By Carolyn Hinds
Based on the hit sci-fi The Expanse book series by James S.A. Corey (joint pen name of authors Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham), The Expanse is one of the most popular science fiction shows created in the last decade. The show has garnered an impressive fanbase, but when the show was in jeopardy of being permanently taken off the air following its cancellation on the SyFy network, loyal fans created the #SaveTheExpanse campaign that spread across all social media platforms. This not only caused the show to be saved and picked up by Amazon Prime Video, it created an awareness of the show and cast for those unfamiliar with the property.
With the move to a new platform like Amazon, executive producers and writers Naren Shankar, Franck and Abraham have been given just a bit more freedom in how the show is produced regarding episode length, which allows for more expansive storytelling (I couldn’t resist) visually and narratively.
“The actual place where it’s great being on Amazon, and there’s a lot of reasons that it’s great being on Amazon, but we’re no longer bound by a 43-minute run time. Some of the episodes I look at, they’re just kind of squished down into that box cause that’s the maximum run-time length you can have for an episode,” said Shankar.
He continued, “Now this season we got episodes that are 50 minutes long, or 48 minutes long…that is great freedom, because editorially the difference between an extra five minutes or not, is huge. And we also shot the Ilus storyline in a widescreen aspect ratio. You saw that on the clip we showed you it’s 2, 3 9 to 1. They never would’ve allowed us to do that on SyFy or any of the broadcast networks or basic cable. So we have a great deal of creative freedom now, which is awesome. There’s just more tools in the arsenal.”
As the old adage goes, “Life imitates art,” and with The Expanse it was proven to be true. Much like the show itself has gone through significant changes in finding a new home, the crew of the Rocinante — aka Roci — has found themselves on the newly inhabited planet of Ilus as shown in the trailer. With this new environment comes new challenges for the crew and actors.
One character that has faced — or taken on the responsibility of — the most challenges would be James Holden (Steven Strait), the defacto leader of the Roci. As a character Holden has always struggled with emotionally and mentally with the eventual consequences of being the person his crew and most of humanity looks to for inspiration. I asked Strait what it was like to play Holden when the mental and emotional toll increases almost tenfold.
“Building those psychological layers of what has happened to this man, his psyche has been stretched to the breaking point already,” Strait said. “He is in a singular place, because he’s the one with all of the information. So he’s set apart, and in a strange way it sets his feet on the ground because it gives him a different kind of perspective. I think the things that Holden really struggled with in the past…a lot of those things aren’t important to him anymore because he’s seen something else. He’s seen what happened to this ancient civilization. He’s seen what the threat could be in the future, and psychologically he’s become myopically focused on what his mission is, and that is an internal monologue with Miller and then also obviously an external monologue with Miller.”
For Strait, playing Holden meant he had to view him as a prophet, a man who has a calling to go far beyond and above what he views himself capable of: “For him, I think he…it is a humbling thing that he feels. He becomes a better leader because of it, you know I think a lot of things that he was trying to control through these three seasons he does delegate those kinds of responsibilities because he’s like, ‘OK, I have to go focus on this now. I have to go talk to this guy downstairs. You guys got this, we’re a closer family now than we’ve ever been.’”
He added, “But building those layers of psychological complexity was really the most fun I’ve had on the show so far.”
By his reference to “the burning bush” as an analogy for Miller — and by extension the Protomolecule — I couldn’t help but draw the comparison to Moses who, while leading the Israelites through the desert for 40 years, in a moment of utter frustration and being overcome by a multitude of other emotions, went against God’s will struck a boulder in anger to produce water for his people. The opportunity to get more info on Holden’s emotional state was too good to pass up, and when asked if there would be such a moment for Holden when he himself ‘strikes the rock’ so to speak, but alas Strait could only say that Holden will struggle with his responsibilities.
When it comes to casting and characters, The Expanse is one of the most racially- and gender-diverse shows currently airing. Since its premiere in 2015, the show has been praised for having people of color — especially women — in roles central to the storyline, and this is exemplified in the three main female characters, Naomi Nagata (Dominique Tipper), Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Agdashloo) and Roberta ‘Bobbie’ Draper (Frankie Adams). Over the past three seasons they have played major parts in the goings on of The Expanse. Each woman is multifaceted and allowed to express whatever emotion they feel, which sadly is not very common on TV.
When asked about the character development and journey for Bobbie and Chrisjen in season four, Adams had this to say: “We go more in-depth about the flaws, emotions, the vulnerability of each character and you really see that with Bobbie, like nobody’s going to guess what she’s doing this season. It’s still of course the badass Bobbie that we all know and love, but you get to see the human in her, and it’s just going more in-depth into who these people are. What their triggers are and what makes them upset. What is their purpose. What really is their purpose here.”
Agdashloo added, “You’re getting to see them behind the curtains, when they’re alone or when they’re thinking and I love those shots because we see how vulnerable each and ever character is, but at the same time they need to take a step, they need to say something because they know their voice matters.”
Growing up as a young Black girl, seeing characters who looked like me in genre shows was a rarity, especially in positive roles, but now as an adult there is an increasing number of Black women in action, drama and sci-fi shows. Seeing Naomi — and Tipper — a Black bi-racial woman with natural hair has always meant a lot to me personally and having her as a representative of the S.T.E.M. field as an engineer, and woman who is self-assured in her identity and personhood.
With the increasing popularity of The Expanse comes the realization of what Tipper’s (and that of Cas Anvar, Cara Gee, Florence Faivre and other cast members) presence and portrayals mean and represents to audiences, and the responsibility connection to it.
“I’m not sure I’m quite registering what’s happening yet, if I’m honest. I think that what I’ve always wanted for this show if for it to reach the people that we represent, because I think sometimes it’s great that you have everyone of representation on the show, but I’m like, are there kids on the couch in East London who look like me seeing it? Do they know this is possible not only as what I’ve done as an actress, I’m part of may a one percent that is able to come out of the background I’ve come from, and do what I’m doing but also to see her being an engineer or whatever it is,” Tipper said.
She continued, “Honestly, I don’t know. I feel excited about it because I think this show is fantastic, and all I want is for people to see it that are represented and also for people to see us being represented in the way that we are in the show, because I see so many stereotypes. I see so many ‘angry Black women,’ I see so much and I’m like… eeehhh. There’s so much to all of the characters [in The Expanse] and how they interact. It’s not just about this girl being here and representing this person, like the way I interact with Holden, who’s an Italian guy… see that, seeing how we interact… all of that is really important as well and I felt a great weight of responsibility, but also I feel like I’m cut out for it and it’s part of the reason why I’m here doing this job and I’m really excited. I just want everyone to see it and know that we’re doing everything we can, and we’re representing humans.”
Season 4 of The Expanse premieres on Amazon Prime Video December 13, 2019.