Leading up to the 20th anniversary of the March 10, 1997 premiere of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Yahoo TV is celebrating “Why Genre Shows Matter” and the history of how these shows have tackled universal themes (e.g. how much high school sucks) and broader social issues.
Warning: This article contains spoilers for the Season 2 “Home” episode of The Expanse.
As one of only a handful of writers ever to be Oscar-nominated for a sci-fi film (2006’s Children of Men), Mark Fergus is well-situated to explain the value of genre work. Along with writing partner Hawk Otsby, he is also credited with the screenplay for the first Iron Man movie and currently is the co-creator of Syfy’s The Expanse, a dense tale of interplanetary politics that’s also intensely personal.
Even in their most seemingly trivial writing, though, Fergus insists they have something to say. “I think if we wrote pure entertainment it would suck, because we wouldn’t believe it,” Fergus says. “It’s really hard to get up and sit in that chair and pound it out if you’re not really trying to scrbooatch an itch in your own psyche.” He and Otsby always ask, “Why does this resonate with us, anyway?”
In the case of Iron Man, which could have been just a story about guys in robot suits punching each other, Fergus explains, “The great superhero story for me is burning your old self down to create this new self.” Tony Stark is forced to build new armor to confront Obadiah Stane in a suit that — figuratively and literally — represents the sins of his past. “You can kind of slip in a nice timeless theme of redemption in this story about robots, because I don’t know what to do with that alone,” he says.
Fergus credits this approach to the first genre show that influenced him: The Twilight Zone. “What it did for me — and it changed my life completely — was it switched up genres every week. And what I learned from it was, you want to sell an interesting or weird or heady idea to people? Invite them in through genre.”
Rod Serling’s clashes with network censorship are legendary, but by cloaking the same social critiques that terrified sponsors in the guise of magical or sci-fi tales, he continued his work virtually unimpeded. Stories about race, nuclear war, the Holocaust — all topics a soap company or a frozen dinner would shudder to be associated with — slipped into the public consciousness without complaint.
“That’s what genre has always meant for me; it’s just sort of a way to plug into stuff that’s primal. You don’t have to sell the audience on a cop story,” says Fergus. “Give them a Western, give them a thriller, give them a cop story, love story, post-apocalyptic: all these things that people are familiar with.” That familiarity of story was the key to breaking open the story of Children of Men.
The original novel, he recalls of the experience translating it to the big screen, “was a beautiful piece of material. It was a beautiful character study. It was an amazing look at a world without hope.” But it wasn’t movie-ready until they saw it as a broken love story, with Julian returning to a disillusioned Theo. “The person that hurt you the most comes back to you and says you need to help me for something larger than us, larger than you, larger than your personal angst about our lives and about the hopelessness of the world. That’s Casablanca.”
Once they came to that realization, the story bloomed. “Now it’s an adventure story, it’s a road film, it’s a political thriller, it’s a lot of things,” he says. It’s also a thread that connects Children of Men to their Marvel film: “You’ve got these middle-aged guys who have lived badly, or if they had convictions they lost them, they tripped and fell in life and they’re trying to find a way back to the light.” Tony Stark and Theo Faron, “It’s the same character to me — and Hawk and I know about screwed up middle-aged guys trying to redeem themselves,” Fergus says with a laugh. “Well, we have a pretty good handle on that.”
That brings us to The Expanse. Even if you haven’t read the best-selling James S.A. Corey book series upon which the show is based, you might have expected what comes at the end of Season 2, Episode 5: Miller, a disillusioned cop, becomes obsessed with Julie Mao. At first, he’s simply assigned to track her down. But as he learns about her, he comes to see saving her as his redemption. He finally meets her, semi-conscious, controlling an asteroid hurtling towards Earth. He stays with Julie and convinces her to redirect Ceres away from her home planet; the final shot of the episode is the cataclysmic asteroid strike on Venus.
Here is another connection to Children of Men: sacrifice. In the P.D. James novel, Theo lives but, says Fergus, “If the hero doesn’t die in the story, then I don’t care about this story.” The film ends with Theo’s death as they await rescue in the fog. “That has to be the first change from the book — this guy has to sacrifice his life. Then the whole story has meaning, so it’s a necessary end that we had to go for with Miller.”
“That’s the story we gravitate to because I feel like we have something to say about that,” Fergus says. “It’s Children of Men, it’s Tony Stark, it’s Rick from Casablanca, it’s The Verdict.” In the case of The Expanse‘s Miller, “He felt like his whole life had been the fabric leading him up to this moment, so the fact that he was a f–kup his whole life actually helped him in the moment where he needed to redeem himself.”
“That final scene with Julie, that was the reason we wanted to make this show,” he says. “That was the whole heart of it. It’s not only the heart of the book, I think it’s the heart of the whole show.”
The Expanse airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on Syfy.
Read more from Yahoo TV’s “Why Genre Shows Matter”:
‘Farscape’ Star Claudia Black Revisits Aeryn Sun’s On- and Off-Screen Feminist Journey