A dangerous universe awaits viewers in the Hugo Award-winning science fiction series The Expanse. Showrunner Mark Fergus spoke to Scott Hocking about bringing this sprawling sci-fi saga to television.
Based on the series of novels by Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham (writing as James S.A. Corey), The Expanse is an ambitious new sci-fi series set 300 years in the future – a time when humankind has colonised Mars and the Asteroid Belt, resulting in interplanetary conflict, political intrigue, and a central mystery involving the missing daughter of a powerful business tycoon. The latter’s whereabouts becomes an obsession for investigating ‘Belter’ detective Miller (Thomas Jane), who uncovers a sinister conspiracy that threatens humanity.
“In most science fiction, space is just a backdrop… we wanted to really make it a character in the story”
Developed for television by Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby, whose screenwriting credits include Marvel’s Iron Man and the Oscar-nominated Children of Men, this rich and complex space opera evokes the gritty milieu of Battlestar Galactica in its approach to the rigours and dangers of life in space.
“Technology solves almost everything in most sci-fi – TV or film – and the drama goes out the window,” observes Mark Fergus. “What’s great about The Expanse is that it burrows into the science and difficulty – the speed of light is the speed of light, gravity is gravity, and you can’t change physics. Basically we’re in a world where you have to respect that – if you want to get across the universe, you can’t just press the hyperspace button. It’s difficult and very tough on the human body. I thought that was one of the most fun things about the story; we’ve tried to accentuate that in the show and the audience has really responded.
“It’s a frontier story, not a space story,” he adds. “It’s more about how humans push on and bring all their old baggage with them. It’s like the American railroads – expanding across the entire nation because of technology and transportation.
“In most science fiction, space is just a location, an interesting backdrop. We wanted to really make it a character in the story. It’s the next frontier and its very harsh and not conducive to human life or expansion. It’s Columbus on the ocean; space is just the next ocean to cross. It’s vast and punishing and doesn’t want human beings to conquer it. That’s how we’ve approached the story.”
Fergus was unfamiliar with the novels prior to becoming involved with the series, but admits he was quickly converted.
“They were sort of swirling around Hollywood. I hadn’t been aware of them and then I read the first one and it was right in that Ridley Scott Blade Runner/Alien space where it was science fiction but very grounded in real life, and very specific. One of the book jacket reviews called it ‘L.A. Confidential in space’ and as soon as I read that I thought, ‘that’s perfect.’ We just fell in love with it right away, largely because of Detective Miller and the whole noir side of it.”
Adapting the novels for television proved to be a liberating experience for Fergus and Ostby, in terms of the long form storytelling the medium provides.
“Hawk and I were coming from the film world where everything is about speed and efficiency,” he explains. “When you’re writing a film script, you’re throwing away 80 per cent of your ideas so you can get everything into a 120-minute box. In TV you don’t have to do that, you can take your time and intersperse the books and have them overlap.”
Fergus adds that the authors are very involved in the adaptation process, and generally happy with how their work has been translated to the screen.
“When you have novelists and screenwriters involved, it usually isn’t harmonious but this has been a fantastic experience,” he says. “They are very proud of their books, but they’re also very open when we want to break something for what we think is a good reason, or expand on something.
“We don’t break anything structurally or mess with the DNA of the books, but we do change a lot for the TV show. One of the greatest things we’ve heard about the show from fans of the books is that it feels like a really faithful adaptation and that we’ve really honoured the source material. I think we’ve hit a good balance where the fans are happy and the people who don’t know the books are happy. That’s what we were shooting for.”
THE EXPANSE CHARACTERS
Swarthy ice hauler turned captain of the captured Martian ship Rocinante. Determined to discover who destroyed his former vessel, the Canterbury.
One of the best pilots in the solar system. Formerly with the Martian Congressional Republic Navy, he now serves aboard the Rocinante.
Mechanic and crew member of the Rocinante. A tough Earther with a short fuse, who never backs away from a fight.
Engineer on the Rocinante and Holden’s lover. Possible affiliation with the Outer Planets Alliance. Dodges questions about her past.
World-weary and hardboiled detective stationed on Ceres in the Asteroid Belt. Assigned with finding the missing daughter of an Earth billionaire.
Deputy Undersecretary of Executive Administration of the United Nations. One of the most influential and powerful politicians in the Solar System.