By Pauline Perenack
SYFY’s The Expanse is one of those science fiction shows that actually make audiences think. So much so that even NPR has declared it the “best science fiction show in a decade.”
As such, SYFY went big with The Expanse this year at Comic Con, with not only a panel, but an interactive experience that took place outside of the convention center, and saw long lines each day of the Con.
Also maintaining a long line was the panel itself. Fans eagerly awaited discussions about the major twists served up throughout season two, as well as nuggets of intel on what’s to come in season three, and they were not disappointed. Executive Producers Naren Shankar and Mark Fergus, as well as cast members Steven Strait, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Cas Anvar, Dominique Tipper, Wes Chatham, and Frankie Adams talked about behind the scenes anecdotes, season two’s most shocking moments, and discussed what was coming in season three. During the entire hour, they showed a camaraderie that is rare in larger casts like this, and made the panel enjoyable for everyone in the audience.
While fans of the book series were expecting the general outcome of season two, it was still shocking at times, and opened the door for the war between Earth and Mars. Additionally, with a new season usually comes new cast members, and it was announced during the panel that Lost’s Elizabeth Mitchell would be joining the show in a recurring role for season three, playing a character that brings a new, spiritual perspective to the series.
Immediately following the Comic Con panel, ScreenSpy had the opportunity to sit down with the cast and crew of The Expanse, as well as authors Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham (who wrote the series under the pen name James S.A. Corey), to discuss the book series, what has happened and where things are going to go from here.
“We call season three where we actually go to war,” said Franck. “Seasons one and two were building up to a big war between Earth and Mars, and season three we get to see it play out, and all the ramifications of it.” Shankar agreed, and added on that the “war is absolutely a major focus of the season. We have been building to that for two years, but there may be some other things happening too.”
Strait continued that thought. “Season three manages to get more epic, and more intimate as well. Earth and Mars are about to start a war, and that happens. For our family, the Roci crew, they really came together through some unique circumstances. They didn’t really know each other when they first came on this adventure and they’ve gotten tight in these very unique ways and that trust really took an enormous hit. But they can’t afford to not be together. They’re in the middle of this huge crisis and they’re going to have to find a way to navigate that despite the fact they’re having interpersonal issues on this ship.”
“We dropped a metaphoric, and emotional bomb in season two at the very end,” continued Shankar, “and that is the fun stuff of drama, and picking up where that ended. That’s where season three starts. The elephant in the room is dealt with.” And what an elephant it is. War is happening both outside and insides the ship, and as Fergus explains, “there’s a lot going on between everybody, and the residue from last season – all of that has to be worked out. The time when they should be unified is the time that no one really likes each other.”
The cast however, definitely likes each other, but the animosity seen on screen can only come from being completely on the same page with each other, which both Shankar and Chatham discuss comes from the amount of rehearsal time they all put into the show. “The cast meets on weekends to rehearse, which is almost unheard of,” said Shankar. “The writers are invited, and the directors are there.”
“We rehearse a lot,” said Chatham. “On TV, the pace moves so fast, we don’t want to waste time in the moment of the shoot. In rehearsals is when we throw in ideas and what we say, and work all that out before we get on set so it moves a lot faster.” Adding to the cast’s ability to move faster on shoot days, has been the newer addition of using VR during rehearsals, which helps everyone to visualize what the space will look like when they’re actually shooting.
Helping to create that overall look of the show however, is the source material of the books, to which everyone agreed that they’re staying pretty faithful to, including the introduction of fan favorite characters like Miller (Thomas Jane). Fergus mentioned that they try to stay close to the trajectory of the books, so since Miller showed up in book three, there’s a good chance he’ll show up later this season on the show. And because the show is so faithful to the books, many of the cast members have read them. Chatham however, only reads a book a season, because he doesn’t want to get too far ahead of where they’re at. “It gets in the way of discovering new scripts,” he said. “When you start thinking ahead in the future, it takes away from playing in the moment.” Chatham does use them however to help build out his character Amos, but doesn’t find himself confined to any of the choices Amos makes in the books.
Unlike the character of Amos however, the character of Alex, played by Anvar, isn’t as developed in the books, but as Anvar says, “it gives me a little flexibility – a little room to sink my teeth in, flex my elbows – to create, and maybe a different actor would find that frustrating, but I love it.”
The science found in the books also captures a unique element rarely seen in science fiction today. As Fergus explains, the books pointed out how much the little things matter in space, and that everything isn’t as rosy as Star Trek leads us to believe. “You’re like a ship on the ocean back in the 1400s,” he said. “This is not nice and pleasant. You have to survive.” Franck nodded, and continued. “[Creator] Hawk [Ostby] was initially resistant to the idea that messages in space take time to travel. You send a message, and it doesn’t get there for 45 minutes. ‘I don’t know how you can write stories where people can’t talk to each other.’ And then there was this moment, where he was, ‘oh my god, thrillers work again.’ Because now, you can’t just instantly solve every problem by calling someone and getting the answer. Suddenly, it went from being a problem to a great plot point. You have to conduct battle how they did in the old days. Send a message out, and wait to see how it plays out.”
It’s an element that injects realism into the show that then plays out into the characters themselves. Aghdashloo especially finds that her character is able to reach beyond the constraints of entertainment into the real world. “One of the reasons I’m so proud of this show and this character is that, in the Western world, and most importantly, in the Eastern world – Middle East and Far East – when they see my character, Chrisjen Avasarala, Frankie Adams’ character, Bobbie Draper, women of color, fifty shades of brown, the governor of Earth, they think there is a hope. In the future, not so far, they think the] can be someone important. They think they can help humanity.”
The characters are further able to come alive because of the relationships they have with each other, both good and bad. On the good side, there is the development of Alex and Amos’ relationship, and over the course of the first two seasons, the characters have really begun to learn more about each other, and how each other works. As Anvar explains, “Amos, I think, understands Alex a lot more. But the past two seasons, Alex is starting to really understand a few layers of Amos, and it’s an interesting symbiotic relationship between the two.”
But then for every level of trust that grows, somewhere another one is broken, as was seen between Naomi and Holden at the end of season two. When asked if the two would ever be able to trust each other going forward, Tipper shook her head emphatically. “No.”
Strait finished her thought and pointed out that at this point, “it’s not looking good. It’s rough. Holden for all of his flaws, he ate a lot of humble pie at the end of last season. He focuses more on tangible results. After adopting that view, his trust is shattered, so he’s gone through a loop. It’s an interesting time. Relationships are changing on this ship. It’s really fun to play.”
Ultimately, one of the things that really draws audiences to the show is the intelligence behind the stories, and how they neatly parallel what’s happening in every day society. Aghdashloo points out how season three will not only be character driven, but will take audiences “to the core of the idea of, can we have an alliance? Earth? Mars? Asteroid belt? Can we all live peacefully next to each other without being afraid of each other?” It’s a topic that’s relevant today, and as Strait explains, “we manage to talk about really difficult things happening today in a way that I think is more digestible, because we’ve masked it in the genre. And I think that in terms of the art form, the visual art is very important because you start conversations with people who may not have had those conversations otherwise. In that way, there’s a lot of pride in the people that work on this show. None of these characters are black and white. They’re all in shades of grey. They all think they’re doing the right thing, and that’s the way the world functions. One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist.”
While Strait speaks, Tipper nods at his words, quietly adding, “That’s this show in a nutshell. That’s life in a nutshell.”
Indeed it is.
The Expanse returns to SYFY in 2018.