott’s film, Alien, where a similar monster meets a comparably sticky end. Oddly, in another brush with the protomolecule, the story’s heroes seek to destroy it with a high energy torpedo. But wait, isn’t the protomolecule supposed to crave energy? If so, haven’t our heroes unwittingly supercharged the alien’s growth in their attempt to blast it? The series script-writers ignore this logical conundrum.
A more inventive brush with aliens occurs later in The Expanse as the story’s protagonists traverse a protomolecule-engineered portal (‘the ring space’, a sort-of worm hole allowing interstellar travel) to support settlers on a distant world. A blizzard of metallic bugs attacks a landing party shuttle harkening back to Stanislaw Lem’s novel, Invincible, which explores the hopelessness of human communication with alien entities. This motif is amplified by the human settlers stumbling on – and awakening – immense, ancient alien structures that appear to control the planet’s very tectonics and meteorology with malign intentions toward the human settlers. Several episodes are spent with the humans trying to understand what they’re contending with. In a novel plot twist, the only intermediary between species is the avatar of a noir, hard-boiled police detective. Through a series of complex plot machinations, the cop is plugged into the psyche and motives of the aliens and assists the humans in escaping the planetary deathtrap.
That’s all pretty inventive. Further, the protomolecule is endlessly plastic, sometimes displaying biological properties, and then morphing into super machines with virtually limitless capabilities including constructing the aforementioned portals through space. But it’s back to clichés soon enough as little green slugs attack the humans followed quickly by alien bacteria. These are defeated easily enough with chemotherapy and, likely, the screenplay included these tropes intending a wink at the audience. Still, it’s rather standard extraterrestrial evil stuff. Further, The Expanse explores shopworn plot elements including having its human villains try to control the uncontrollable – ala Frankenstein – by harnessing the protomolecule to do their nefarious bidding. And, just when the alien threat seems most pressing, the humans proceed to fight each other to the determent of their common defense.
So, The Expanse is a study in contrasts with both monster movie clichés and imaginative conceptions of a very advanced – and malign –civilization engaging with earthlings in the form of an entity with hybrid biological and technological properties. The latter approach makes for better drama than the former.
Future posts will look at other aspects of The Expanse.