The Pilot for The Expanse Is a Tense Socio-Political Thriller Inside a Gritty Space Opera

SyFy gave the crowd at NYCC a sneak peek of The Expanse, hosting a showing of the pilot episode, plus a panel featuring executive producers Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby, and stars Thomas Jane, Steven Strait, Cas Anvar, and Florence Faivre. Expository text tells us that Earth (now run by the U.N.), Mars, and the Outer Planets – an asteroid belt mined for its resources – have been locked in an uneasy balance but now Earth and Mars have begun escalating a Cold War over who controls the Belt, while Belters themselves are beginning to demand more rights. The adaptation of James S.A. Corey’s novels has been described as Game of Thrones in space, and at least the pilot made good on that blurb.

The pilot itself was immediately arresting, opening on a woman trapped in a zero G room in a ship. Is she a prisoner? A stowaway? A crewmember accidentally trapped? We cut from her predicament to three different threads: a future-noir gumshoe stalks through the rougher neighborhoods on the Belt planet Ceres, hunting for a rich girl who’s run away from home. The cops think she may have joined with the OPA – the Outer Planets Alliance, a group of radicals who campaign for Belter rights. Could she be the trapped girl from the opening? Meanwhile, a crewman on Canterbury, a mining ship, is offered a promotion that may complicate his life, and the crew weigh the danger of responding to distress call from a ship stranded ever farther out in space. Finally, we check in with Earth just long enough to meet one of the U.N. representatives, and get a different perspective on the role of Belter n the solar system.

While the show starts off a bit confusingly, once it gets going it becomes increasingly involving. The executive producers, Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby (who previously worked on Iron Man and Children of Men) chose to drop us into the port world of Ceres, where tensions between Belters and Earthers are high. We see a scene entirely in the Belter language (which linguists created based on cues from the books) with no subtitles or translations. We also see the dichotomy between the poor, scavenging miner families, and the Haves who run the town. When we first encounter the Canterbury, we get an up close look at just how dangerous the lives of the ice miners are… and a graphic look at interpersonal relationships in zero G. We also see an instance of space madness that underscores the reality of these miners’ lives: many of them haven’t seen natural light in months. The show really digs into what life on the outer limits of the solar system does to a person’s body and mind.

When the cast and crew came out, Thomas Jane, who plays detective Detective Miller, was indeed rocking a great fedora.

Moderator Aaron Sagers, editor-at-large of Blastr, opened by asking them about the whole “Game of Thrones in space” thing.

Hawk replied, “That’s a comparison we welcome.”

They went on to talk about what drew them to the project, how they felt the books allowed for a mashup of gritty, dirty Battlestar Galactica, and the shiny Star Trek aesthetic. Hawk specifically talked about the grunginess of Alien. “The captain is telling you what’s what, but who’s in the engine room? What’s going on there?”

Thomas Jane started out talking about his hat, and mused from there:

The hat is great! The books are what got us excited and on board. I loved the future noir, and we were able to create a backstory for Miller that’s not in the book, that he was born on Ceres, his parents were killed. Out on these Belt planets, it’s an engine room kind of life, a hard life, and not everybody survives. So we figured there must be a pool of kids who don’t have parents, who are wards of the state, and that’s where Miller came up. He’s streetwise. He lives for himself. …kinda amoral.

Thomas Jane in The Expanse

Aaron turned to Steven Strait, and asked about his character, “Will Holden have doubts about becoming a hero?”
When you meet Holden, he doesn’t want responsibility, he’s chosen to be out in middle of nowhere, but the need for justice pushes him to become who he becomes over the course of the series.

Florence Faivre tried to tell us about her character, Julie Mao, without spilling too much of the story.
“She comes from privileged background, joins the OPA, and then she learns what one of the ships carries. What she discovers threatens the existence of humanity.”

Finally, the last cast member to speak, Cas Anvar, talked about his character’s multinationalism:

Alex Kamal is a 4th generation, Mars-born, pilot, He’s East Indian, Asian, and Texan. When James S.A. Corey first devised the character, they asked, who is it that would create the first colony on Mars? Who would give up life on Earth to plant roots and die on another planet? What would they be? And they figured that it’d be the same people who pioneers now: Asians, Indians and Pakistanis…and Texans. So Alex Kamal is a mix of those cultures, and brings a Southern flair to every conflict. Plus, he’s the caretaker of that sort of ship family.

Sagers commented on the rich diversity of The Expanse, and the producers talked about how they used language to underline the differences in culture.

Fergus: “There’s a little about it in the book, [the Belters’] bodies would change from reduced gravity, they wouldn’t be able to go back to a planet with gravity. Hundreds of different languages come to a port like Ceres, and then they create their own as well. Like a ancient Greek fishing village with all the civilizations meeting. So people from different asteroids can communicate and trade. The language brings what a Belter is to life. They’re a new oppressed class, a new working class – they build the empires, but get no stake in that empire. A guy named Farmer created the whole language. We treated the language as real.”

Otsby: “Also there is sign language – since early space suits only allowed visual hand signals for communications, they still use a lot of those.”

Sagers also wanted Thomas Jane to elaborate on the amorality of his character:

Jane: “He never does become a hero, he just stays an asshole…which was a stretch. That why I chose the role. He does gain a sense of morality, but I wouldn’t say that…I love the amorality, traditional guy who doesn’t believe in the system. You’ve got a class of people who want to be free from the system that they’re dependent on for air water food, as they grow and become genetically their own people, they don’t want to be dependent on imperialist teat.”

Steven Strait added, “This is only a few hundred years in the future, the Belters are the ones brave enough to go out there. To expand into the solar system. And the politics behind that give the show an intellectual level.”

At that point Aaron turned to the audience for questions.

Q: What was like shooting so much space action?
Steven Strait: We had a choreographer for when we did wire work, to make sure it was right, because zero G is – it’s not quite like being in water. There was very little green screen, and those practical effects informs your choices.
Thomas Jane: Says the guy who had zero G sex!
Florence went on to compare the zero G work to dancing. “Working with every little detail, how you move, how you bounce off of things. But it was so much fun.

Q: You see a lot of animals (The pilot includes shots of a bird and rat in the far reaches of the solar system) but as someone who’s read a lot of sci-fi, it seems weird to have animals. How the hell did a rat get on the spaceship?
Hawk: You’ve never seen a rat on Star Trek. But they get everywhere. You stop in a port to load up, and they get on, too. By the way, that rat was a star. He stood up just when he was supposed to.
Mark added that he enjoyed the effect of a bird flying in the low gravity of Ceres, and then went on: “You never see this detail in star trek, either. Where’s the garbage? Where are all the toilets?”

Q: How closely are you following the books?
Hawk: They’re so amazingly well written, even if you don’t like science fiction they’re good. But, obviously you can’t capture everything.
Mark: The side novellas are beautifully written, and we’re bringing those in, too. And the writers are part of the writers’ room. It is the books that are important to us. Some people said we were crazy to bring them in, but they keep us on track.

The Expanse comes to SyFy on December 14th!

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