The Scientist Who Keeps Science Fiction Real
How Naren Shankar went from engineering student to shaping ‘The Expanse’ and keeping “fake science” alive on ‘Star Trek.’
As an executive producer on SyFy’s The Expanse, Naren Shankar helps to steer the spaceship Rocinante through the asteroid belt and beyond, a sci-fi journey that began, for him, in real laboratories. He’s been writing TV for nearly three decades — he began on Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1992 — but before that, he was studying at Cornell University in the School of Applied and Engineering Physics.
“While I was writing my dissertation, I realized I wasn’t really interested in being an engineer anymore,” Shankar tells Inverse. Through his friendship with Ron Moore, who had then just joined the writing staff of The Next Generation, Shankar was encouraged to drop his career path in the sciences and head into writing for TV. “I slept on Ron’s couch for like eight weeks!” Shankar says of his initial time in Los Angeles. “His girlfriend at the time wasn’t thrilled.”
After joining during The Next Generation’s fourth season, Shankar found that his background in engineering made him somewhat invaluable. “I didn’t have a cultural reference point for how to become a writer,” he says, “so I became the keeper of the flame of Star Trek’s fake science; I was grafting techno-babble things onto scenes. It was like spraying this thin metal coating of science on the show.” When the engineer of The Next Generation, Geordi La Forge, met the engineer from the original Trek, the famous Scotty, in the episode “Relics,” Shankar was there to make sure the banter between the two fictional engineers was as close to being real as it could be. He also wrote Star Trek’s biggest environmental episode, “Force of Nature,” in which warp speed itself is revealed to be creating damage to the fabric of space itself.
Through writing across three Star Trek shows — including Deep Space Nine and Voyager — Shankar learned that science fiction on television was difficult because doing science realism was hard to depict. After his time with Star Trek ended, Shankar dabbled in other sci-fi shows like Farscape and SeaQuest 2032 but took a much needed break from science fiction TV as the showrunner for CSI. After almost a decade of being away from the genre, Shankar was reluctant to come back to science fiction, mostly because he didn’t want to jump back into inventing absurd technology or depicting physics unscientifically.
“I’d drifted away from science fiction for a long time, for about ten years. I had found it boring on TV. I didn’t like what I was seeing,” he says, and he characterized the kind of programming he’d been offered to write as “goofy and childish.”
That changed when the SyFy network came to him with The Expanse, which impressed him with its realism and adherence to real space science the series strives to achieve. “I hadn’t seen anything like this before,” he says. This season, Shankar wrote the episode titled “Paradigm Shift,” which revealed how the inventor of the futuristic Epstein Drive figured out how to propel spaceships at tremendous speeds, and it did so with patient plausibility.
“People run away from [hard science fiction] because it’s difficult to produce,” Shankar explains. “But now, the effects allow us to show space battles without photon torpedoes and all that bullshit. The spaceships on The Expanse shoot at each other by flinging pieces of metal really, really fast.”
When he’s not worried about the science of science fiction, Shankar is focused on writing good character arcs. Though he interacts with novelists Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck quite a bit, Shankar asserts that television scripts can actually enhance character stories in ways literary prose can’t touch. While The Expanse books are bonafide page-turners, Shankar’s take on the character drama of the series has been more subtle.
“Television is great at digging into characters,” he says. “It’s not as good at relentlessly producing action because it’s just not sustainable.” His instinct to hold back on certain plot elements has resulted in favoring character arcs over big impact plot developments. In the first Expanse novel, Leviathan Wakes, Miller dies at the end of the novel, but in Season 2 of the show he’s still alive.
Character realism on The Expanse is reflected in its diverse cast, but Shankar thinks sci-fi has come a long way in depicting realistic diversity since his Star Trek days.
“On Star Trek, it was a very over rainbow coalition. Everybody was connected to their ethnicity in a very direct way,” he explains. “Like Uhura spoke Swahili and Scotty liked to drink scotch because he was Scottish; a drunk Scotsman! But with The Expanse, everything is mixed. Alex is East Asian but speaks in a Texas accent!”
Because Shankar says The Expanse is about “tribalism,” he thinks it’s a larger, more scientifically accurate story that could be painting the future of humanity perhaps better than Star Trek did. “All science fiction is somewhat allegorical,” he says, “and when I see people getting that [about The Expanse], it makes me think maybe we’re doing something sort of special, and people will think that our show got it right and had something to say.”
The Expanse airs Wednesday nights on SyFy at 10 p.m. Eastern. The second season finale will air on April 19. The third season will debut sometime in 2018.