An epic new SF conspiracy thriller is hitting television. Bryan Cairns investigates the strange case of The Expanse...
Syfy’s new space show is looking epic in every way.
Syfy’s new series The Expanse is already drawing the kind of buzz most science fiction television series would blow up a planet to generate. This summer the pilot was screened at San Diego Comic-Con to strong word of mouth. Attendees immediately compared the space saga to such genre royalty as 2004’s Battlestar Galactica, Firefly and, yes, even Game Of Thrones. Executive producers Mark Fergus (writer of Iron Man, Children Of Men and Cowboys & Aliens) and Naren Shankar (producer of Farscape, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Grimm) obviously couldn’t be more thrilled to be lumped in with such distinguished company.
“We’ll take it,” Fergus tells SFX. “There hasn’t been a show that’s done multi-layered, complicated, interweaving storylines with this kind of scope in a while. That’s why those comparisons are coming. There’s definitely a thirst in the market place for it. People aren’t afraid of complexity and density. They kind of crave it. They want to get drawn into a world that feels real, that has depth and they are willing to go along without understanding every little thing. That’s what is so beautiful about this long-form era that we are living in.”
Based on the best-selling Leviathan Wakes book series by James SA Corey, the pen name of authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, the show takes place 200 years in the future when
mankind has colonised the solar system. The
Expanse finds cynical detective Josephus “Joe” Miller (Thomas Jane) and rogue ship captain Jim Holden (Steven Strait) joining forces to find Julie Mao (Florence Faivre), a missing young woman who may hold the key to a growing conspiracy involving Earth, Mars and the Belt.
“It’s a cop case like a lot of great noir shows where there’s a tiny, little meaningless incident – a case nobody wants, thrown on a deadbeat cop’s desk – and Miller starts pulling on this little thread of this missing rich girl,” says Shankar. “Over the course of the show, this case ends up being the thread that leads to this massive, epic conspiracy. It starts as a tiny little incident that really is connected to everything this is about: all our characters and all the conspiracies. That case envelops the show.”
“Miller is the crusader who has lost his idealism and has to find his way back to it through this case that he’s following,” adds Fergus. “Holden has these ideas about justice and what the real world is like. One has lived and one has not lived, yet. They are going to teach each other their viewpoint of how they see the world.”
Miller and Holden may be the primary characters, but other key players round out the cast. That group includes Naomi Nagata (Dominique Tipper), the spaceship Canterbury’s head engineer; the vessel’s pilot Alex Kamal (Cas Anvar); as well as its mechanic Amos Burton (Wes Chatham). There’s also Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo), the Deputy Undersecretary for the United Nations. Details about their backstories, histories and moral compasses will emerge as the season progresses. “Ty and Daniel are incredibly prolific authors,” notes Shankar. “In addition to all the books of the series, they’ve written a whole bunch of supporting novellas. Part of the fun about doing the show is that we get this great, intense, adventure-driven plot in the main book. Then, we’ve been bringing in the individual, real-life, character-study stories from
the novellas and using them to inform the people in the show. This is where the comparisons to Game Of Thrones and Battlestar are apt. Without making ourselves sound too grand, it is that slow unfolding as you learn about the people and you get to explore dimensions with them, episode after episode, and season after season.”
It’s a crisp November afternoon when SFX visits The Expanse set. Inside Toronto’s Pinewood Studios, three huge soundstages have been transformed. In one corner stand living quarters that are constantly redressed for various characters. A recently erected police station takes over a substantial chunk of space. A menacing, multi-story metal airlock with a warning sign, “Caution: Hydraulic Door”, looms over the area. Another soundstage serves as the dwarf planet Ceres’ underground colony. Even more striking is the nearby docked, 430-metre spaceship, the Donnager.
“What we loved about the vision of this story was it was a very functional, real, gritty, what we call a ‘Ridley Scott version of the future,’” says Fergus. “This is how they live in the future. Sociology can be matched back to today with the railroads, racism, the working class and empires rising and falling. Our world projects a little bit out with a technological advance that changes the game, and, yet, humanity doesn’t change. We’re still the same, for good or ill. Technology has changed and our possibilities have expanded. It shows real life as it probably is going to be, should we make it that far. It’s completely relatable to now, yet it’s something you’ve never seen before.”
On hand to offer input and watch their baby being brought to life are Abraham and Franck. It’s becoming more and more common for authors to be on set, and the duo is taking full advantage of that.
“When I was brought onto the show, I was told the writers of the books are going to be in the room,” recalls Shankar. “I was like, ‘Shit.’ I was kind of shocked. That’s not always done in television. As it turns out, it’s Ty Franck and Daniel Abrahams. It’s so fantastic having them in the room. At every single stage of the process, we were like, ‘If only there was some element that could show off Belter culture.’ Ty and Daniel would go, ‘Hey, what about this thing that is in book nine?’ They’ve been involved since the very beginning in every single bit of development.”
“They defend their material, but at the same time, they are really open,” chimes in Fergus. “They are always looking for a better choice, a stronger choice. They are like the masters of the story, yet, they will break anything that needs to be broken or made better. We moved characters from book two into season one. We restructured some things. We have expanded on characters, who are very minor in the books, and have awesome possibilities.
“We’ve shrunk back people who are more prominent in the books,” adds Fergus. “The
It shows life as it is probably going to be, should we make it that far
great thing is we don’t have to tiptoe around the authors and feel like we’re messing with their material. They know the soul of the show is exactly what they intended, so they don’t mind us playing with the building blocks.”
On a weekly basis, Miller and Holden’s investigation will bring them closer to the conspirators and their hidden agenda. Motives and secrets will come to light. Those elements could keep fans guessing for a season or four, but Fergus and Shankar have no intention of stringing people along.
“What we wanted to do is we’re telling one complete story,” says Fergus. “As much as we change and expand on things, the idea that it’s a fully formed story means we’re not making it up as we go along. Everything fits into a piece of this mosaic and that allows us to have tons of freedom within the boundaries. We know what the story is. It’s not just, ‘Let’s keep it going. We’ll do this. We’ll go there.’ There is one theme and one story being told.
“I think great TV now doesn’t have consistency in the way of you know what to expect,” he continues. “You shift focus. You change point of view. You split to the enemy side. You spend a whole episode in one room. Then the next episode is all action. You keep shifting the rhythm of the show, which is awesome about modern television.”
Fergus and Shankar may emphasise strong characters and plot, but they aren’t skimping on the action. Viewers can expect plenty of gun-slinging, scuffles and explosions. In fact, one stand-out moment is in the pilot.
“One of the most thrilling scenes involves the Canterbury changing course,” concludes Shankar. “The ship is answering this distress call and this massive lumbering – think of it as a super-tanker in space – has to change direction. It’s an old ship that might break apart. It has to turn its engines and point in the opposite way and fire up just to change course. That could possibly rip the ship apart. People love that visceral kind of material.”
The Expanse begins on Syfy in the US on 14 December.
Miller (Thomas Jane) will hopefully find a good barber in space.
The rogueish Jim Holden (Steven Strait).
Gripping: Julie Mao (Florence Faivre).
Space suits: kinda handy.