When a hard sci-fi series like James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse novels meets a television producer with a doctorate in applied physics, it’s not surprising that a very faithful and realistic adaptation results. Showrunner Naren Shankar brings a unique science pedigree to The Expanse that gives the show it’s signature feel with characters and political factions that are expertly written to make viewers care about what happens to them. With season 2 premiering tonight on Syfy, Shankar shares here the secret of the show’s success.
Shankar is no stranger to space-based science fiction television, having been on the writing and production staff of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and the cult classic Farscape, but he took a “science detour” during his time producing the mega-hit CSI. “I find myself drawn to the genre constantly,” admits Shankar. “After I left CSI, I really was feeling that pull of genre because I absolutely adored Battlestar Galactica. I was very jealous of my good friend, Ron Moore; I really wish I’d been on that show with him!”
One thing The Expanse has in common with Battlestar Galactica as well as movies like Star Wars are its breathtaking space battles, but Shankar’s approach is very different. “As enjoyable as Star Wars is — and Battlestar Galactica did some things differently — but at the end of the day, what they really were were newsreel footage WWII fighter-carrier battles in the Pacific,” Shankar explains.
The difference is gravity! Whether it’s the effects of acceleration, spin gravity, or zero-g, The Expanse has an ultra-realistic way of treating space travel. “We had the opportunity to turn space into a character in this show in a way that really hadn’t been done before or had been done so incredibly wrong so many times,” says Shankar. He then added, “The guy who got it right was Stanley Kubrick in 2001, and that movie was made in 1968!”
Fans have really responded to the authentic feel of space battles that don’t ignore the laws of physics. “When you really delve into it,” Shankar explains, “you don’t have tractor beams; lasers are shitty weapons; you don’t have deflector shields. The best way to hurt something is to throw something at it incredibly fast. These are kinetic energy weapons, and our battles are basically battles from the age of sail.”
Adding a great cast of characters that viewers genuinely care about only enhances the success of this attention to detail. “All of this visual beauty is nothing without the characters and the people at the center of it,” agrees Shankar. “A significant change in season 2 is… because the universe has been established, it allowed us to really delve into the relationships. So you’re going to see much more about Amos; you’ll learn much more about Alex, and Holden and Naomi — their relationship together.”
And now in season 2, fans will be digging deeper into a faction in the political landscape that was understated in season 1: Mars. “There’s a reason we started it with Bobbie and her team on Mars [editor’s note: see video below], and that was to really clearly announce that here’s a new perspective. We dive into why Earth and Mars are in conflict, how each side views the other, the suspicion, the enmity — all of the things that exist between people in different nations and different systems of government.”
Martian Marine Bobbie Draper, played by New Zealand actress and boxer Frankie Adams, is a character to keep an eye on, according to Shankar. “Bobbie starts the season as what appears to be a secondary character,” he says, “and her importance grows significantly as the season goes on.” Readers of the James S.A. Corey novels are particularly anxious to see this beloved character from the books come to life.
Ultimately, the novels and the show are a great marriage, and The Expanse is a remarkably faithful adaptation despite the necessary changes that have been made. “It’s extremely faithful to the spirit of the books, and it’s very faithful to the big plot moves,” says Shankar. “We have changed chronology; we have brought characters forward; we’ve even invented storylines. We’ve done a lot of things differently, yet we end up in the same places.”
Luckily, Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham, collectively James S.A. Corey, are both in the writer’s room. “Having Ty and Daniel in the room with us on staff… enables us to deepen and enrich the story in a way that a more plot-focused action adventure novel tends not to do as much,” Shankar elaborates. He then adds with a laugh, “But Ty and Daniel are there to make sure we don’t break anything going forward.”
The Expanse season 2 begins tonight with a two-hour premiere at 10pm ET on Syfy. For the full audio of the above interview, subscribe to the monthly Sci Fi Fidelity podcast, which will share more of Shankar’s comments next week in its February 2017 edition.