Welcome back to More of a Comment, Really…, a weekly interview podcast hosted by Clint Worthington! Every episode will feature interviews with actors, filmmakers, producers, and more, giving you the skinny on the latest films and TV.
Science-fiction space opera on television is experiencing a real renaissance in the last few years, and at the tip of the spear is The Expanse. It’s a sprawling, richly-conceived adaptation of the James S.A. Corey novels of the same name, set in a universe where mankind has colonized the solar system, but the same problems of paranoia, war, and distrust follow us out into space. The show nearly died last year when its previous home, Syfy, abruptly canceled it in the middle of its third season, but a vigorous fan campaign (and the largesse of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos) saw the prestige space drama move to Amazon Prime Video. Now, the fourth season is out, the budget is bigger, and the crew of the Rocinante is in even more interstellar danger than ever. We’ve reviewed the first six episodes of the season already, and the show’s new home is off to an exciting, intriguing start.
Helming the ship is showrunner Naren Shankar, a decades-long veteran of science fiction television from Star Trek: The Next Generation to The Outer Limits. I was lucky enough to sit down for a podcast interview with Shankar to talk about The Expanse‘s rescue from cancellation, the scope afforded them by their new administrators, and what awaits the characters (and audiences) in a surprisingly planet-bound season 4. Also, we muse on the passing of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine actor René Auberjonois.
(More of a Comment, Really… is a proud member of the Chicago Podcast Coop. Thanks to Overcast for sponsoring this episode!)
(This interview has been edited for clarity.)
Looking back 18 months ago, when the news that Syfy had canceled The Expanse had come out, did you ever expect that you and the show would be where it is now?
NAREN SHANKAR: You know, if I’m being 100% honest, no. It was one of those things where we held out hope, maybe there was some interest early on, but those things seemed to fizzle out. And I was really int he process of making those very difficult calls to my department heads, who were asking me, “What do you hear? Are we coming back? I’m trying to keep my schedule open,” and having to tell those people, “It’s over, it’s done.” Because it really did seem that way. And then, for whatever reason, things kicked into a different gear. The fan outreach was amazing — the actors got involved, we got involved, the planes started going up, people sent Roci replicas up on a weather balloon [laughs].
Then there was that amazing moment at the [International] Space [Development] Conference where we have just happened to agree to do a panel about the science in the show. And Jeff Bezos was being honored, and he just made the announcement that “we’re saving The Expanse.” It was a complete shocker; I didn’t think it was going to happen. You always hope, but if I was being real, I’d go, “no, don’t think it’s going to happen. I think it’s just pie in the sky.”
With the suddenness of the announcement, then, was there a scramble to get season 4 started?
SHANKAR: There was a little bit of that, only because, since the story in season 4 is set on a planet for the first time in The Expanse, there were gonna be weather issues in Toronto. We actually had to go and find a location, which is something the show did very rarely for the first three years. That put a bit more pressure on the script development side of things, because we needed to get in and out of location because of the physical difficulties of shooting by a certain time.
Where did you end up finding the location for Ilus?
SHANKAR: The Ilus location is an active quarry about an hour and a half out of Toronto. If you look at the first episode, which has these beautiful drone images flying over the planet, those are un-retouched. Those are not visual effects shots, with the exception of the protomolecule ruins in one shot. And those are the colors. It is the most bizarre, alien, gorgeous landscape, and it was an amazing sight.
The overall look of the show feels so different from previous seasons, especially the Ilus scenes, where you employ a wider aspect ratio and shoot with anamorphic lenses. How has the show’s visual language evolved?
SHANKAR: We’ve evolved the visual look of the show as the show has evolved in the books. As you know from the novels, the locations change, where we go changes, everything’s different and they’re constantly on the move, which is what makes the show so interesting. Ty Frank and Daniel Abraham (who write together as James S.A. Corey), who’ve been with the show since the beginning, they’ve always described book 4 as thematically and spiritually a Western. So as we were looking at doing Ilus, and having conversations with [cinematographer] Jeremy Benning and [episodes 1-2 director] Breck Eisner, we felt this would be a great way to get that Western kind of feel.
The big, classic Westerns were these ultra-wide, Panavision, vista-spectacular kind of looks. And given that this was our first time on a planet, we thought this would be a great opportunity to it. And you also get some lovely things with anamorphic lenses; when you rack focus on an anamorphic lens, you get that eerie kind of shift and stretching and compression of the frame. These lent themselves to the alienness of the environment in a very subtle way, so it ended up being a really nice choice. I was really happy with the look.
You mentioned the change in genre, which is something The Expanse does from season to season and book to book — film noir in season 1, Tom Clancy military thriller in season 2, 2001-esque hard sci-fi in season 3. Did the Western shift feel like a natural progression for that?
SHANKAR: You know, that’s probably a better question for Ty and Daniel. Certainly from my point of view, it seems that way; there are those archetypes and genre types, but putting their own spin on things in each of the books. They’re wound together and woven together into the fabric of this larger story of The Expanse. But what it does do is keep the story fresh; it’s the same people, but they keep finding themselves in new situations thematically, cinematically. You think to yourself, “Wow, this show never gets boring.” You never know quite what to expect, and that’s what great about it.
Is there a genre you haven’t explored yet that you’d like to with these characters and this world?
SHANKAR: Huh. I’ll have to think about that one, I can’t give you an answer right off the top of my head.
I’m not trying to give you ideas, necessarily, but Expanse musical episode. That’s all I’m saying.
SHANKAR: [laughs] By the way, that’s the go-to on every show, because you get to a certain point, and every actor’s like, “no, I’m a really good singer.“
You know, the protomolecule can do anything, maybe it can make people burst into song. But going back to the show, from my understanding most of the fourth book [Cibola Burn] takes place on Ilus, which means you had to find other things for your expanded cast of characters outside of the Rocinante to do. What was the challenge there? Did you take from other stories and books?
SHANKAR: You’re right; book 4, with the exception of the prologue and the epilogue, is 100% on Ilus. That’s the entire story. And obviously, we’ve developed characters, we’ve developed a world, we didn’t want to suddenly go off and do this one-off story that was completely different from anything we’ve ever seen. I think in the book, the Roci crew doesn’t even show up until 200 pages in.
So what we decided that it was an opportunity. In the book, the crew goes away to Ilus, and when they come back, a fair amount of time has passed, and things have changed back in the solar system. What we realized was that with season 4, we could keep these other storylines alive by creating new material that bridges the events in the novels, but is new to the audience. But there are events that will set up things that happen in the fifth season. We were actually able to do that and pull characters through, create storylines in the solar system that complemented what was going on in Ilus.
And you see that a lot in Bobbie [Draper]’s storyline, where we see more of Mars than we ever have before. But it’s a Mars we don’t recognize from the rest of the show. How did you conceptualize her storyline, and how it would reflect the way Mars has changed in this universe?
SHANKAR: Well, that’s one of the great things about the adaptation that we’ve put together. Way back in season 1, we were talking about the character of Fred Johnson. I had questions about it, I asked Ty and Daniel, “I don’t quite get this guy.” And they spin out this whole story for him, and I’m going, “where is this in the book?” [laughs] And they said, “no, no, we wrote this novella called The Butcher of Anderson Station.” I said, “there are novellas?” And they go, “Yeah, there’s a whole bunch of them!” So I read this novella and say, “We should do this story in the show! It’s a great story!” The studio hadn’t optioned these novellas, so Alcon Television agreed to option them and we’ve built the novellas into the larger narrative of the novels.
For Bobbie Draper, almost the entirety of that story is drawn from the novella Gods of Risk. There’s a slightly different focus in the book, but it is those events, reconfigured more around Bobbie’s perspective. It tells the story about what happens to Mars, this place that’s built its entire culture around a single mission when that mission is no longer something actually worth spending time and money on. That gave us a great opportunity to tell a story specifically about Bobbie, to go to a place we’d never seen before, to bring out culturally one of the significant elements of The Expanse world. We’d only seen Mars in terms of individual characters and ships, the military side of it. We’d never been to Mars before, not really. That’s one of the fun things about doing the adaptation. That was almost purpose-built for season 4.
I know you have a long, long history of writing for Star Trek, and of course earlier this week we heard that the late, great René Auberjonois passed. How did you react when you heard that news?
SHANKAR: René was a lovely, lovely man. I was lucky enough to work with him a few times on Deep Space Nine and met with him at various functions and things over the years. A wonderful spirit, a great actor, it was very sad to hear.
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