There was a grim moment this spring when Syfy announced that The Expanse’s third season would be its last on the network—and the future of the beloved sci-fi series was in serious doubt. But with Amazon stepping in, The Expanse will be back, and last week at San Diego Comic-Con, we got a chance to talk to showrunner Naren Shankar about what’s to come.
Header photo: Rafy (Syfy)
I can pretty much guess why The Expanse didn’t have a Comic-Con presence this year, aside from being one of the shows included on the Amazon Prime panel.
Naren Shankar: We’re in that weird place where we’re done on Syfy, but we’re not quite on Amazon yet, so we’re not really [ready to launch] a new season for them. I think that’s part of the rationale. The timing’s just weird.
Were you surprised when Syfy said it wasn’t planning to renew The Expanse for a fourth season?
Shankar: I’ll be honest. It was a bit of shocker. I felt like we had delivered, arguably, the strongest season of the show to date. We really felt like, after three years, we’re hitting on all cylinders. The stories are working, the characters are working, everything seemed to be working—working in terms of audience response and press. And then for that to come down, you kind of throw up your hands. It was like, well if we can’t make this work— it was bumming people out big time. Everybody was devastated. The cast, the studio as well.
And to be completely fair, I think Syfy was, too. This was not a creative thing. I think they were incredibly proud of the show, but the business structure of the deal—the fact that they didn’t own it, the fact that they’re on basic cable, that they have to support it with ad-based revenue. That’s a whole other thing, and I think a lot of economic factors came into play. But at the end of the day, we got cancelled.
Anna (Elizabeth Mitchell), making the face I made when I learned The Expanse was cancelled. (Photo: Rafy/Syfy)
What did you think of the fan response to the news?
Shankar: I was blown away by the fan reaction. The fans were amazing. This was as truly a grassroots kind of effort as possible. Cas Anvar, who plays Alex—he’s very connected with the fans on social media, and I know he was not willing to say die at this point. He was a tip of the spear. But the fan response was all over the place. We had an ad executive in Brussels who was cutting these amazing fan videos. We had guys who set up a Change.org petition. All these people just came together and there was this incredible groundswell.
We were the beneficiaries of that, and when that kicked into gear, we said, “Look, we’re going to help them out as much as we can.” We made ourselves available for every interview people wanted to do, we turned the viewing party live-tweets into little events for ourselves and the fans. Honestly, we didn’t direct that—we kind of rode that wave. The fans are the people who you have to thank.
The Expanse cast and crew made this adorable thank-you video for the fans, which was shown at Amazon’s Comic-Con panel.
How much time actually passed between being cancelled on Syfy and Amazon picking the show up?
Shankar: I’d have to look back at my calendar, but I think it was two to three weeks. We did end up losing a couple of writers who had to move on to other shows. But the process had actually gone on quite a bit longer than that. They were trying to figure out a way to make it work on Syfy for several weeks, so we’d kind of already gone through a couple of cycles of it internally before the final word came down. So when it came down, it did feel pretty final. I was starting to separate. I was making those terribly tearful calls to all of the department heads in Toronto, which is not fun. People were really devastated—they’d put a lot of love and time and care and passion into this weird little unique show that really seems to have touched a chord in the fans.
Will fans be able to tell the difference with the shift to Amazon?
Shankar: I think we’re in real strong continuity at this point. Anybody who’s read the books know that the books change pretty radically, sort of season by season. We’re in book four now, and if you’ve read book four, that is set entirely on one of the alien worlds beyond the rings. We’re not going quite that far, to, just completely do that as the entire season. But I think one of the strengths of the show is that it keeps changing. But—hopefully we’re doing our jobs right.
It’s not like Ty [Franck] and Daniel [Abraham, who co-author the Expanse books as James S. A. Corey] stopped being involved in the show. [laughs]. So, it’s not that. [Show writers] Georgia Lee and Robin Veith have both moved on to other projects, but they’re still friends of the show and they’ll be part of it again, I have no doubt.
Naomi (Dominique Tipper) and Camina (Cara Gee), takin’ care of Belter business. (Photo: Rafy/Syfy)
Will working with Amazon give you more creative freedom, or at least release you from having to do things like bleep out swear words?
Shankar: Absolutely. None of those restrictions have to come into play, because those are all basic cable issues. What’s weird about it is that on Syfy all of that stuff was bleeped out, but if you happened to be watching it on Space in Canada, none of that’s bleeped out. It’s going to be, I think, terrific for the show, because we don’t have language restrictions, we don’t have nudity restrictions, we don’t have all of these things that conspire a lot of times to make, especially genre shows, not feel as adult as they should be. Not to feel real. In my mind, it sort of infantilises genre [TV series] even more so. But that goes away on Amazon.
We also don’t have to jam the individual episodes into 43-minute chunks. There were a lot of times over the last few seasons that I’ve gotten a show through post, and it’s been like, “Man, it would much better if I could just open this thing up by two minutes.” But you can’t. That isn’t a problem on Amazon either. So I think there’s huge creative advantages. And honestly, this show was made for streaming. It was made for bingeing. That’s just what it is. And everybody [who works on The Expanse], I think to a person, would say the same thing. We kind of have found our home. This is the right place for the show.
Where are you at with season four?
Shankar: We’re writing and developing it. We jumped in pretty quickly after we got the pickup news, and amazingly, we ended up getting probably about 90 per cent of our crew back in Toronto, which is fantastic. They were all holding out hope that it was going to happen—I mean, bless their hearts, everybody, that’s how much they wanted to be back on it. So yeah, we just jumped in. We’ve only been writing for about four or five weeks, but we’ve laid out the season, we’ve pitched it to Amazon at this point. It’s already been really, really fun and I’m really excited about it.
Bobbie (Frankie Adams) charts a course into the unknown at the end of season three. (Photo: Rafy/Syfy)
The third season had events from both book two and book three guiding its plot. Will there be any of book five in season four?
Shankar: Without giving too many spoilers [laughs]—there’s so much that is juicy from this point on. One of the great frustrations when we thought we’d been cancelled at the end of season three was that the end of the third book is really the end of the first big movement of the series. Which is, after spending a lot of time inside the solar system, this gigantically important thing happens that opens up an entirely new frontier for humanity. And that starts happening in book four.
Yeah, the book itself is completely restricted to the storyline on this new planet, Ilus, and a huge portion of the new season [is based on] book four. But we’re also creating material [that takes place] back in the solar system, that reflects on the events on Ilus. It’s stuff that isn’t in the book, but it actually bridges books four and five going forward. There’s a whole bunch of things happening that are sort of referred to, obliquely, in the text, but we’re bringing them to life and actually playing storylines back in the solar system simultaneously.
Can you name a couple of examples from past seasons when the show has added or changed material from the books?
Shankar: There’s a few examples, even going back as far as the pilot. Chrisjen Avasarela, she’s not in book one of the series. She actually comes into book two. Very early on, that decision was made to pull her into the original narrative to give Earth’s perspective of the events, so it’s not just Holden and Miller, which is the entire book one. Similarly, the character played by Elizabeth Mitchell, Anna Volovodov, she’s in book three but she’s not in book two at all. So because we knew that we would be bridging the end of book two and book three in the third season, we launched Anna at the beginning of season three—the backstory of Errinwright and her on Earth, that’s not in the books or the novellas. So we’re teeing up the narrative for future seasons of the show, but we’re creating new stuff that’s not in any of the published stuff. Ty and Daniel are right there with us, so we’ve talked a lot about how to bridge it. But I think people are going to be pretty psyched by what we do.
Holden (Steven Strait), Alex, and Naomi on the Rocinante. (Photo: Rafy/Syfy)
Is the ultimate goal to finish the books?
Shankar: I would love to take the show to the end of book nine. Ty and Daniel have written a story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. That is the perfect version of this for me—if we can keep the show going, and people like it, I think it would be remarkable to tell, because they are telling a story about the evolution of a species and sort of the fate of humanity in very, very big terms with a very particular point of view. I’d love to be able to take it to the end. That would be amazing.
The authors are obviously involved in the writing process, but do they also advise on the other aspects of The Expanse production?
Shankar: Ty and Daniel have really thought through these worlds in detail. They’ve been invaluable working with the production design team and the concept artists to making these things feel real. As you know, the show has a strong science spine to it and we like to make that as real as possible because it is one of the unique things about the show. Most science fiction just ignores it and we don’t like to, and that kind of comes from the books.
Previously deceased character Miller (Thomas Jane) returned in season three, sort of. (Photo: Rafy/Syfy)
Is it harder to keep the show feeling real now that the characters are exploring alien worlds?
Shankar: There’s physics [on The Expanse] that we don’t understand, but it is still physics in the world. It’s just that it manipulates certain quantities, forces, variables, in ways that we don’t entirely understand. The ring space when you open it up, it’s a stable wormhole. That’s what it is. The protomolecule deals with quantum entanglement and instantaneous transfer of information across vast distances. These are all things that are built into even the current models of physics. So we may not understand how they manipulate them and we can’t do it ourselves, but it’s still bound by the rules of the universe as we know it.
What’s been your favourite moment of the show so far?
Shankar: I’m personally very fond of the whole Maneo slingshotter thing in season three. It’s one of my favourite things that I may have ever put onscreen in my career. It’s such a great prologue on the page, and when I read that I was like, “Okay, we gotta do this right.” And having that be the bridge between the end of the previous book and the beginning of the next one at that point in the season, it’s a pretty awesome moment.