*The Expanse* Is Sci-Fi Like TV Has Never Seen

The Expanse is back! Season 4 of the sci-fi thriller launched on Amazon Prime last week, and I’m already deep into it. The story is set in a future where humans have colonized the solar system and split into three groups, based on Earth, on Mars, and in the asteroid belt. And of course, whenever you have groups of people, they find ways to get in trouble. But no spoilers!

The show is based on a series of novels by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. It was turned into a TV series in 2015, which ran for three seasons on Syfy before getting canceled. Luckily Amazon stepped in to keep it going, and it has now released a new season of 10 episodes for streaming.

What I love about this show is that it’s “realistic” science fiction. There’s no faster-than-light travel, no crazy artificial gravity or dopey aliens. It’s just people like us, in an actually possible world. Honestly, it’s great. So I was excited to get a chance to talk to the showrunner of The Expanse, Naren Shankar—who, I have to mention, has a PhD in applied physics.

Here’s an edited version of our chat.

Rhett Allain: So you studied physics, but you work on a sc-fi TV show. How did this happen? I’m really asking for my students, so they can see the options you have with a physics degree.

Naren Shankar: I had a weird trajectory. I started in liberal arts at Cornell. I was thinking about medieval studies or French literature or history, but my entire life I had loved science and math. I think I was a generalist at heart. So in my second year I transferred into Cornell’s College of Engineering, and I stayed there all the way through to get my doctorate.

But I felt like I was becoming more and more of an expert on a smaller and smaller corner of the universe. I actually started taking courses in history and literature again while I was working on my dissertation. So when I finished, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I had some friends that I’d done some fun creative writing with, and they said, come out to LA and be a screenwriter. I said, “Sounds good.” I was only 25, and my parents thought I had a couple of years to burn, so I just drove to LA and slept on my buddy’s floor.

I was just a writing intern, but because of my background, I got hired as a science consultant on Star Trek: The Next Generation. That was my foot in the door, and that led to getting on staff as a writer. That was, like, almost 30 years ago.

Allain: Beyond giving you a working knowledge of science, do you think your background has helped you in your career?

Shankar: Oh, sure, and I’m realizing that more over the years. Like I used to enjoy the peer review stage of research—writing up an experiment and then sitting down with your colleagues and tearing it apart, to see if it really held up. Well, television is the same! You write in a room with other people. You create the story together. Then you all sit down with the script and say, “Does this work? Is it solid?” You test what you’ve made. It’s a remarkably similar process.

Allain: The Expanse is full of little touches that are grounded in real physics. You don’t make a fuss about it; they’re just part of the background of life in a strange environment. There was a scene in season 1 where Miller is pouring a glass of whiskey, and the liquid takes a weird path because of the Coriolis force. How did you decide to include that detail?

Shankar: Well, in the story Eros Station is a spin station, and so the shittier levels are closer to the center, where there’s more Coriolis. What we were showing was that Miller is a lifelong resident of the station—he’s used to it and knows how to move in that environment. So when he pours himself a drink, he flicks it so it kind of spirals down into his cup.

You see details like that all the time in this show. My favorite from the beginning is the bird flapping its wings in one-third g. Our animators spent a lot of time making sure it felt believable but also sort of weirdly magical. It’s uncommon, right? And we’re not telling the audience, “Oh, the birds move this way because gravity is different here.” There’s no explanation. But I think these things, when you use them carefully, can put a spell on the audience.

Allain: Of course audiences might say, “Well, that looks weird,” because it doesn’t agree with their sense of how things move. I think there’s often a fear that if you portray space realistically, viewers will find it jarring—it might pull them out of the story. But you’re actually going for that?

Shankar: Yeah. It’s actually one of the reasons I wanted to do this show. I had stayed away from science fiction for a number of years. The genre had gotten boring to me, and I ended up doing CSI for many years, which also has scientific angles to it, I guess.

It wasn’t until Battlestar Galactica came back that sci-fi started getting interesting again. And one thing that attracted me to The Expanse, in particular, was the way the books made space into an actual character in the show. It was embracing things that other shows had always avoided.

So the fact that you only have weight when you have thruster acceleration, and you don’t when you don’t. And rockets only fire in one way. And we don’t have instantaneous communication across the solar system. So many things that other shows have run away from. You probably have to go all the way back to Kubrick’s 2001 to see a film that tried to portray space realistically.

So I thought this would be a unique way to convey this kind of drama. It hadn’t been done before—certainly not on a television show. And we were at a time, in terms of filmmaking technology, when we could actually do these things.

Allain: Can you give me an example where the action really hinges on the physics?

Shankar: There’s a battle sequence in season 1 [episode 4, 36:20] when Holden and Naomi are running to an escape vehicle on the Donnager. They’re on a gangway, being shot at, and suddenly the ship’s engines cut out and they just float up. They’re stuck. So he lashes a cable onto her and kicks her upward—which sends him back down to the deck. Then he can pull her down. There’s a lot of physics in that.

Allain: Yeah, I wrote about that one—it’s a great scene.

Shankar: I love to bring these ideas from the novels into the show. We don’t spell out what’s happening with dialog, because in real life people don’t go around explaining things to each other. It’s “uncommented”—we use that word a lot. But the physics are there; there’s a logic underlying what happens. The audience can see the effects, and I think they subconsciously make the connection: No thrust, no gravity.

Allain: Have you ever gotten to a point where a plot idea might violate momentum or something like that—where the story wants to go one way and the science wants to go another way?

Shankar: Well, it’s all future technology, so there’s going to be things we don’t understand. That really comes up later with the protomolecule. It’s a mystery. If you talk to Tye and Daniel, I think it kind of comes from ideas about a biological computer. But we can’t ground it in known science. And we don’t try to do that—it’s not a technology porn show.

But in terms of the science we do know, we try to be consistent. We try not to violate our own rules. Instead of just ignoring the science when it’s convenient, like most shows do, my idea is to find the dramatic possibilities in the actual reality of science. That’s the joy of it.

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