TELEVISION: How fans saved “The Expanse”
By Tom Risen|October 18, 2018
Jeff Bezos, NASA officials and others laud the deep-space drama's realism
The cast of the TV thriller “The Expanse” is in the midst of filming the show’s fourth season, after fans spoke up earlier this year and persuaded Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon, to adopt the orphaned drama.
“The Expanse” gained a loyal following because of its plausible futurism, but apparently not a large enough following for NBC Universal, owner of the SyFy Channel, which canceled the show in May.
Fans started a campaign to save the show, including setting up a petition on Change.org, and a hashtag “SaveTheExpanse” line on Twitter. George R.R. Martin, author of the novels that inspired the HBO series “Game of Thrones,” and Craig Newmark, founder of the Craigslist website, made email appeals to Bezos.
The show’s writers, Dan Abraham and Ty Franck, were pleasantly shocked in May when Bezos announced to a ballroom of space enthusiasts that Amazon Studios would buy the rights to make new episodes. These episodes, which like the previous ones track with a series of novels written by Abraham and Franck, will be streamed on Amazon Prime at a date to be determined.
“We knew that there were conversations going on, but those were always long shots,” said Abraham.
The support from Bezos is perhaps not surprising given that his vision of “a trillion humans in the solar system,” as he put it on May 25 in that ballroom in Los Angeles, is reminiscent of the show’s depiction of domed cities on Mars and outposts in the asteroid belt and on Jupiter’s moons.
The show’s commitment to plausible technology has earned a following in the space community, although Franck said “the one thing we never try to do” is predict what humanity’s future will look like, given that they are not economists or scientists.
Which is not to say that some with such backgrounds are not fans. Among them is Andrew MacDonald, NASA’s senior economic adviser, who told me he likes the show’s depiction of labor disputes and trade routes.
“Science fiction is one of the principal methods we as a society use to consider challenges we are going to have to deal with as we expand our civilization into the cosmos,” MacDonald said.
As for the technical depictions, characters on the show are able to rapidly fly space ships 225 million kilometers from Earth to Mars and farther into the asteroid belt with a fusion-powered magnetic coil exhaust engine called the Epstein Drive.
The intense gravitational force created by the fusion engine’s acceleration on the show caused its namesake Solomon Epstein to die of a stroke during a test flight, prompting the creation of a protective drug humans inject prior to high-speed flight nicknamed “the juice.” Abraham said this was inspired by the alertness drugs that fighter pilots sometimes take, and by a drug depicted in “The Praxis” science fiction novels.
“The reason high-g flight becomes fatal is that you get a rupture in your circulatory system somewhere,” Abraham said. So he envisioned “a drug that keeps your arteries rubbery and pliant under high stress so that they don’t blow out, or an amphetamine cocktail that keeps you from passing out during high g.”
The show depicts colonization as gritty work. Prospectors gathering chunks of ice from the asteroid belt are sometimes crushed by their cargo while moving it for the journey to a spaceport. Children born in space need medical treatment after a lack of gravity prevents their bones and bodies from developing naturally.
Producers take steps to make the microgravity scenes realistic. During filming, actors perform action scenes while suspended by trapeze wires, and characters in the plot wear magnetic boots. Abraham noted that “if you pour a drink” when you’re in the fictional Ceres station, “it wouldn’t point in the straight line.” A sparrow flying within the Ceres “can also hover because it’s in a different gravity, not a full Earth g.”
All this space travel doesn’t mean the 2200s are a happier time, as factions compete for resources in a future shaped by ruthless self-interest. Earth is ravaged by overpopulation, sea level rise and climate change; Mars wants water to terraform the red planet; while workers on asteroids and the moons of outer planets are trying to gain better health care and fair wages for the risky work of gathering that water ice. Acts of piracy, militarism and intrigue among these groups have brought the solar system to the brink of war.
Abraham said the show is “neither a dystopia nor a utopia,” noting that he and Franck drew on history books for examples from other turbulent eras of technological change. “Humans have been bumbling forward in more or less the way they will continue bumbling forward,” he said.
In the NBCUniversal photo at top, characters on the deck of their spaceship in the science fiction show “The Expanse,” about space colonization in the 2200s. The fourth season began filming in September for Amazon Prime after the SyFy Channel on cable TV canceled the show in May.
“Science fiction is one of the principal methods we as a society use to consider challenges we are going to have to deal with as we expand our civilization into the cosmos.”Andrew MacDonald, NASA's senior economic adviser