Into ‘The Expanse’: What Syfy’s New Sci-Fi Gamble Learned From ‘True Detective’

Into 'The Expanse': What Syfy's New Sci-Fi Gamble Learned From 'True Detective'
The Expanse
"The Expanse"

At this summer’s TCA summer press tour, Indiewire got the opportunity to sit down with Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby and Naren Shankar — the writer/producers behind “The Expanse” — and dig into what might be Syfy’s most challenging new series since it changed its name from the Sci-Fi Channel.

PART TWO: What It Means to Be Human, and Why ‘Sci-Fi Ended With Ridley Scott’
PART THREE: How ‘Game of Thrones’ Guided The Making of ‘”Chinatown” in Space’
PART FOUR: Great Sci-Fi Doesn’t Require A Good Hat, But It Helps

Based on the novels by James S. A. Corey (the pen name for writers Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck), and starring Thomas Jane, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Steven Strait and a ton of other exciting actors (including Jonathan Banks and Jared Harris), “The Expanse” takes us to the 23rd century where mankind has spread across the solar system, but brought no shortage of problems along from Earth. Mysteries and conspiracies abound as governments cope with the reality of colonization, and people struggle with the fact that space is a dangerous place.

As it turned out, our conversation with these gentlemen proved to be as epic and sprawling as the show itself — we spoke for over an hour on a wide range of subjects related to the current state of science fiction on television. So in order to showcase it properly, we will be running the complete interview in multiple installments in the weeks leading up to the show’s official premiere. Below, in part one, Fergus, Ostby and Shankar reveal what went into finding the humanity within this story, the intricacies of adapting this universe to the screen and what they learned from other shows when developing their own.

So I saw the pilot at Comic-Con — which was probably the perfect place to see it — you guys got a good reaction out of that screening, right?

OSTBY: That was really great, yeah. I don’t think we could have asked for a better reaction. And to have all the book fans.

SHANKAR: All right, what did you think of it? You can’t just throw that out there!

I thought it was great, of course. Though of course, [joking] “Does it have to take place in space?”

SHANKAR: There are networks who actually asked that question. Have you read the books?

No, but I read the short story “Drive” last night to get a sense of them. What I was surprised by was that it’s a much more human and character-driven story than I was maybe expecting.

FERGUS: That’s the exact reason why we got involved, when we read their books. It just felt like the opera part of space opera was what interested them most. There’s technology that’s in the background. Everything’s grungy and real and human and hard. Space travel is hard. Technology didn’t save us, it didn’t rise up and cut our throats either. It’s just there. It’s just about people pushing onto the next level and then, did we really change as a species just because we went out into the solar system? That doesn’t mean that we didn’t take all our old shit with us. That’s really what we loved about it.

OSTBY: And that’s really key because so much of today is about technology — tech porn — and this was really about people. When we first picked up the books I will admit I didn’t want to read the book when I saw it. I didn’t know it was going to be that. And then finally you start reading. You get a chapter in and next thing you know you’re done and you want more.

FERGUS: It’s about a bunch of screw ups. Middle-age screwed up men. Just there.

SHANKAR: Because men are the best ones at screwing things up.

Well, they certainly have a lot of opportunities.

FERGUS: And we take those opportunities.

SHANKAR: We do blow many things up. Let’s be fair. There are many explosions.

FERGUS: This isn’t just people chatting in rooms.

But that is a fundamentally core part of the concept: the politics. With Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo, a powerful figure in the United Nations) — having her as a key figure is interesting. I’m curious, how did you pick the characters to hook into, in terms of telling the story?

FERGUS: Holden and Miller are really the point-of-view characters in the first book exclusively, but we were so excited about Avasarala from the second book that we brought her forward into the story. Because first of all, she was too cool of a character to hold off. She gives the Earth perspective. You have this space station and this ship out there and we wanted a planetary Earth perspective to show where it all came from, what the dream was of going out into space, and what’s going on here now. So we added that.

OSTBY: She’s one of my favorite characters, too. She’s tough as nails and she has a soft hide and she has a hell of a mouth. A foul mouth. Less so in the show because of restrictions on language.

SHANKAR: The ratings change though, late in the year. We can make her a potty mouth in Season 2, which is going to be good.

FERGUS: We did violate the structure of the carefully crafted novel, but it was give Earth a real voice in the show which would have been to tell a story about how we had changed if we’re not really going back to the wellspring–

OSTBY: The geopolitics would be difficult to understand.

Yeah. She seems like a great entry point into that.

OSTBY: Yeah, she’s a great set of eyes.

When setting everything up, what’s key for you in finding the right balance with exposition?

SHANKAR: As little exposition as possible. You might even say that we’ve aired on the other side of that. But there’s value in being thrown into a world and experiencing it. It puts a little more of a challenge in front of the audience, but it’s the kind of challenge that I think audiences today really like. You get thrust into a place and you learn it as you go. Like “Game of Thrones” didn’t explain a goddamn thing — nothing — and what it does is it makes the world feel real, and it makes the world feel densely realized, which is a credit to Ty and Daniel [the book authors]. They created a real place, and so when people are in it, when you throw them into it, you just have to kind of walk through it with them. That’s a good way to do it.

OSTBY: And you know there are so many other great things too that you want to get in. You know like “Drive,” it’s the whole story of the propulsion system that drives humanity out [into space]. You try to work that in, but never with two characters talking about something for the sake of clueing in the audiences.

FERGUS: We would love to make an exposition-free show, in the best sense in that audiences do not appreciate… The bar is so high now, largely because of Comic-Con-type audiences. The audiences have gotten so demanding. They want that best show and they don’t want the world explained. They want to experience it. So, it is a balance. You still have to keep clear and keep people focused.

SHANKAR: Information is overrated. Engagement is the key. When you can get people to lean in and really want to lean in, that’s the battle.

OSTBY: Yeah, you saw that a lot with “True Detective” in the first season, where people really wanted to figure out this puzzle and this online community sprang up and people want to figure out certain things in the show. That’s really lovely.

SHANKAR: Look at “Lost,” for example. What it generated in the fanbase. This desire to understand the world was intense. And that show was confusing.

FERGUS: As long as people care because one thing we’ve learned in doing this a while is information is- unless it’s dramatic or necessary- people tune out. They tune out exposition. They tune out explanation. They don’t need it and they didn’t want it. They actually hold it against you a little because the thought gets tired. They start squirming in their chairs because nothing is happening on screen besides getting told shit that you already know or want to feel. But it’s the number one thing we always have to grapple with, is how much to tell the audience. How much we explain stuff to them, but we like to do the best for the audience as possible and consider, “What would you need if you were the audience?” All we can do is make a show that we’d want to see and that’s the only thing you really have.

I’m curious though. You brought up “Lost,” and you brought up “True Detective.” “True Detective” is an interesting show to bring up in this context because you had the core people digging in and really trying to solve the mystery, but a lot of people would argue that the joy of “True Detective” Season 1 was those two guys, hanging out in a car. Arguably the larger audience was more engaged with that story. When you’re developing a show like this, are you aiming it for the cult or the broader audience?

FERGUS: I think the books have a great combination of really intimate characters — the little guys who you’d usually overlook in shows. Not the Picards and Kirks. It’s the little guys in the engine room, but what they’re involved in is the biggest conspiracy. They’re involved in something that ultimately will be everything about everything, but you’re telling it through these tiny episodes. It’s the best of both worlds in this book series and ultimately the show. It’s that you get intimacy — as you said, the two guys just bullshitting. That was the joy of [“True Detective”] for me.

I felt like I’d seen the cult thing in “Angel Heart” or “Seven.” I thought that I had seen that, but no matter how good that was it was never going to be as good as the chemistry between those two. I think this story has the great big conspiracy thing and it has the great little stuff that’s people bouncing against each other, so I think we have both going on and that’s thanks to the books because they ruled that in really well.

I mean, it’s also a great advantage to you, having these different angles from which to tell the story, but what’s the biggest challenge in making sure that everything feels balanced?

SHANKAR: It’s a complicated thing. We talk about it almost every day in the writers room, about how to balance the story lines out. What you end up doing naturally is let the emphasis shift. Some shows will be more about Holden and the gang. Some shows will be more about Miller and his particular quest. Some shows will be more about Avasarala. In aggregate, hopefully, ultimately all three of those things have equal weight.

OSTBY: It’s nice in terms of pacing. The rhythm of it is not the same — two minutes here, two minutes here, two minutes here. It jumps around a little bit. You get a little bit of this, you get a little piece of that.

FERGUS: That’s what I love about television, or new TV. Going away from the comfort model, with the same rhythm. The rhythm changes as part of the show. Emphasis changes. Point of view changes. Sometimes it says, “Fuck that A story, we’re going to go off on a tangent for a whole episode.” Like Walter [White of “Breaking Bad”] in the lab, chasing that fly the whole time. It’s crazy and the rhythm shifts are as a part of the fun of the show as the storytelling. And that’s awesome.

SHANKAR: We’ve adopted some really interesting storytelling techniques I think this season. Where, like in Episode 5, Act 2 of the show begins in a place you’ve never been to before, with people you’ve never seen, 11 years ago. And it’s not even clear at the outset why this story is being told. I mean there are thematic overtones of it in the show, and you’ve felt you’ve understood them, but it has a great payoff. That storyline was based off one of the novellas that Ty and Daniel wrote, “The Butcher of Anderson Station.” They’ve actually given us a tremendous flexibility to tell things in a different way. It’s really unusual. It’s almost never done. And what I love about it is it expands the scope of the world. It starts feeling like a much larger place. It’s great.

I feel like that there are approaches to doing something like this where you start small — where even the entire first season is just about the people on the show — and then you expand out the universe. It’s a bold choice to go even bigger than the books do.

SHANKAR: Go big or go home.

FERGUS: We felt it was very intimate, and then afterwards we were like, “No. It’s not.” It just also felt very relatable. I always felt connected. It never felt it was sprawling, but I’ve been told it’s sprawling. It’s very epic in scope.

You can preview “The Expanse” Episode 1 now online, and the series officially premieres December 14 on Syfy.

In Part 2: Bringing to life technology everyone on “The Expanse” takes for granted. Also, “sci-fi stopped with Ridley Scott.”

READ MORE: How the Magic & Economics of Canadian Sci-Fi TV Helped Create ‘Continuum’

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