[Ed. note: This piece contains spoilers for The Expanse season 5 and for the 2004 Battlestar Galactica reboot.]
The most recent Battlestar Galactica series has a repeated mantra: “All this has happened before. All this will happen again.” It’s a reference to the cyclical nature of conflict in the show, where humans built the robotic Cylons to serve them, only for the Cylons to rise up and nearly eradicate humanity. But the same slogan could also refer to the very nature of television, and creators’ tendency to revisit the same stories over and over — as they do in the Battlestar Galactica follower The Expanse.
The version of Battlestar Galactica that ran from 2004 to 2009 on the Sci Fi Channel was a reimagining of the 1978 ABC series, keeping the same basic plot and many of the characters, but reframing the story as an examination of the tradeoff between security and freedom America was reckoning with in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Six years after Battlestar Galactica’s finale, the Sci-Fi Channel’s new incarnation, Syfy, launched a spiritual successor to the show: The Expanse, an instant-hit space opera adapting a book series by James S.A. Corey (the pen name for Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck).
The first Expanse book was published in 2011, and when the television adaptation debuted in 2015, it emulated Battlestar Galactica’s model of hard science fiction packed with thrilling space battles, dire threats, political intrigue, and deep personal dramas. The Expanse couldn’t exist without the foundation Battlestar Galactica laid, but it’s a far more sophisticated series, with Abraham, Franck, and showrunner Naren Shankar proving they had the clear, consistent plan that Battlestar Galactica promised but never delivered.
The way The Expanse’s writers have built on and exceeded Battlestar Galactica was never clearer than in the recently wrapped season 5, where much of the plot is also a metaphor for the Sept. 11 attack and America’s response to it. Here’s where the two shows converge, and how The Expanse’s writers did things differently.
THE SURPRISE ATTACK
Battlestar Galactica opens 40 years after a truce between Cylons and humanity was reached following a bloody war. While humans have kept attempting to communicate with the Cylons during those decades, they have no contact until the Cylons destroy the space station meant to be a symbol of the armistice, then unleash a nuclear holocaust that wipes out the vast majority of the human race, and sends the survivors fleeing into space.
The scale of that assault was taken directly from the original version of the show, but the new version’s writers added touches meant to distinctly recall Sept. 11. A memorial hallway, an area of the spaceship Galactica covered in tokens from those killed in the initial attacks, unmistakably resembles the impromptu memorials set up around Ground Zero after Sept. 11. Giving the Cylons the ability to masquerade as humans evokes the unpredictable nature of terrorism, and the paranoia and fear that result. While humanity in Battlestar Galactica generally follows a Greek-mythology-based polytheistic religion, the Cylons share a monotheistic religion meant to remind viewers of the Taliban’s religious zealotry.
Most of The Expanse’s improvements on this kind of commentary come from the benefits of historical hindsight. While Battlestar Galactica’s surprise attack comes primarily from a lost robot slave race out for vengeance, the equivalent surprise attack on Earth in The Expanse is perpetrated entirely by humans. Making the perpetrators part of our species, rather than killer robots, pushes viewers further toward understanding the way great powers have always been built on exploitation, which makes the aggressors’ grievances more sympathetic. The Cylons were exploited, but only offscreen — humanity left them alone for 40 years, and offered a chance to discuss ongoing issues, which they never accepted. Meanwhile, the abuse of the Belt is shown throughout The Expanse, with their people used for horrific experiments, denied basic survival resources like air and water, and robbed of any sense of autonomy. Putting their suffering onscreen makes the story less one-sided, and far more emotionally compelling.
The Expanse’s Osama bin Laden stand-in Marco Inaros (Keon Alexander) is an ascendent leader within the Outer Planet Alliance, a group perpetually crushed in the Cold War-style conflict between Earth and Mars. With the red planet serving as a stand-in for the Soviet Union, Mars’ collapse makes Marco’s audacious attack on Earth possible by giving him access to resources and technology that lets him turn asteroids into powerful stealthed weapons he can aim at the planet. By tying the attacks to the geopolitical shifts within human nations, rather than Battlestar Galactica’s singular betrayal, The Expanse more closely mirrors the actual causes of the Sept. 11 attack and its repercussions.
Like Battlestar Galactica, The Expanse evokes Sept. 11 memorials directly, with a commemoration highly reminiscent of Tribute in Light. But The Expanse’s writers also acknowledge that the biggest impact of the attack isn’t the actual loss of life, so much as the shattering of a people’s illusion that they’re invulnerable.
And at the end of season 4, another OPA leader learning about Marco’s asteroid tech predicts he’ll use it to solidify his control of the asteroid belt, not even dreaming Marco would have the ambition to strike at Earth. In a joke that United Nations admiral Felix Delgado (Michael Irby) begins telling early in the season and only completes in the penultimate episode, a Martian and Belter both say that drinking the finest spirits made by their enemy helps them understand their enemy better. The Earther says the best the Belt has to offer is terrible and the only reason he would order it is to drink less. “It used to be funnier,” Delgado sadly acknowledges, as he recognizes the joke was a symptom of the hubris that allowed his planet to be so badly bloodied. Earth isn’t wiped out in The Expanse the way the United Colonies are in Battlestar Galactica, and the planet’s ongoing ability to be both defender and aggressor sets up some powerful new conflicts.
While Battlestar Galactica had four seasons to reckon with the political fallout of Sept. 11, The Expanse has so far only devoted a few episodes to the reaction to Marco’s attack. Even so, the writers have already provided some fascinating examinations of proportional response, war crimes, and tolerance.
The attack at the beginning of Battlestar Galactica is too devastating to make it a proper Sept. 11 metaphor. It effectively turns America into the underdog against the Cylon terrorists, while relegating the rest of human civilization to irrelevance in the conflict. The show is firmly in a post-apocalyptic realm, where almost any sacrifice can be justified in the name of preventing extinction. Likewise, the majority of Battlestar Galactica main characters are part of the United Colonies’ military, which is provably and constantly using its power to save lives — which makes it harder to hold them accountable for their excesses, even as they deny their people basic liberties.
As in Battlestar Galactica, the surprise attack in The Expanse leaves most of Earth’s elected political leaders dead and puts a relative novice in control, someone who can easily be persuaded to follow military leaders’ aggressive plans that would kill millions of innocents. Former UN Secretary General Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo) advises a tactical strike on their enemies that would minimize civilian casualties, pointing out that Marco doesn’t represent the entire Belt. But other military and civilian leaders argue that the attack on civilian targets on Earth justifies dramatic action, no matter the collateral cost.
It’s a more nuanced version of the Battlestar Galactic conflict, with more players and more possible outcomes complicating the story. Ultimately, Chrisjen and other cooler heads prevail within Earth’s government, while some Belters fight against Marco to make it clear they also don’t support the atrocities he’s committing in their name. The season ends on an optimistic note, with Chrisjen pointing out that a victory against Marco was achieved by a group that contained people from Earth, Mars, and the Belt — a triumph of multiculturalism at a time where the philosophy seemed most vulnerable.
There are a few advocates of tolerance, democracy, and inclusion within Battlestar Galactica, most notably Karl “Helo” Agathon, who has a child with a Cylon, and disobeys orders he believes are genocidal. But the majority of characters lean strongly toward fascism and theocracy, which brings home the show’s point about how seductive those ideologies are, but also makes it hard to find anyone to cheer for. The Expanse is more a story of loveable iconoclasts, a realpolitik tale with a group of legitimate heroes at the center of the action.
Much of season 5 focuses on exploring the backgrounds that made those heroes who they are, and emphasizing the strength of their found family. Battlestar Galactica was rightly criticized for some of its clunkier attempts at fleshing out characters, with plots like having ace pilot Starbuck also be a star athlete, or having several characters turn out to be secret Cylons. In The Expanse, the main cast has always been a collection of people who took to space because of their complicated baggage. Explaining what they’ve left behind feels more natural, and less forced.
One of the season’s most complex arcs involves Naomi Nagata (Dominique Tipper), who had a child with Marco and is trying to save him from his father. The examination of her past terrorist activities and how Marco has weaponized his charisma is a powerful look at the impact of emotional abuse and the challenges of trying to escape radicalization. Battlestar Galactica tried to make some of its Cylons sympathetic, but the Belters are both more relatable and more terrifying by virtue of being human. The question posed at the end of this season of The Expanse is whether enough people will be capable of putting aside suspicion and a thirst for vengeance to face the challenges to come.
Battlestar Galactica ended with a bizarre plot involving the survivors abandoning their technology to live on Earth with prehistoric humans, and a montage of dancing robots meant to provide a warning that we are doomed to repeat our mistakes. But the writers of The Expanse seem to have learned from what came before. They’ve avoided Battlestar Galactica’s missteps, while crafting a tighter and more nuanced geopolitical space opera. Amazon, which picked up The Expanse after Syfy cancelled it, said it will stop producing the show after season 6. If The Expanse’s writers can stick the landing, they can provide a model for whatever happens next in the cycle, and whoever takes up these themes and ideas in the future.