SyFy’s The Expanse is sometimes compared to Game of Thrones — and with good reason. It’s a heady combination of cutthroat politics, lush world building, and an unforgivingly high rate of mortality. In addition, The Expanse is the sort of show that appeals to viewers outside the science fiction and fantasy realm. Like Thrones, it’s also based on a series of novels, in this case by James S.A. Corey — the pen name of authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck — and the way it’s being adapted is almost as interesting as the show itself. We spoke with executive producer Mark Fergus and with Wes Chatham, who plays Amos, about how the unusually collaborative nature of the production makes for great television.
Season 1 tells the story of a conspiracy to drive Earth, Mars, and the Asteroid Belt to war. It’s told from the perspective of a shipping crew, a Belter detective, and an Earther politician as each of them uncovers different parts of the plot. It’s dense and, as Chatham says, “It’s built for bingeing.” Fergus credits Game of Thrones with teaching people to have patience with world building. “The more you invest in those early foundation-building parts of your world, the more you can have chaos later when everything is set up and you can activate all the stories and characters,” he says. With The Expanse, he adds, “Season 1 was lighting a lot of fuses, and Season 2, now you get to watch the payoff.”
The crew of the Rocinante will struggle to deal with the outbreak of the alien protomolecule on Eros, while Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo) tries to uncover the conspiracy on Earth and the Martian navy deploys for an engagement that could wipe out life on both planets.
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Like the onscreen collision of worlds, what makes the show unique is the happy collision of minds behind the scene: Abraham and Franck, the authors of the book series; Hawk Ostby and Fergus, the Academy Award-nominated team that wrote the Children of Men screenplay; and Naren Shankar, who spent years as the co-showrunner of CSI but cut his teeth in the writer’s room of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Each of them contributes experience from very different fields in a manner that feels seamless.
While Game of Thrones has access to George R. R. Martin as a resource, the authors of The Expanse are integral to the show’s creation. “Daniel and Ty have written scripts both years,” says Fergus. “They’re in the writer’s room. They’re on set. We rely on them to keep track of the mythology. We challenge their ideas, and they challenge us back.”
One of the benefits of that kind of unfettered access to the source material (i.e., the brains of Abraham and Franck) is that the producers and writers aren’t tied down to doing a book a season (which was their original pitch) or even every two seasons. As they developed the show, Fergus says they realized that “it’s OK to split in the middle of a book or split three-quarters of the way” and that it wasn’t necessary to be held to the structure of the stories on the page.
“That took a while to reconcile, because our original plan had been to go at feature speed,” Fergus went on. “Then you realize the texture of the show is not going to work, because you’ll be cruising through plot events and not really delving into character, which is what shows do so much better than films.” Once they slowed they pace, they were able to begin incorporating elements from the novellas, pulling the structure further away from the books.
The collaborative spirit at the writing level permeates through to the actors as well. “It’s been an extremely collaborative process, unlike anything I’ve experienced before,” marvels Chatham. “We have cast rehearsals on Sunday. The director of the episode is usually there; the writers are always there. And we put things up on its feet. We have long conversations. Sometimes we’ll stage it in the hotel we’re staying at, in the conference rooms. We’ll stage it out.”
Questions get asked and answered in these rehearsals; whole scenes are even created — the scene between Holden and Kenzo as they both try to escape Eros was created this way. It’s unusual for a television show to be that flexible, because what could take weeks on a feature film has to be done in days on a TV production schedule.
Access to the authors is also invaluable for the actors. “I’ve had long, innumerable conversations with Ty about Amos’s psychology, emotionally what’s wrong with Amos,” says Chatham. “Ty likes to say Amos is his id.” Chatham researched detachment disorders, PTSD, and trauma survivors to figure out how to play the character. “He’s not a tough guy; he’s a survivor.”
Initially, Amos comes across as aggressive in a conventional sort of way, but Chatham pushed to incorporate elements of The Churn (a prequel novella) into the story and his portrayal. “In that novella, there’s this very special relationship he has with a woman named Lydia — we’ll definitely get more into that in Season 2, so that’s as far as I’ll go with that — but, Naomi (Dominique Tipper) mimics that same type of relationship,” he says.
In the first season, Amos’s only connection with the people around him is with Naomi, but as he grows closer to the crew of the Roci — or, as Chatham puts it, as “they become a part of his tribe” — new tensions are created. His affection and protectiveness for Alex (Cas Anvar) sours and “builds to a boiling point in a very scary way.” Amos must also deal with the repercussions of killing Sematimba (Kevin Hanchard). “Miller (Thomas Jane) wasn’t too happy with that. Amos doesn’t understand why: He threatened Naomi, and he had to go, it’s very simple,” says Chatham. There’s a confrontation, and Chatham smiles when he says, “That’s one of my favorite moments from Season 2.”
Fans of the books will always have their opinions about whether or not an adaptation is successful, but regardless, it’s a different enough beast that they won’t be bored by a simple rehash of events they already know are coming. In fact, they might even get a sneak peek at something new. “The novella that hasn’t even been published this year,” says Fergus, “we got an early look at it and were, like, ‘Well, this is going in the show!’”
The Expanse airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on SyFy.