What I’m watching: The Expanse *Spoiler Free*

by Alyssa
Confession, I found it hard to get into The Expanse when it first aired, even being a science nerd. Oh, I enjoyed the “Outer Space” aspect but the story is very dense. I have not read the books and tend to watch tv with my laptop while chatting and posting to the forum, etc., which is not conducive to immersive viewing. The stars aligned and two separate events coincided. First, I was approached about a project in The Expanse fandom and second, there was an invitation to participate in a press room at New York Comic Con (NYCC). Being a believer in following the universe’s bread crumbs, I dove into the material with renewed interest.

Before I get into that, a bit of backstory on the show for those who aren’t familiar with the show. From the SyFy channel’s web page:

Hundreds of years in the future, humans have colonized the solar system. The U.N. controls Earth. Mars is an independent military power. The planets rely on the resources of the Asteroid Belt, where air and water are more precious than gold. For decades, tensions have been rising between these three places. Earth, Mars and the Belt are now on the brink of war. And all it will take is a single spark.

The Expanse is a series  that demands a person’s full attention, as there is a lot of information and character moments in each episode, each one building on what has occurred before. It’s an epic space opera in the first act of the play and like in most grand three act plays, everything laid out in the early episodes has a bearing on what happens going forward.

cast_expanse_chrisjen_avasarala_s1
Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo)

In the first season we explore The Expanse universe with the establishment of the political factions of Earth, Mars, and the Belt (short for the Asteroid Belt colonies) and how the main characters influence the larger political events in the solar system. The different storylines develop into a single intertwining overarching plot in season one. The three main storylines are each trying to uncover an aspect of the central mystery: who is destroying Belter ships and eventually why are people dying.  Detective Joe Miller (Thomas Jane) is searching for Julie Mao (Florence Faivre), the first crack in the epic mystery. Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo), the UN Assistant Undersecretary of Executive Administration, is searching for the owners of the new war ships destroying other ships. The crew of the Rocinante is searching for who destroyed their previous ship, the Canterbury.

I had an opportunity to sit down with the cast & crew of The Expanse at New York Comic Con last month. With six novels and four novellas existing in The Expanse universe, material is not a problem for this space-based science fiction show. The first book, Leviathan Wakes, won a Hugo award for Best Novel in 2012.  The listed author, James S. A. Corey, is a pen name for the collaboration of authors Daniel Abraham & Ty Franck. I spoke with Daniel & Ty at NYCC 2016. They talked about their collaboration, writing for novels vs for television, and bringing The Expanse universe to the small screen.

NYCC Author Daniel Abraham & Ty Franck -- (Photo by: Bryan Bedder/Syfy)
NYCC Author Daniel Abraham & Ty Franck — (Photo by: Bryan Bedder/Syfy)

Unique to The Expanse (and a select few other highly regarded shows), Ty and Daniel are in the writers room and involved with the production. They worked with script writers Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby of Iron Man (2008) fame on the pilot. Then showrunner Dr. Naren Shankar came on board. These five collaborated on the plan for season one and hired writers for each episode.When Ty and Daniel were asked how it was working with  television writers vs. writing for the books, they responded “It was a collaboration going in so ‘collaboration’ is baked in.” The collaboration concept was a recurring idea during the entire press room and extended even to the actors, who were empowered to suggest adding a scene not in the book. Both Daniel and Ty were enthusiastic and loved seeing their characters be deepened and develop further.

Daniel then spoke to seeing their book come to life and casting. “I came into it [the show] with a very specific physical thing I wanted in the cast.  I told Naren I wanted someone tall to play one of the characters, he said ‘Height doesn’t act, you want the best player on the board.’  “[I realized] sometimes the actor doesn’t look quite how they should, but they deliver the goods and I realized it’s much better. That completely changed how I view casting.” This follows the trend for a subtle disregard of the physical traits of an actor in casting and instead focusing on their skills.

Naomi, Amos, Holden & Alex
Naomi (Dominique Tipper), Amos (Wes Chatham), Holden (Steven Strait) & Alex (Cas Anvar)

In the beginning of season one we see the series regulars as members of a larger crew aboard the Canterbury. They are distant and confrontational with each other. We are treated to observing the bond between the core cast develop as the season progresses. Once the remnants of the Canterbury crew are aboard the Rocinante we see Holden (Captain), Naomi (second & engineer), Alex (pilot) and Amos (mechanic and muscle), develop into fleshed out characters we care about with hints of huge back stories.

Holden (Steven Strait)
Holden (Steven Strait)

Holden is the primary orator of the books, and as a consequence the TV character is the most complicated. His internal struggle as a result of a decision he made in episode one to log a distress call will be explored in further detail during season two.

 

Naomi (Dominique Tipper)
Naomi (Dominique Tipper)

Naomi ‘s background as the ship’s engineer and technician, coupled with rank within the leadership structure, puts her in a strong position. She uses that voice to affect changes. The problem she confronts as a reluctant leader is, it’s one thing to have opinions about how things should run and another to actually be the one in charge of keeping the crew together and moving forward.  Season 2 will be dynamic for the character of Naomi.

Alex (Cas Anvar)
Alex (Cas Anvar)

Alex is the pilot and to some extent the “normal one”: the single person on the crew we can use as a window to view the absurdity of situations. He can be relied upon to have normal reactions. He’s the every-man who reminds us how completely messed up these events truly are. And down the road he may find a hero within.

Wes Chatham as Amos
Wes Chatham as Amos

Amos…..What is there to say? He is the classic detached Tin-Man in search of belonging and connecting, except written in ‘mercenary form’ with a big gun and willing to solve whatever problem is before the crew with no-remorse. He has an uncanny situational assessment, his world is very black and white. There is even a novella devoted to Amos’s back story, The Churn. Thankfully, we will be seeing much more of Amos’s backstory in season two.

Like all good ensemble casts, we come to enjoy the interactions and word play between the characters but in this particular group, like in Joss Whedon’s Firefly, we also see the gut-wrenching faults. Plus hints of back stories each character is desperately trying to hide, because everyone is hiding something. Holden unknowingly tips the first domino in episode 1. That initial ‘moment of of consciousness’ has reverberating consequences on the entire crew. We are just now beginning to understand the how that will affect the individual crew members.

Thomas Jane as Detective Josephus Miller -- (Photo by: Rafy/Syfy)
Thomas Jane as Detective Josephus Miller — (Photo by: Rafy/Syfy)

While season two is largely about the external events of solar system grandeur, we have been promised a deeper understanding of character development, including the  relationship between Holden and Naomi and their demons, Amos’s back story and of course the introduction of Detective Joe Miller (Thomas Jane) into the daily life aboard the Rocinante.  Characterized as  ‘the cranky uncle’ in the established relationships of the crew by Mark Fergus, the Executive Producer, it stands to reason we’ll be treated to some intelligent humor from the character of Miller. One thing we can be assured of, everyone’s pulling on threads that affects everyone else.

During the writers’ interview the question was posed: did collaboration with other creative writers ever lead to a different path from what is in the books? Ty responded, “Yes, but in each case, the decision was to…not make the story smaller, …[but to] make the story bigger.” As a result, we get a rich, full story that isn’t watered down for the lowest common denominator, as so often happens in television adaptations. The writers are daring to bring to TV a big, epic space opera in the style of J. Michael Straczynski’s Babylon 5, except for having books of cannon to follow.  Readers of the books are treated to Easter eggs, in a fashion similar to those in Marvel movies for those long-time comic readers.

The Expanse is a huge undertaking, involving a leap of faith for the creative and money folk but also us fans. We have invested ourselves in this show and want the series to reach a satisfying conclusion lest we be burdened with another unfulfilled bout of Firefly-itus.

I would like to echo an attendee at the NYCC panel, who said  to Executive Producer Mark Fergus, “Thank you for bringing space back to Science Fiction TV.”

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Epilogue:

At NYCC, Executive Producer Mark Fergus gave us some hints as to what to expect in season 2. If you have watched season 1 and want to know what’s coming (potential season 2 spoilers), read on!
**season two spoilers**
Season two promises to further the interconnected plot lines in addition to delving into the causes of the events at the end of season one. Season two will be all about the proto-molecule: what it is, why is it here, what it does, and who wants it. We are also promised huge character back-stories. Who doesn’t want to know what’s up between Amos and Naomi or about Holden’s demons?. Season 2 will literally open with Holden dealing with a PTSD attack due to the trauma of Season 1 ep 10. We are also promised a ‘real’ romantic relationship between Naomi and Holden. There are many great things to look forward to in Season 2!

A huge note of thanks goes out to everyone who helped with this article, to my editors most of all, DrWho and Transmute Jun!  Thanks also to Michael Pea for all the background. Join the conversation on the forum

Alyssa

Alyssa bought her first comic at age 7 & was hooked. She has collected comics most of her life. Recently she has branched out to comic art and books and the occasional Lego. She goes to as many con’s as she can & enjoys the ‘long form’ story telling of TV. She also enjoys new kinds of food- yes, she is a foodie.