I think I may have discovered another universal constant. Along with gravity and the speed of light there is the constant need for my family unit (consisting of my wife, me and a very grumpy dog) to be watching a science fiction television series of some kind. If we don’t get a weekly dose of a show with at least some type of science fiction hook, we tend to get listless and feel that something is missing in our lives (O.K. the dog probably doesn’t care, but we anthropomorphize big time). Luckily the library has a great selection of DVDs that allow us to feed our addiction. Here are four recent(ish) series that just might be of interest if you suffer from the same malady or just like interesting television that actually has a narrative.
Based on a series of novels by James Corey, The Expanse is set in a future where humanity has colonized the solar system but is still plagued by the all too familiar problems of corporate greed, governments on the verge of war and religious fanaticism. The Expanse is a true space opera, in the best sense of the term, with multiple story lines and characters that all converge in the end. The three main plotlines involve a police detective tracking down a lead in the asteroid belt, a ship’s officer and crew trying to find out who destroyed their vessel and a Machiavellian United Nations executive trying to make sure that Earth’s interests come first. The mystery at the center of it all is slowly revealed and appropriately ominous and menacing. The show’s great strength is in how it presents a fully realized future universe that is fun to get lost in.
For fans of stories dealing with artificial intelligence, the setup for this series will sound familiar. In the near future synths, my favorite name for androids, are an integral part of human society. They do most of the jobs, from gardening to telemarketing, and are designed to be essentially mindless labor. One inventor, however, has created a small family of synths that are sentient and self-aware. When the inventor dies, under mysterious circumstances of course, these ‘human’ synths are forced to split up and go underground to try to survive. What follows, over eight episodes, is a fascinating examination of some of the classic questions arising out of the development of artificial intelligence: What does it mean to be conscious? What happens when humans create a sentient being? Are these creations simple machines or are they individuals? If they are individuals, will they continue to serve us or simply rebel? Oh and, of course, there are sexbots.
At first this mini-series seems a bit like Mad Men in space. In 1963, a secret program was set up to send a set of colonists to the nearest star to preserve humanity. Fifty-one years later their descendants are halfway through the journey. The early 1960s culture aboard the ship, complete with beach parties and three martini lunches, is suddenly disturbed by the murder of a young woman. Since this is the first murder of the trip no one is sure quite how to handle it. An investigation is launched and the viewer begins to find out that the society on board is far from ideal with all sorts of nefarious power struggles and a rigid caste system. There is a major plot twist early on that sends the story in a very different direction, but if you roll with it, it makes the story even more compelling.
This is another show based on a series of novels, this time by Blake Crouch, and is produced by M. Night Shyamalan so you know things are going to get a little weird. While investigating the disappearance of two of his fellow U.S. Secret Service agents, Ethan Burke gets into a car accident and wakes up in the seemingly idyllic town of Wayward Pines, Idaho. As the series progresses he is introduced to the, shall we say, quirky residents and quickly finds out that something is really amiss. First of all, it is impossible to leave the place. Also, there is strict set of rules that everyone must follow and repeated violations result in a ‘reckoning’ which isn’t pretty. While the setup is definitely more Twin Peaks than Star Trek, as the series progress you definitely get to more familiar Science Fiction territory. Admittedly, you do have to suspend your disbelief big time to enjoy this one, but as they said on MST3K: ‘It’s just a show, I should really just relax.’