Syfy's The Expanse quickly became a hit after its first episode aired last year. Now the series is moving into its season finale, with a second season already confirmed by the network.
The series, which has a large main cast and many plotlines intricately woven into its setting, takes place in space and finds inspiration from The Expanse books by James S.A. Corey, with the first season taking its cue from Leviathan Wakes, the first novel in that series.
The two-hour season finale of The Expanse airs on Tuesday night at 10 p.m. EST, and it's sure to please viewers of the series by answering some questions, bringing some plotlines together and doing what a good season finale does best: leave fans wanting more.
We spoke with showrunner and executive producer Naren Shankar about the series, as well as about why science fiction now seems to rule television.
Shankar wasn't always involved with television: he has a Ph.D. in electrical engineering and applied physics. However, he found his calling in television and went on to work on a number of series, such as Farscape, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: Voyager and CSI. However, occasionally, his scientific expertise comes in handy, particularly with a show like The Expanse.
"The funny thing is that most of the shows that I've worked on - like Star Trek, for example, my first show - the science in Star Trek isn't really science, it's like fake science," said Shankar. "And I did a lot of science fiction shows. Generally, it's not the thing that makes them tick."
However, Shankar also worked on CSI, a show where the science is much more real. But The Expanse is one of those sci-fi series that contains scientific ideas that make sense, in spite of its futuristic setting.
"With The Expanse, one of the things I love about it is it's renewed space as a character within the confines of drama, the reality of space as an environment where you have no weight, and also an environment where oxygen and water are the most precious commodities around," said Shankar. "And you don't have gravity plating on the floors. And it's almost never done on television. And what it's done is give the show a real look and signature that feels very different to people."
Shankar also praised The Expanse authors, Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham, who together make up the pseudonym of James S.A. Corey.
"What's wonderful about them, there is a tremendous amount of thought and world building that went into it," said Shankar. "They created this universe and they drilled really far down into it, and it's wonderful when you can come into something and you have a universe that makes sense."
Both Franck and Abraham also had input into the television series and spent a lot of time in the writers' room for the series.
"We've taken really great pains to be faithful in spirit to the book," said Shankar. "By and large, we're sticking fairly closely to the plot framework, and what we've done often is we've done a thing that television tends to do, which is spend more time with the characters. We brought in a lot of the novellas, the backstories of the novels, which are these intimate character studies of various characters in The Expanse. I think in a lot of ways, we've been able to not just focus on this bad-ass breakneck plot - that's one of the great things in the book and it's certainly in the show - but we've also been able to dig into the people and the characters at the same time."
One thing viewers will notice about The Expanse is that those characters come from a variety of backgrounds. Diversity is as much a part of the story as anything else. It's an important feature of the book, so that made it necessary for the series, as well.
"One of the things said by Ty and Daniel is 'Look, when space gets colonized, it's not just going to be Americans: it's going to be people who are Chinese and Indian and Russian, and everybody,' " Shankar said. "That is the world that's going to make it into space. That's why you've got this crazy mix of names and ethnicities in the book.
"When we all came to it, everybody loved that. So there wasn't even a discussion like 'you know what, maybe that's Avasarala, tall, blonde hair, blue-eyed, no, she is who she is. Everybody was just 'of course, we're going to cast what the book did.' And we just maintained that. I think it is a great different kind of spectrum and people seem to be responding to it."
That diversity also helps create a series that has a lot of subplots involving the various factions in the story, including a lot of political machinations, as well as groups of people often at odds with each other. This means that at the beginning, viewers might find themselves a little confused, but eventually, it starts to make sense.
"It is a dense show, no question about it," said Shankar. "There's just a few ways you can approach this sort of thing. One is giving people a tutorial, and just say, 'here's the world' with a lot of exposition. We chose to throw you into the pool. It makes it a little more challenging for the viewer at the beginning, but as you stick with it, you understand why people are doing what they're doing, what the different factions are."
The series contains a lot of separate plots, too, but eventually, they come together, particularly in the season finale.
"It's an interesting balance, there are a lot of plot threads," Shankar said. "It's a real challenge dramatically because there are multiple storylines and events that are happening simultaneously that are related to one another, but they aren't specifically directly connected. That's how we had to launch the show. That's what the books are."
Shankar believes that these plots will come together even more in the series' second season.
"We've already written the first seven episodes," he said. "I think in season two, one of the nicer things is that the plotlines are going to be a little more tightened and woven together."
The Expanse is just one of three space-based series on Syfy now, with many other networks also airing shows in that genre. Shankar believes that this resurgence of science fiction on television is due to a few factors.
"I think, as a general rule, the entertainment business doesn't lead the culture, it more reflects it," he said. "I think we're at a more technologically aware time in history. People walk around with smartphones in their pockets, which is a technology that was unimaginable a generation ago. There's the Marvel universe: there's a level of geek culture. And there's the way Silicon Valley is the leading edge and the driver of so much of the economy. I think all of those factors conspire to lead us to say, 'hey, let's look at science and technology again.'
"When you see the success of a movie like The Martian, it's a combination of all of those elements. It's the wonder, it's the sheer guts of the engineering that it takes to make that story work. Combine that with the ability for television to do this kind of dense, tightly arced long-form storytelling in a way that wasn't really possible before: it allows for that richly detailed and creative world that science fiction has historically excelled at creating."