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With a Second Life on Amazon, ‘The Expanse’ Is Soaring

Showrunner Naren Shankar says his writing staff always designed ‘The Expanse’ for streaming. Now the series has moved from Syfy to Amazon Prime for its fourth season, and the early returns are promising.

Amazon/Ringer illustration

While the era of Peak TV has yielded more scripted programming—probably too much—than ever before, it doesn’t mean shows with devoted fan bases are impervious to the throes of an early cancellation. That sad fate befell beloved series as disparate as Whiskey Cavalier, Lodge 49, and The OA earlier this year, though fans didn’t let them go without creative revival campaigns, ranging from A-listers spreading hashtags (Tom Hanks would like to #SaveLodge49) to, um, hunger strikes. (The OA fandom is intensely passionate and profoundly weird.) But sometimes a revival campaign can help lead to, well, exactly what the fans want.

In May 2018, after Syfy canceled The Expanse after three seasons, the show’s fandom quickly mobilized in the nerdiest and most on-brand way possible. Fans put together enough money to fly an airplane banner over Amazon Studios’ headquarters in Santa Monica, California, and even sent a small model replica of one of the series’ ships to the edge of outer space. Less than three weeks after its cancellation, none other than Jeff Bezos got to inform the cast and crew of The Expanse, which was attending the annual International Space Development Conference, that the series would get a second life on Amazon Prime. “In the video, I was the only one who doesn’t stand up at the table,” Expanse showrunner Naren Shankar tells me. “I was just sitting there in shock.”

Though Bezos had his own reasons for wanting the company to revive The Expanse—he’s a fan of the book series of the same name, and was reportedly “livid” when Syfy initially acquired the rights to it—it’s a testament to the power of the show itself that it inspires this kind of fervor in non-richest-person-on-earth viewers.

The simplest log line for The Expanse is that it’s basically “space Game of Thrones.” (But considering how poorly that series just ended and how many Thrones imitators are flailing, such a comparison might now be a disservice.) Here’s the longer pitch: Set 200 years in the future, the story finds humanity spread throughout the solar system and on the brink of interplanetary war. The three main factions are people still on Earth, the militaristic Martians (meaning: humans on Mars), and those living around the Asteroid Belt, known as Belters. These tensions are elevated by the discovery of the protomolecule, a mysterious alien substance from the far reaches of space that mankind wants to weaponize. Thankfully, once it’s revealed that the substance appears to have its own beguiling agenda, a fragile peace is attained by the factions as a unified front against the protomolecule threat. By the end of the third season, the protomolecule has done a lot of weird shit on its own—including opening the Sol Ring, a gateway to a new galaxy with unexplored, and potentially habitable, worlds.

With things looking so bleak in our solar system—unemployment rates are high on Earth; the Belters have always felt disenfranchised; Mars’ terraforming seems kind of pointless after the Ring opens up the possibility of traveling to countless potentially habitable planets—the fourth season opens on the cusp of an interstellar gold rush. A few Belter ships snuck through the Ring before a blockade was properly enforced, and one community has formed on a distant lithium-rich planet they’re calling Ilus. Our main protagonists—James Holden, Naomi Nagata, Amos Burton, and Alex Kamal, who’ve dealt with the protomolecule firsthand—are tasked with going to Ilus and making sure more protomolecule-related chaos doesn’t erupt, which, of course, it inevitably does.

I haven’t even gotten to an upcoming election on Earth between incumbent U.N. Secretary-General Chrisjen Avasarala and a political opponent who wants to sanction more colonization of the Ring; a subplot with former Martian Marine Bobbie Draper getting enveloped with black-market dealings on Mars; and rising tensions between the U.N. and the Belters overseeing the Ring blockade. (Trying to streamline The Expanse’s impressive scope any further will only result in a massive migraine.) It speaks to the rich world-building of the series, which is also deeply considered and rooted in the sort of scientific minutiae you won’t find in the worlds of Star Wars or Star Trek. I still contend that space is dope, but The Expanse underscores just how volatile and inherently dangerous intergalactic colonization can be—and more importantly, makes it clear that traversing the solar system for 200 years hasn’t made humanity any less prejudiced.

According to experts in the field, The Expanse is the best show on TV about international relations, and has felt like the closest heir apparent to Ronald D. Moore’s Battlestar Galactica, a sci-fi masterpiece from what was then called Sci Fi during the mid-2000s. It’s for that reason, sadly, that The Expanse seemed like such an outlier on Syfy, where critical hits like The Magicians and Wynonna Earp are mostly overshadowed by a preponderance of cheesy trash—and I’m not just talking about the Sharknado franchise. (The nicest thing I can say about Apple TV+’s Blind Jason Momoa show is that it has High Production Value Syfy energy.) With The Expanse having a home on basic cable for three seasons, restrictions on things like expletives and episode running times had a natural effect on the story. “We were absolutely maxed out at 43 minutes, we could not go a second longer,” Shankar says. “I watch some of those older episodes and I go, ‘Man, it would’ve been so nice to just give the thing two more minutes to breathe.’ Couldn’t do it. And that’s a huge advantage of [Amazon].”

In Shankar’s view, The Expanse and its (no pun intended) expansive tale are a natural fit for streaming. From the beginning of the series, Shankar and the show’s writing staff never broke the story with act breaks—in other words, writing with the understanding that certain scenes would end with commercial interruptions. “When we put the episodes on streaming, I went back to our post-production guys and we closed all of the blacks and we fixed the music and picture edits,” he says. “The streaming versions that you watch are just continuous.” The Amazon move also afforded Shankar’s team the opportunity to shoot in a wider aspect ratio for the scenes on Ilus, which is the first time a major story line in the series takes place on a planet instead of in outer space. There’s a surreal quality to Ilus’s landscapes—the scenes were filmed in Ontario—that evokes a mixture of wonder and terror; an experience elevated by being able to mix different aspect ratios in space and on the ground. “Those are things that you can do on streaming that people don’t even blink an eye about,” Shankar says, “but you just can’t do them on more traditional platforms.”

But while streamers and networks like HBO and Showtime can offer a lot of creative freedom, there’s always the concern about overindulgence. Some series seem to conflate lengthy running times—and depending on the show, gratuitous material—with a marker of prestige, a trend Vulture’s Kathryn VanArendonk aptly described last year as the “manspreading of TV.” There was no specific reason to think The Expanse would go down this path once it moved to streaming, but there was still that nagging anxiety that it would become a guilty offender like Westworld, The Romanoffs, Ozark, or Sons of Anarchy. Though the show’s a little too trigger-happy with the expletives in Season 4—lessening the impact of Avasarala’s iconic tirades, where seemingly every sentence includes the F-word—none of the first six episodes made available for review crossed the 49-minute threshold, and nothing seems tonally jarring or out of place. The Expanse’s fourth season feels like a fine-tuned version of its old self—and its old self was already the best sci-fi series on television.

Perhaps the most crucial difference for fans will be The Expanse’s rollout: Instead of episodes dropping weekly, the entire season will be available to binge on Friday. The ongoing debate over whether series are better served by dropping all episodes at once or by going weekly—it’s no coincidence that our Baby Yoda obsession will run through Christmas—is best considered on a show-by-show basis. But The Expanse will be an interesting litmus test by virtue of changing its release model; even Shankar admits that sustaining a weekly conversation and engaging with viewers on social media was important for the series during its Syfy days. “The relationship that was formed in those years was part of the reason people felt so possessive of the show in terms of the fandom,” he says. “I don’t actually know how [the binge model]’s going to be. I’m super curious to find out.”

Thankfully, what won’t change is what the series imparts on viewers. The central conflict on Ilus lies between the Belter refugees and a corporation from Earth that’s barely hiding its intention to take the planet for itself under the pretext of scientific research—all while Holden and Co. try to get everyone to stop fighting among themselves and focus on the planetwide protomolecule threat that could wipe them all out. Humanity’s hubris in trying to weaponize the futuristic equivalent of a nuclear weapon nearly led to mass extinction in the third season; the colonization efforts are doing that in miniature, endangering everyone on the planet in similarly unpredictable ways. The perpetual struggle of everyday people entangled in political and corporate greed—as those in power continue to underestimate a genuine existential threat—is what propels The Expanse to such compelling heights, even as the show’s narrative moves farther into the cosmos.

The Expanse’s fourth season covers the fourth novel in the eponymous book series from James S.A. Corey ,  the single pen name for the books’ writers, Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham , who are also intimately involved with the show. Unlike Thrones, Shankar and his team don’t have to worry about outpacing their source material: The ninth and final book in the series is expected to arrive in 2020, and after publishing eight books in the past nine years, there’s little doubt Franck and Abraham will meet that deadline. “The guys created this beautiful, intricate, complex, detailed story—and we haven’t departed from that,” Shankar says. “That’s the road map. That’s what we’re here to do. I hope we get to finish all nine books, because I think it would be an amazing thing to tell a complete story with this kind of canvas. I don’t think it’s really been done in science fiction before.”

And in the short term, the cast and crew of The Expanse don’t have to worry about a second cancellation: Amazon renewed the show for a fifth season back in July. Everything beyond that is still undetermined—and it’s certainly not a guarantee that Amazon will let Shankar and Co. continue this interstellar journey deep into the 2020s. But after a year when The Expanse was canceled and fans were paying for airplane banners in a loving attempt to bring attention to the series, even the potential to end the series on their own terms is better than nothing at all. “Ty and Daniel often say they intend to stick the landing,” Shankar says. “We will as well.”