By Abbey White and Joseph Zitt
The Expanse is not your typical Sharknado SyFy. The network, which has recently produced low gloss, pseudo-realistic hits like 12 Monkeys, is throwing down the gauntlet with the title of its new space-opera.
A sharp socio-political drama about a solar system on the edge of war, the show is a return to the grand scope and technical accuracy of classic science fiction. The Expanse, to put it simply, is a show unafraid of the unknown.
That unknown is set in a near future where Mars and the asteroid belt are mined for elements to support the ruling population of Earth. Supply ships carry workers and materials between the worlds, serving as a conduit for the show’s rising tensions. The series’ opening hour alludes to this larger universe and a deep conspiracy behind its relentless action. Yet, the dark matter of its worlds is a contrast to the clear, intimate portrayal of The Expanse’s cast of characters.
It’s a cast led by Thomas Jane as Detective Josephus Miller, a private policeman on the dwarf belt planet of Ceres. A man of questionable morals and an affinity for the bottle, Miller is tasked with locating a missing woman by the name of Julie Mao (Florence Faivre). His fate becomes unexpectedly connected with Jim Holden (Steven Strait), executive officer of the ice freighter Canterbury, when the ship’s crew answer a distress call sent from a seemingly abandoned craft — on which Mao may be trapped.
Reluctantly, Holden and a handful of others make their way to the vessel, but en-route the Canterbury finds itself caught in the middle of the impending civil war between Earth and Mars. As the ship becomes a target for attack, Holden and his fellow crew members must confront the possibility of facing the expanse alone.
Prior to the series’ digital premiere on Monday, Nov. 23, ScreenSpy sat down with executive producers Hawk Ostby and Mark Fergus, best known for their work on Iron Man and Children of Men. During our chat, we delved into the show’s confident world-building and diverse characters, as well as the challenges of adapting a television show from a well-known book series.
On the main themes of the series
Ostby: You know, it’s interesting, looking at the world today. What a screwed up planet, but we’ve been here before. We seem to every fifty years — we’re in the same cycle, and it’s intriguing. We’ve been seeing The Martian, all these sci-fi things coming out now, because people are looking up and going ‘Man, if we could get up there, we could do this all over again and make a much better world.’ Which of course you can’t because you’re gonna pack all the same baggage and screw up the next thing. So you know, it’s can we get out of our own way or are we sort of doomed to walk around in the same circle?
Fergus: That’s it. It’s just, what is humanity capable of becoming? Are we just locked in our biological limitations and that’s it? We’ll just do this to our extinction, or do we have a path that evolves to something greater, something better, like we’re intended to go further than we have? And what’s that look like? In a real grounded way, I think what’s great about this series is that it handles all these big lofty Kubrickian kind of themes, but in a real [way]. It’s a little guy, a cop, a ship captain, a revolutionary girl who wants to be a revolutionary. All these really identifiable smaller people, not kingmakers. They’re caught up in circumstances which lead them to a conspiracy where the big questions are being asked, like what is humanity capable of? And the game-changing new technology comes into play. What do we do with it?
You know, like nuclear power. Power for all, or we can blow the world up, you know? There’s always that dichotomy, like everybody wants the weaponizing and technology, and at the same time, you could save everyone. We just don’t necessarily have the humanity to know what to do with the tools we’re given.
On having a character-driven versus plot-driven show
Fergus: It [is] definitely character-driven. The world really informs the characters. It is a really detailed world, where you’re dropping people right into it.
Ostby: By the fourth episode of this, you’re gonna go “What the?” You think it’s one thing and then it’s gonna keep on throwing surprises. And then when we sort of teach you about the world, we’ll go into the characters more. Then things start changing and then go crazy again. Kind of the way the first book’s split up into Holden and Miller’s points of view… we focus on key people that represent each world. You can, through their eyes, handle the epic nature. Just focus on them as your guide through each world [so] it doesn’t crush you. You’ve got somebody to hold onto. That’s sort of the way the books are written, involving somebody to kind of lead you through the world. We kept that from the books because it’s a good way in and keeps it personal.
On the universe’s grand scope
Ostby: Season one is really one ten-hour movie. We’re feature guys. It’s always about [in the movies] doing it quicker, faster, you know? You only have 120 pages to really tell your story. This has been a really great experience, where you have a hundred hours to tell a story, and you can really capture the world and go into details of things not feeling like in two hours people need to get out of their seat.
Fergus: Yeah, the convention is that you make a pilot and then you try to make that episode again and again and again and again. With the same rhythm and basic structure.
Ostby: One of the great things about long-form TV that we love is that we can do that kind of episode. You can have very introspective, then you can have great battles. Very Game of Thrones-y. It used to be TV was a rhythm that you expected. It was supposed to be the same every week because it was comfort, that you want to know what’s expected. All the good TV now is — you don’t even know rhythmically what’s going to happen. That’s one of the joys of the new TV. You don’t know what’s coming. You don’t know who’s going to live. Suddenly a character you forgot for ten episodes gets a whole flashback episode, and then they lead into something — it’s constantly changing. We want to keep that feel going. The pacing will change along with the story, because it’s another element you get to play with. In a movie, you gotta rise, rise, rise, rise — the end. And in TV, you can totally go fast-slow, ebb and flow. You can let it breathe or go relentlessly. Part of the joy of the show is how it’s told. You can’t really do that in a movie, so I think it’s a great thing.
On how closely the writers followed the books
Ostby: It has the feeling of the books. I mean, I think this was sort of born out in San Diego, where people saw it for the first time and then came up to the podium to ask questions, and they would say ‘Wow, this really feels like the books.’ So that was really great because we know that it has a very real fan base. I mean, there’s physical production things. You have a certain amount of time, a certain budget to accomplish something. So there are times you have to pick and choose. But hopefully the things that we picked, we think in a way will feel like the books and have that experience.
Fergus: We change emphasis on certain characters, we move pieces around, we bring some of those novellas in, which were beautifully written. We love those side stories that they did. So we bring dozens of points of emphasis. You know, like the crew in the books they know each other really well. In our conception, they think they know each other well, then they realize they don’t know each other at all. We use that stuff for the story. So things like that, we’re not changing what’s there, just how it’s used. I don’t think anyone’s going to say “What did you do to the books? Where are they? They’re gone!”
On working with the authors of the novels
Ostby: The writers are in the writing room with us, the novelists.
Fergus: The authors are hovering over us. Actually they’re not, but they are there. If we stray off the field they’ll let us know that.
Ostby: They actually know what the last word of this entire book series is going to be and where it ends up, so if we start doing something, they’ll be like ‘You know what? Two years from now, you’re going to be in a lot of trouble.’ It’s really fun having them. It’s one story, a whole series, all one big story that’s being told. It’s not one of these that’s like “Alright, people like it. What do we do next? Let’s make up some crap.” It’s all planned out. I think people can tell the difference when they’re watching a well-constructed story or a make-it-up-as-you-go story.
On post-season one plans
Fergus: We don’t have the official word, but we are forging ahead with plans to keep it going. We believe in the show, and we know that people are really going to love it. We’re just going forward as if. We don’t air until December 14th, so we’ll have to wait and see.
Ostby: Yeah, it’s a strange thing because it hasn’t aired, so…
Fergus: Yeah, it’s weird to have to wait, but it’s given us the time to finish. We have a special effects team involved up in Toronto doing mind-blowing stuff, and the fact that we’ve had more time has allowed us to get a lot of great effects done that might have been rushed if we had to air in the summer. So we take these things as a win, like ‘I’m getting more time.’ It’s been great, quite a luxury.
The Expanse premieres Monday, December 14 at 10 PM ET/PT (episode one) and Tuesday, December 15 at 10PM ET/PT (episode two).
The series will then regularly air Tuesdays at 10 PM ET/PT for the remainder of its 10-hour first season.
Preceding its debut on Syfy, The Expanse will launch its first episode on VOD and online on Monday, November 23.