Last night, Syfy released the first episode of The Expanse, its space opera based on James S.A. Corey’s novels, and everyone learned what we’ve known for months: This show is going to blow your mind. We visited the set back in May, and here’s what we saw.
Everybody knows that the Sci-Fi Channel changed over the past decade, in ways that went way beyond the spelling of its name. Gone were shows like Andromeda, Battlestar Galactica, and Farscape, replaced by a slate of genre-related reality shows and lighter fare, like Alphas, Being Human, and Eureka and WWE Wrestling. The channel backed away from its roots, and stopped making the kinds of shows it used to be known for. That all changed with the announcement that the channel had decided to adapt these gritty, ambitious Expanse series by James S.A. Corey (the pen name of writing team Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.) I felt a surge of optimism when the plane touched down in Toronto to see what new direction the channel was pointed in.
I’ve been a fan of the Expanse novels since the beginning, and I’ve been consistently impressed at the depth of the world which the authors have created. So news of the television show brought excitement, but also some trepidation: Will they get the look and feel of the universe right? Will the portrayals of Holden, Naomi, Miller, Alex and Amos mesh with the images that I’ve had of them in my head the last couple of years? All signs seem to point to a resounding yes.
Shortly after Leviathan Wakes hit bookstores, I had the opportunity to interview both parts of James S.A. Corey, and since that time, I kept in touch. And then I had pitched a major article for Barnes and Noble’s Sci-Fi & Fantasy blog that covered the story of how The Expanse went from an idea for a game that Franck had come up with to a major television production, and while writing that article, I found myself invited to the set to see the books come to life. [Full Disclosure: NBC Universal provided me with transportation while in Toronto and meals while on set.]
Building the world of The Expanse
I was picked up by Dean, one of the drivers for the production crew. A large man with an impressive beard, he sliced through Toronto’s Friday morning traffic with ease, recounting some stories from production. Recently, they’d finished filming an outdoor scene in the snow, which had gone well. The cast and crew, he said, were proving to be an excellent team. He pointed out an office building as we drove through the city: earlier in the shoot, they had occupied a floor of office space, where they had shot some scenes in an office like environment. My mind went to Thomas Jane’s character, Joe Miller, a detective on Ceres, and I wonder what type of office was hidden in the sleek glass and steel building.
We arrived at Pinewood Studios shortly thereafter, where I was met by a production assistant. As we walked towards where they were filming that day, a door burst open and a bloodied Detective Miller strode out. We proceeded into the massive warehouse. Greeting us inside was a series of massive sets, where the production team was working on a scene.
Director Terry McDonough, known for his work on Better Call Saul, Breaking Bad, and the Doctor Who docudrama An Adventure in Time and Space, was hunched over a camera screen in the production’s video village. On the screen, Captain Jim Holden, portrayed by Steven Strait, turned his head in a dramatic close up, surrounded by a casino-like room. As I watched, McDonough repeated the shot a couple of times before he was satisfied, and finished the take.
Sitting behind the screens, I was introduced to the Expanse’s producer, Ben Cook, who was sitting with Ty Franck. Alongside him were Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby, the show’s two lead writers, best known for their work on Children of Men, Cowboys and Aliens and Iron Man.
As we spoke, Strait finished with his work on screen and came out to join us. I mentioned how weird this was for me: I’d been reading Holden’s story for several years at this point— and now, a live version of him stood before me, dressed in a jumpsuit and looking like he’s seen better days.
“I’ve read the first two books,” he told me, “Jim Holden is an incredible character, and I don’t want to get too far down his story. I don’t want to know exactly where he’s going.”
The crew reset the scene, and Holden headed back to the set, a bright casino scene that looked as though it was ripped straight from Las Vegas’s gaudiest room. Holden is soon back in front of the camera, looking grim as some revelation comes to light. The revelations are serious ones: the Expanse takes place several centuries in our future, where human civilization has spread out to the rest of the solar system. Earth, Mars and the Outer Planets Alliance (OPA) all vie for power in the system, and when a new threat emerges within the system, the scales are tipped towards all-out war.
After sitting and watching McDonough at work for several more takes, a small group of us peeled off from the main hub for a short tour of the sets in the building, led by Franck and Ostby. The first was a tunnel, scattered with junk and remnants of human debris.
“This is one of the Eros sets,” Franck explained, flashlight in hand. “We designed the set to look as though it’s carved out of rock.” In addition to Eros, the same sets had been used for another asteroid colony, Ceres. Eros, I remembered from the books, is essentially the Las Vegas of the asteroid belt: an out of the way place nobody would ever want to visit without the incentives of hookers, gamblers and smuggling. The tunnel looks it, too: It’s dirty, dimly lit, and not a place that you’d want to be if you didn’t have to be.
Next up was a hangar: large boxes were scattered around the room, with all the warning labels, floor markings and other things you might find in a hangar bay. We didn’t spend too much time in it: Fittingly, it was being used to store some equipment and props not being used.
Next to the hanger was another Eros set: a lobby to a flophouse, that plays host to a pivotal role in Leviathan Wakes. The book’s description summed up the scene nicely:
The lobby was mostly empty space, with a pair of couches at one end next to a table covered with magazines. A sleepy-looking older woman sat reading one. Elevators were recessed into the wall at the far end, next to a door marked STAIRS. In the middle was the check-in desk, where, in lieu of a human clerk, a touch screen terminal let guests pay for their rooms.
The set was grim: gray, dark and full of bullet holes. Earlier in the week, they had used the scene for a gun fight. Bullet holes tore up the walls and furniture, and in the center of the room, a head-height blood splatter pattern graced the room’s central pillar. It’s here that Detective Miller and Holden’s crew meet for the first time, their two storylines converging. This set looked like it was taken right out of the book, and I could see the aftermath of the fight. If I hadn’t known better, I could have believed we’d just walked in on an abandoned crime scene.
Following the set visit, I sat down with the show’s two lead writers, Hawk Ostby and Mark Fergus. The pair had come onboard along with Ben Cook, Jason Brown and Sean Daniels after several attempts: Cook, who discovered Leviathan Wakes (oddly enough, through an article on io9), first pursued an adaptation, and was turned down. It wasn’t until Ostby and Fergus joined the term that Corey’s agent realized that they had a serious vision for what the Expanse could be.
“It’s like falling in love: You just know,” Fergus noted, when they recounted how they got involved. Everyone clicked in their early meetings, and after several days of marathon brainstorming, they began to hammer out a concept for a television series. Everything came together quickly, and “the more we spoke with them, the more we realized this was a great team.”
From there, “we built a pitch,” Ostby noted. “We did the circuit of production companies, and we ended up with Alcon, which was a great fit.” With Alcon on board, they approached the networks, a search which ended with Syfy. “They were also very, very hungry for this, and wanted something, a real sort of space opera, to get back into the Battlestar Galactica type of mold.”
Ostby noted that he wasn’t sold on Leviathan Wakes at first. He noted that going into it, he assumed that the book would be all about technology, gorms fighting gorbs. Then, he cracked the book, and “18 hours later, I was like ‘get that meeting!’”
The reason for his change of heart was because this “was a very human story,” says Ostby. “This was about people, about humans, about where we’re going, where we’ve been, all those kinds of things, which really grips you.”
Fergus agreed: “It seems like the only future story people want to tell is ‘what’s our relationship with technology?’ And what we fell in love with almost immediately is that technology is there, but it’s almost completely uncommented on. It’s there when they need it, [but] it’s ignored, because we don’t care about the technology and fantastic things that make our lives easier in our world. Why would it be any different there? They really never got caught up in tech.”
Furthermore, they were attracted to the story’s two lead characters: Holden and Miller, two screw-ups who stumble into the story and find themselves in the center of the action. The pair weren’t your typical action heroes, specially trained to save the day: they were just ordinary guys. Miller is a washed up detective, while Holden was a crewman on an ice hauler.
The next stop was what I was really looking forward to while flying up to Toronto: stepping aboard the Rocinante. The ship is a Martian Congressional Republic Navy ship, and it occupies the same space as ships like Serenity and the Millennium Falcon. This ship becomes a part of the crew over the course of the books, and if this wasn’t done right, the show simply wouldn’t work.
They got it right.
The set was massive: three stories tall. Franck pointed out details in the plywood as we walked up and around it. The entire set could be pulled apart for cameras to get the right angle, or to fly actors across the set in scenes with low gravity.
Like Firefly’s Serenity, the Roci is a largely continuous set. It’s not quite the entire ship, but you can walk from the lower decks up a ladder and into the ship’s bridge, and up another ladder into the pilot’s station. Franck noted that it was helpful to have it built out, because it allowed the actors to really drive home their performances by using it as though it’s a real spaceship. They would hang off of the railings, lounge in the chairs, and generally make themselves at home. Hanging around the ready room outside of the airlock are Martian combat suits, and lockers, all looking as though they’re ready for the next sign of action.
The detail onboard the ship was fantastic. There were warning signs plastered in hard-to-see locations, like one might expect in a military vehicle, while fire extinguishers were strapped to the walls, and handholds stuck out from the ceiling. In the previews of the show, the bridge is lit up with touch screens and holograms, but now, it was dimly lit, as though it’s been shut down while waiting for the next mission. It felt like a real ship.
What sets the Roci apart from its fictional counterparts is a sense of vertical distance. Most science fiction television, to save on costs, explained away the gravity on board ships as the result of some sort of device. But in this series, gravity comes only when a ship is under thrust. Here, actors float up and down, and the ships themselves are long and tall, with decks stacked on top of one another. This thought process extended to the conception and creation of the sets themselves, and a lot of effort went into making sure they’re practical.
We later visit other well-trafficked locations on the ship, built in separate sets: the mess hall, with its small table and well-stocked provisions, and crew quarters. Again, the attention to detail here stood out: containers were labelled, and even the fake rations bore the logos of the Martian military. If there’s anything that this show will be known for, it’ll be the fantastic set design, which looks every bit as good as other shows like Battlestar Galactica. While the show won’t live or die on just its production quality, it is a testament to the confidence that Alcon and SyFy have in the show. They’ve expended a major effort on making this whole world look right, and from what I’ve seen in the final product, they got it right.
Two Parts James S.A. Corey
One of the interesting things about the production of the show is that both parts of James S.A. Corey are involved: Franck and Abraham are each writers on the show, and are its Executive Producers. This is a rarity in the film world, where authors are usually handed a check and invited to set for a day.
Franck is hands on when I arrive: he’s sitting behind the cameras watching the footage as its shot. (Abraham had just returned home, and we later spoke by video conference).
In researching how The Expanse came to be, I found that this story has a very different origin: it’s heavily collaborative. Franck had come up with the world, and had developed reams of background material from which to work from, while Abraham saw the potential of the story embedded there. The pair has collaborated closely, and that collaborative relationship has given way to a much larger collaboration.
This collaboration seems to have extended to the rest of the crew. More than once, people I spoke with on the set indicated that this was one of the best productions that they’d ever worked on. Everyone had bought into the story, and that they were involved in something fantastic.
Having the authors closely involved in the production helps to bring their knowledge of the story and the world to the mix. As I walked through the sets, I can imagine that much of that attention to detail comes from the pair themselves. This extends beyond the sets: watching the finished products, the world has been dropped into the television, with every character telling some small part of the world that they’re part of, either through their movements, what they’re wearing, or their speech. It’s an immersive experience, and as we tour the Roci and Eros and look at the props, it’s clear that having the authors on hand to consult has been a net gain for the production.
I have to admit, I had some small doubts about the show: SyFy had done some great work in the past, but the channel’s recent efforts hadn’t been as memorable. Walking around the sets for The Expanse, however, erased all doubts in my mind. This show is going to be something special.
Image credits: NBC Universal / SyFy