How 'The Expanse' Puts the Science in Science Fiction
Syfy took a gamble on some seriously hard sci-fi and came out with one of the best genre shows on TV.
The Season 1 finale of Syfy’s The Expanse, an adaptation of the epic book series by pseudonymous author James S.A. Corey, ended on a shocking cliffhanger. According to the show’s executive producer, Mark Fergus, Season 2 is all about getting some answers about what happened.
You may not know Fergus’s name, but you’ve definitely seen his work. Along with collaborator Hawk Ostby, Fergus co-wrote the screenplay to new classic Children of Men and is responsible for helping kick off the Marvel Cinematic Universe by co-writing the script for Iron Man. That’s already an impressive sci-fi resume, but it’s nothing compared to The Expanse.
Fergus has a huge task, as he is responsible for chaperoning an ambitious story — about an impending war between Earth, Mars, and deep space workers called Belters — to the screen. Inverse spoke to Fergus about the challenges of setting up a hard sci-fi universe on TV, what challenges are in store for Season 2, and finding the right actress to play fan favorite Martian badass Bobbie Draper.
The Expanse has its own look and feel. Was there a concerted effort to make it its own thing?
The places that came out of the story of The Expanse had to be realistic. It’s a cultural hodgepodge from all over the solar system colliding. You have influences from many cultures, and it becomes its own thing as they were thrown together by economic necessity. Languages, customs, clothes, art — everything. We wanted to follow the reality of the story to guide us to a place where we could create something beautiful.
The culture clash theme was the most useful in trying to build something from the ground up to create a look that supported the story. We based the look of Ceres on Brazilian favelas or the Kibera slums in Kenya, for instance — places that are overcrowded and packed in. There’s trouble and despair in these places, but there’s also a lot of life. Joy and color seem to be outlawed in futuristic stories, but people carry on no matter what. They try to celebrate life in the toughest of circumstances.
It’s sort of like Blade Runner, but with the lights turned on.
Blade Runner was one of the examples in our earliest conversations when creating the look and feel of the show, but we wanted a signature look. The goal was if you saw a still from our show, you knew it was The Expanse.
It’s difficult getting out of the shadow of Ridley Scott because he created an indelible future world. He was so far ahead in marrying story to place and time. We didn’t want to rely on that look but also not avoid it.
Was it difficult getting the hang of this level of hard sci-fi on television?
It was important to make sense of its physical world. Just to get the proper use of gravity on the show wasn’t something you see too often. Characters usually turn on an anti-gravity drive, and it’s no longer an issue. At least in our story there’s no such thing. There’s no hyperdrive, and you can’t get across the universe just because it’s convenient for the story. In Season 2, we really embraced that.
If you’re going to conduct warfare from the U.N. in New York, and there’s a battle raging off of Jupiter, you have to make decisions knowing that after the 30 minutes for an order to reach a battlefield, the battle may be over already. That brings sci-fi back to a frontier story where suddenly all those great obstacles are back. Nothing is easy for these people.
There’s a wonderful use of flawed future technology.
Cell phones and the inter-connected world have taken away so many storytelling possibilities. We wanted to embrace the stuff sci-fi usually jumps over. Technology is supposed to solve all that boring shit to allow you to get on with the fun stuff, but to us that is the fun stuff.
Technology exists in every way that you think it would in this show. We just don’t focus on it because it’s not where the story is interesting. The Rocinante is the smartest ship that you’ve ever seen in sci-fi, it’s just that we don’t spend a lot of time showing you how that is. I’d rather watch what the crew does with each other than what they do with this machine.
Is it difficult to whittle down all of the storylines from the books to make sure each gets its due while progressing the story each episode?
That’s actually one of the joys of it. In Season 1, we built eight episodes towards Holden and Miller slowly converging in the finale. The most fun thing about Season 2 is finally having these big storylines converge because it took such a long time. It’s such a great asset in TV. We could rush everything and get everybody in the same room, but there’s something great about the anticipation of each storyline. This may feel like it’s like you’re watching four different movies, but you’re watching one, and it’s all moving towards each other.
Were their major things from Season 1 that you wanted to improve on in Season 2?
We took the gamble of setting up the world in Season 1 and getting the dividends of that forever. Season 1 was about the mystery, Season 2 is about what happens after we know what’s going on. In a movie, if your third act sucks, it’s because your first one is broken. Things down the line break if you don’t set them up well. All the great Hitchcock movies make you wonder what’s even happening in Act 1, but then when shit starts to happen, you forget that. You see where all the careful groundwork pays off. We thought we shouldn’t rush through the setup and patch the holes later.
Season 1 was a lot of shadow play: who’s behind the protomolecule, and who is orchestrating it? Again, like Hitchcock, it’s all based on the tension of whether the audience knows a little more than the characters or the other way around.
Now, in Season 2 all the cards are on the table. We lit a lot of fuses, and now we can watch them burn. We don’t have all the answers yet, but there are huge surprises coming about what the protomolecule is doing and what it’s for.