What makes The Expanse so great: Good science, balancing epic with personal
December 16, 2020
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by admin


<em>The Expanse</em> returns to Amazon Prime for another epic season.
Enlarge / The Expanse returns to Amazon Prime for another epic season.

Amazon Prime

Amazon Prime’s epic science fiction series The Expanse is back for its fifth season. In her review last week, Ars’ Tech Policy Reporter Kate Cox called it “the best [season] since its first, a long-awaited high-stakes payoff to several seasons’ worth of setup,” adding, “if you drifted away from the show during earlier seasons, like something accidentally dropped in microgravity, this new season makes it worth finding a way to come back.”

(Some spoilers below, but no major reveals.)

As we’ve noted previously, The Expanse is based on a series of novels by James S.A. Corey (the pen name for writing team Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck), exploring interplanetary tensions that are breaking out all over a Solar System long since colonized by humans—mostly between Earthers, Martians, and “Belters.” Part mystery, part political thriller, part classic space opera, The Expanse has earned almost nothing but praise from critics and its devoted fans alike, not just for its gripping storytelling but also its excellent use of accurate physics.

If you have fallen behind on the series and want a quick recap, I highly recommend reading Kate’s thorough write-up for the backstory with regard to prior seasons, particularly the emergence of “ring gates” (constructed out of the alien protomolecule) that serve as a transit hub where more than 1,300 wormholes connect—each with access to a different star system. Now, instead of the storylines being limited to the residents of Earth, Mars, and the Belt, humans can access and colonize space outside of our Solar System.

Per Kate, here’s where we stand at the start of S5:

Belters don’t want to put up with living on crappy asteroids, making Earthers rich at their own expense, when there are literally thousands of habitable planets out there for the taking, Wild West style. Mars is falling into crisis, as Martians, too, are less invested in the long-term terraforming project to make Mars a proper home when, again, there are literally thousands of other planets out there. And Earth is losing its influence, as anyone with a craft that can hold atmosphere is striking out for the ring gates to seek their fortune light years away.

The crew of the Rocinante work best as an ensemble and as a family, but season five deliberately splits them up. Ship’s captain James Holden (Steven Strait) ends up hanging out on Tycho Station, the effective headquarters of the nascent Belt government, while the Roci undergoes repairs after the misadventures of Ilus. The rest of the crew, meanwhile, basically takes advantage of the downtime to go deal with all the personal affairs they’ve been neglecting while they were chasing around the Solar System (and the galaxy) saving other people’s butts.

Things get hairy pretty fast from there; without spoiling anything, it’s fair to say that the stakes are higher than ever this season. Ars chatted with showrunner Naren Shankar and writers Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck about staying true to the show’s underlying ethos for five seasons—and beyond, since a sixth season has already been announced.

Ars Technica: Let’s start with the challenge of adapting this huge swath of material. It’s the Game of Thrones problem, where you have many long, complicated, sprawling novels—and in this case, three different worlds and multiple storylines within each. Five seasons in, how are you still managing to condense all of that into something that we can actually enjoy in a TV format?

Naren Shankar: That’s always the challenge, balancing multiple storylines, balancing the weight of personal, emotional character stuff with the gigantic geopolitical [elements], the big, beautiful space battles, all of the scope and spectacle. This is always the conversation in our writers room when we come into any season on the show. If we’re doing it right, it does have that balance between the personal and the epic.

Daniel Abraham: There’s always that time gap between when we wrote the books and when we’re adapting them. And there’s actually this weird mellowing that happens where there’s a bunch of stuff in Nemesis Games that we wrote, but I don’t really remember it. So by the time it comes to adapt it, I kind of know what the important parts of the story were for me, because those are parts that stayed most alive to me in my memory. Sometimes I will be reminded of a thing that we did and say, “Yeah, that was cool but it didn’t stick for me, this is the stuff that would stick, this is the stuff that I think is essential.”

Ars Technica: Ars staffers have been chatting internally about the way that space is actually a character, and that ties into how you incorporate good science, especially the physics, into the show. It’s not just there for cool-sounding buzzwords. You actually weave the science into the narrative in a way that doesn’t feel like it’s an afterthought.

Ty Franck: Well, I am a Juilliard-trained scientist. So I bring my expertise to the table when I come in. The truth is, Naren has said many times that that’s part of what appealed to him about taking this project. We spend a lot of time talking about those things and how to use them. People talk about the fact that the first two episodes of the first season, some people found it a little hard to get into, but part of that was you had to teach the audience that all of these things that cause space to work mattered—because decades of science fiction had taught them that those things didn’t matter. That the speed you were traveling and the rate of the acceleration were irrelevant, that gravity just existed no matter what, that nobody ever dies of lack of air in space.

We had to retrain the audience. “No, actually when you turn the engines on, going the other direction, that puts a lot of strain on the people inside the spaceship. It can break things up. If a hole gets poked in your ship and all the air goes up, you just die. There’s no shield holding the area.” Because Naren was so committed to doing that, whenever we’re talking about story development for future seasons, we always talk about the danger of, as you say, space as a character. The ways that those can become part of what drives the plot. Ships run out of air sometimes. Ships run out of fuel. We weave that into the narrative all the time to constantly remind the viewer that space is very, very dangerous.

Naren Shankar: That is part of what makes the show beautiful in its way, that we try to capture physics but in a way that illuminates the drama. You see the way things move, feel speed, feel the perception of weightlessness, and understand all these things that most shows have run away from because they wouldn’t take the time to do it [right]. We look at these things as opportunities. Every time there’s a battle sequence that Ty and Daniel come up with, or something that’s real, actual physics that affects the drama, those are opportunities for us to put something on screen in a way that people have never really seen it before.

Ty Franck: One of the best examples of that early on was two of our writers in the first season. They thought there was no way we could [work in] the idea of light delay. “We can’t have that because people have to be able to talk to each other in real time, no matter where they are in the Solar System.” And we kept insisting that, if light delay is a thing, you can’t just [wave] that away.

At one point, one of them came up and said, “Oh my god, you guys have solved the cell phone problem.” Because these guys are thriller writers, and the thing that killed the thriller was the cell phone. The whole drama of, “Oh my god, there’s a bomb under the table and they don’t know”—that doesn’t work anymore because they just call them. “Hey, there’s a bomb under the table. You should get out of there.” But by introducing this idea of light delay, I can know something on Earth that you certainly need to know out by Jupiter, and even if I send you a message, you’re not going to get the message for 45 minutes. So the bomb may have gone off by the time it gets there. Suddenly, the limitation of light delay became an exciting plot point for them.

Daniel Abraham: The other thing is that this was baked into the story from the start. We had to have a certain level of realism and authenticity and day-to-day familiar physics so that when something weird happened, it felt weird. If everything had been magical and arbitrary, then when the protomolecule starts doing stuff that we don’t understand, it wouldn’t have stood out.

Naren Shankar: Even the protomolecule has rules. There is a logic to how it evolves in the course of the show—there’s a logic in how it constructs things and how it manifests. All of that stuff is internally consistent. It requires you to really be dedicated to it, though. So you can’t just forget about it. That’s the trick.

Ars Technica: Let’s talk a little bit about the first couple of S5 episodes, where we spend a lot of time on Earth for, shall we say, reasons. The city of Baltimore—even though it’s so far in the future and they have all this cutting-edge tech, and humanity is now traveling into the interstellar space—it still feels like Baltimore. You’ve still got corner boys, for instance. Let’s talk about that decision.

Daniel Abraham: One of the things that we’ve always kind of based The Expanse in is the idea that history is very consistent. The things that we did before, we will do again. The anti-maskers were in 1918 and during the Black Death—the things that we show are the things that we think are going to keep [existing], including poverty, responses to poverty, and “entrepreneurialism.”

Ars Technica: Anything to add about what’s in store for S5?

Ty Franck: You’re in for a wild ride.

The Expanse S5 is current streaming on Amazon Prime. New episodes are released every Wednesday through February 3, 2021.

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