Each generation has its own sci-fi saga that speaks to its moment.
In the 1960s, Star Trek spoke of the psychedelic horror of a seemingly insane world. In the 1970s and 1980s, Star wars appealed to a generation disenfranchised by Watergate and Vietnam. In the 1990s, Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Voyager extrapolated a utopian future from the peace and prosperity of the post-Cold War era. In January 2007, The Guardian described Battlestar Galactica like “the only award-winning drama that dares to tackle the war on terror. “
The extent is the sci-fi epic that speaks most vividly in today’s cultural time. It’s a science fiction allegory that holds up an uncomfortable mirror to the world not as it exists two hundred years from now, but as it is in the present. Actor Shohreh Aghdashloo approached the show from this angle: “When we started filming, I kept saying, ‘What science fiction? Why fiction? There is nothing fictional about it. All that’s on my [script] the page is in the news.
The extent is fascinated by power and exploitation. The series focuses primarily on the political machinations of Earth, Mars and the inhabitants of the far reaches of the system known as “Belters”. The Earth is prosperous, but in decline; it is not too difficult to read the planet as a metaphor for the erosion of American global influence. Mars is in difficulty, but rising; it is built on a collective rather than an individualist dream, suggesting that it can be read as an emerging China.
However, the Belters are the most interesting. They’re a familiar sci-fi trope: the alien subclass for the dominant powers to exploit. In this way, the Belters recall the replicants in Blade runner, The new comers Alien nation, or the “Shrimps” of District 9. However, there is one key difference between Belters and these other examples – Belters are explicitly human. There is no metaphor to disguise their exploitation.
The extent borrows the language of the West. In its fourth season, footage about the new world of Ilus is filmed in the anamorphic ratio 2.39: 1 recall “Westerns Panavision. Adolphus Murtry (Burn Gorman) boasts: “We are all walking in the footsteps of history, of the old frontier. All these post offices, railways and prisons have cost thousands of lives to build. ” The extent suggests that where these forces cannot find an indigenous population to exploit, they will create one again.
In particular, the future of The extent is neither post-scarcity nor post-capitalism. Earth has established a Universal Basic Income, but the show repeatedly shows the influence of large corporations like Mao-Kwikowski Mercantile or Royal Charter Energy on government policy. Billionaire Jules-Pierre Mao (François Chau) can manipulate the governments of Earth and Mars into war. For Belters, commodities like air and water are “more valuable than gold” and are sold as such.
The extent speaks of a decade marked by economic turmoil, the scars left by the 2008 recession. Income inequality keep growing. More wealth is controlled by less people. Power is increasingly consolidated in mega-companies. During this time, the middle class is eroding. The “concert economy” destroyed any sense of job security. A lot of work several jobs, while many others do not have access to resources like drinking water and supports like Medicare. Many children are worse than their parents. The future will not be better.
Consistent with this trend, there is a strong indication that the future of spaceflight will be privatized. The people who will lead this private push into space will be men like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, the two richest men on the planet. Bezos has massively benefited from the current pandemic, while overseeing a business that operates draconian and exploiter working conditions for staff that makes it possible. It’s hard to imagine Bezos’ planned expansion into space would be very different.
It’s no small irony that Bezos himself is part of the larger narrative of The extent. The show premiered on SyFy but was canceled after its third season. Bezos stepped in at the last minute to purchase the rights and renew the show for Amazon Prime Video. Bezos would have been “A big fanOf the show and was delighted to announce his resurrection to National Space Society International Conference on Space Development.
It’s interesting to wonder what Bezos sees in The extent, as well as the lens through which he looks at her. One can only assume that he appreciates it in the same way as Elon Musk enjoys the class horror of Parasite. Time and again, The extent refers to the horror of human lives rendered as raw material for the constant rotation of more powerful forces – for the practice of the art of government, for the curiosity of billionaires, for the plans of long dead civilizations.
Deprived of gravity, Belters’ bodies transformed to adapt to their environment; they have brittle and longer bones. Mao unleashes the protomolecule on civilian populations, hoping it could create something more suited to the space. Scientist Antony Dresden (Daniel Kash) boasts of his dream of “human beings able to live in a high vacuum without a suit, or the overwhelming atmosphere of a gas giant, or able to hibernate long enough to travel to the stars”. People are only means to an end.
This model extends beyond humanity itself. The aliens who designed the protomolecule viewed affected life as a vehicle for their own expansion. The protomolecule is built from the material around it, including human bodies. “We are tools,” Joe Miller (Thomas Jane) told James Holden (Steven Strait) at one point, shortly before translating that idea into literal by convincing Holden to put his hand in an alien machine so that ‘it can “complete (a) circuit” and activate a larger mechanical process.
As Game Of Thrones before that, The extent confronts humanity with existential threats which it does not have the unity to overcome. A lot of Game Of Thrones was built around the irony of human figures fighting for the Iron Throne as the doomsday menace of the Night King (Richard Brake, Vladimír Furdík) marched towards Westeros. In The extent, the feuds of various human factions divert attention away from the threats posed by the protomolecule – and the threat that destroyed its creators.
The extent suggests that human beings are tribal and that these impulses are destructive. “We want the same thing, you know,” Fred Johnson (Chad Coleman) tells Holden. “We are in the same team. Holden replies, “There shouldn’t be any teams.” When Earth is devastated by an asteroid attack, Amos Burton (Wes Chatham) warns Clarissa Mao (Nadine Nicole): “The more things are settled, the bigger the tribes can be. The unsubscribe happens and the tribes become small again.
This anxiety is reflected in the structure of the show. As Game Of Thrones, it follows several tangents at the same time. As the characters follow the course of their story, it brings to mind the parable of the blind describing the elephant. Everyone sees part of the image, not the whole. Klaes Ashford (David Strathairn) and Chrisjen Avasarala (Aghdashloo) separately investigate terrorist Marco Inaros (Keon Alexander) plot against Earth, but no one puts the pieces together in time to prevent the atrocity.
The extent understands the appeal of this tribalism in a chaotic world. After the end of its own war with Earth and the discovery of countless new worlds, Mars is left adrift politically. Unemployment is rising, as the planet loses its sense of common purpose as its basic mythology is unraveled. Meanwhile, Marco Inaros creates a war with Earth to unify Belter’s disparate factions under a common cause. However, this resurgent nationalism is ultimately doomed to failure.
In this way, The extent reflects the modern world. Technical advances such as the Internet and social media have fragmented speech, which makes it harder than ever to build unifying stories and agree on consensus reality. Political polarization is worse than it has been since the civil war, and democracy has become more and more divided. Reborn tribalism and nationalism divide the nations. They also block responses to real existential threats like climate change Where inequality.
Every generation gets the sci-fi saga it deserves. The extent taps into the anxieties of the post-recession era. Futures projected in science fiction are often twisted reflections of the present. The extent holds a depressing, but precise mirror.