Mark your calendars because February 1st is a great day for sci-fi fans as it sees the return of two shows that have elevated the genre and the expectations of what their respective networks can achieve. I’m talking about CW’s The 100 and Syfy’s The Expanse.
Science fiction storytelling has been going through something of a renaissance in recent years. Films like Ex Machina, The Martian, and now Arrival have all met success with critics and audiences while also garnering major awards recognition. The future also looks bright with new films from beloved properties such as Blade Runner 2049, Alien: Covenant and Ghost in the Shell all due out this year (Star Wars doesn’t count, that’s fantasy, not sci-fi). Television hasn’t been excluded from this new wave of bold sci-fi storytelling as shows like 12 Monkeys, Westworld and most recently The OA have proved. But it is The 100 and The Expanse that have been most overlooked as both shows are telling new and unique narratives while also saying something about humanity in that storied sci-fi tradition. If you are not already watching these shows, there is still time to binge and catchup and here’s why you should.
The 100 is set 97 years after a nuclear holocaust destroys life on Earth. The survivors living aboard a space station send 100 juvenile delinquents down to the planet to see if it is habitable again (spoiler alert: there’s a show, so it is) and if so to somehow survive and repopulate the planet. It is easy to dismiss The 100 on a superficial level and many fans of genre TV have. At first glance the series looks like a typical CW show full of pretty people having overly dramatic relationship problems against a post-apocalyptic backdrop. This is the network of soapy teen angst and brightly colored superheroes.
How many love triangles would The 100 have? Would the beautiful actresses defy reality and somehow manage to keep their hair and faces clean in this primitive fallout world? This is not necessarily an insult, but their programming has historically had certain hallmarks that cannot be denied. In this age of Peak TV, I, like many others, give a show three episodes to sell me on it. The 100 fails that test. The first few episodes are full of cheesy one-liners and thinly drawn characters with little hints of any real substance. The creators have even admitted that these episodes are the worst of the series.
I stuck with it on the recommendation of TV writers I trust and around episode 4 or 5 I became interested. This show has been referred to as the true successor to Battlestar Galactica and that comparison is apt. Once The 100 gets going it is easy to forget that this show is on a broadcast network, let alone The CW. This show is brutal and unforgiving. The violence is on par with what you might find on FX or AMC and the show is just as willing as Game of Thrones to kill off characters the audience has invested in. Like Battlestar Galactica, this is not a post-apocalyptic story, it is a human story set in a post-apocalyptic world.
Also like BSG, The 100 uses its story to explore the human condition and acts as an allegory to real world issues. It examines torture, genocide, dictatorships and what it means to be a leader. Different leadership approaches and the lengths a leader has to go to in order to protect their people and when do the ends no longer justify the means is at the heart of this show. The characters have to make hard choices and there is no reset button, life doesn’t work that way and neither does The 100.
These characters are haunted by their decisions and the victories weigh on them just as heavily as the losses. Admittedly, the third season caused a bit of controversy and was arguably the weakest of the series. Despite this, it is still one of the best genre shows on TV, irrespective of network. It boasts an extremely diverse cast and has some of the strongest female characters on television. This show is a great example of the profound insight the best science fiction storytelling can offer and it deserves your attention.
Syfy (formerly Sci-Fi, because spelling things wrong for trademark purposes is clever and fun!) has been slowly winning back the goodwill it lost in the years post-BSG. After years of Earth-based procedurals and cheap reality shows, the channel that brought fans Battlestar Galactica and the various Stargate shows, is getting back to its roots. Shows like 12 Monkeys and The Magicians have brought compelling serialized storytelling, with quality special effects, back to the network. The Expanse is based on a series of books, (with phenomenally cool titles) written by author James S.A. Corey.
The series is set in the future when mankind has colonized the solar system. Earth and Mars are both independent states while the asteroid belt is a colony that exists to provide its abundant resources to the two planets. The political situation among the various factions in the system is rife with tension and the slightest spark could ignite it in to full on war. It is best not to say too much about the plot as this show is part mystery and to do so would diminish the journey. On a macro level this series is part noir detective story, part space opera and part political thriller. The characters are all interesting and layered with pasts that have shaped them and the world-building is top notch.
Like with The 100 and Syfy’s own BSG, The Expanse touches on many modern issues through the lens of a space-faring human society. This show deals with class, racism, political corruption and terrorism in a story that feels very real and grounded. The political, societal and scientific makeup of this future feels like what I would imagine it will be like if humanity makes it long enough to colonize the solar system (I’m about 50/50 on it). Much like BSG or Firefly, this isn’t some bright and shiny future a la Star Trek, this future is gritty and and bleak and lived in. Not having read the books, the story is constantly taking unexpected twists and turns and is full of exciting reveals that have made the wait for season 2 take forever. A compelling mystery such as this was made for the era of bingeing and at a very manageable 10 episodes, it is easy to catch up for season 2. This is the best Syfy show since Battlestar and that is something to be excited about.
The best science fiction stays with us long after we have experienced it. It can reveal beliefs we didn’t know we had and help us examine humanity and the real world in new and interesting ways. At the same time it can be incredibly fun and thrilling with intense spaceship battles and fierce warrior queens. The 100 and The Expanse represent some of the best of science fiction on tv right now and they are both returning on February 1st. Set your DVRs and catch up as fast as you can, you owe it to yourself to give these underrated gems a shot.
The 100 Season 4 premieres on February 1st at 9/8c on The CW
The Expanse returns for Season 2 on February 1st at 10/9c on Syfy
Images via The CW and Syfy
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