Syfy’s The Expanse is that rare science fiction show that fires on all cylinders: character, story, setting, and message. And its second season, which premieres tonight, is even better than its first. Yesterday, I spoke with members of the cast about the upcoming season—and how it uncannily mirrors a political landscape it couldn’t have seen coming.
If you’re unaware of the series, The Expanse is based on the books by James S.A. Corey, and set somewhere between now and the kind of high-tech/magic future of Star Trek. In this future, humans have spread to Earth, Mars, and the asteroid belt, and all three of those groups hate each other. Earth has larger numbers and resources. Mars’ strength is its military technology. The Belt is full of miners who feel very much taken advantage of by the much more elitist Mars and Earth.
“At the end of season one, we’ve finally introduced the protomolecule and what it can do,” said Wes Chatham, who plays the Earther Amos. “And we are completely outmatched by this power we’ve never seen and don’t know where it comes from. The protomolecule becomes a powder keg in the already contentious relationships between Mars, the Outer Belt, and Earth and the moon. All of a sudden the paranoia and the cold war starts to heat up and everybody’s afraid.”
“In our show, every single faction, Earth, Mars, and the Belt are all masters of manipulation. They all spin their perspective and use fear to basically get their agenda served,” further explained Cas Anvar, who plays the Martian pilot Alex Kamal.
“The show takes a long time to make. I mean, the special effects and the edit, they’re all very nuanced. We’ve asked our fans to wait a year. You have to come out of the gate swinging,” said Steven Strait, who plays the Earther Captain of the Rocinante, Jim Holden. “We just left Eros and this awful genocide that deeply affected everyone in this show. And the second season is forced forward by how they react.”
That delay between shooting the series and completing the episodes is what makes the issues the show has weaved into its fabric so surprising. They are shockingly prescient. There’s a politician on Earth with the slogan, “Earth first.” There’s a company of Martian Marines with internal tension because one of them immigrated to Mars from Earth, so he’s not considered a “real” Martian—even though, as he explains, his family loves Mars more because they fought and worked so hard to move there. There are people manipulating people’s fear and hatred of each other to further their own agenda.
And they show is adapting a book series that began in 2011. So how it does mirror the world of 2017 so perfectly?
“It really does tackle a lot of topics, especially in the political environment we’re in right now,” said Anvar. “You’ve got writers who are very intuitive who are very in tune with the way things are. When Ty and Daniel [the two writers behind the pen name James S.A. Corey] wrote this stuff, they were organically in tune with what was going on in the world. When the writers are so in tune with the world around them and they write with such authenticity, they end up relevant, even five, six years later.
“And with the new writing team, these guys are plugged in and they have a lot of opinions and those opinions permeate the material because that’s what art is. You take what’s going on around you and put it into an entertainment format and hopefully get people thinking.”
Believe the hype: The Expanse is the latest and greatest in the grand science fiction tradition. It creates a setting that lets the writers explore human nature in a way that feels less confrontational than if it were set in modern times. The cast is very diverse and female characters—look out for new lead Frankie Adams as Bobbie, a Martian Marine—are fully fleshed out, never serving as props for the male characters. In a sense, it’s an uplifting view of the future—one tempered by the way the show acknowledges that human tribalism is hard to eliminate.
“It’s a very human flaw that we always have to create an us and a them because that’s the only way we can create a sort of identity,” said Anvar. “Even if we eliminate racism, we’re still going to have to keep planetism. We still have to somehow create some sort of enemy for us to rally against. It’s a really unfortunate trait that the show points a finger at.”
“The great benefit of science fiction as a genre is that you’re able to talk about things politically, philosophically, interesting that may not be digestible to an audience if it were present day,” said Strait.
The Expanse is so nuanced and layered that it everything is worth paying attention to. Even the romantic relationships have deeper conflicts than are usually shown on TV. “They really show how the macro political situation taking place all over the solar system plays out on a mico level within the relationships,” said Strait. “So Holden and Naomi get to know each other a lot more, but as they do, they realize there are political fault lines and philosophical fault lines between them that adjusts the relationship.”
“What I love about Naomi and Holden is that it’s such an unconventional romantic relationship to what we’re used to seeing on screen. And it heavily relates to issues going on now,” added Dominique Tipper, who plays Belter engineer Naomi Nagata. “They’re divided by their politics. They clung to each other out of desperation, they’ve fallen in love with each other for reasons they don’t quite understand, but they have very different views of the world and how [things] should be done. And they end up getting into heavy conflict that’s tough to overcome. And I know a lot of people going through that now with their family members or partners or old school friends. They just can’t understand their political standing.
“So you watch what plays out in The Expanse on a macro level, it plays out on a micro level with Naomi and Holden. And you get to see the personal, human effects of what that kind of thing has on people. And that’s so relevant to what’s happening right now, and we didn’t mean to.”
Shohreh Aghdashloo (Chrisjen Avasarala) added another way their relationship to stand out on screen. “I was watching a scene where Naomi and Holden are having a conversation and he’s handing her the tools. I was watching this scene and I thought, ‘Oh my god, only 10 years ago, maybe even five, it would be Holden who is the engineer and working on the engine and Naomi, the woman, passing him the tools.’”
What The Expanse does, by hitting on these things in a science fiction context, is underscore a point that season two makes even more than season one. “My favorite part of The Expanse is just like my favorite part of Game of Thrones. It’s the White Walkers, it’s the introduction of the horror element because it kind of carbonates the people competing for the throne,” explained Chatham. “The same with The Expanse, you have this protomolecule that’s coming, that’s unstoppable and not everybody’s aware of it. And all of the squabbling for money, and power, and resources, at the end of the day there’s something coming that makes that irrelevant. And if we don’t come together, survival is not an option.”
Aghdashloo, who plays a brilliant but ruthless Earth politician trying to stop a war, said, “With entertainment, we bring people together. And bringing people together is half a step to unite them. When we get united, we’re sort of healed, because we know the person next to us doesn’t hate us—doesn’t love us, love is a strong word and I’m not asking for it—but is living peacefully next to me.”
Anvar sees that need for unity, which is expressed in the show with the diverse crew of the Rocinante, being expressed in actions we’ve seen in the last few weeks. “You get people rallying and doing marches in New York, and Toronto, and California, and all across the planet you have people rallying and expressing their dissatisfaction. And they’re doing this without any obligation, they don’t have to do this. And there are people that are so pissed off with things that have been set into motion, with the ban of people coming into the country, you’re getting people who are not from those countries who are furious. Because it does not speak to them, that is not something that speaks to them.
“Jim Holden, the character that Steven Strait plays, is an incredible example of an individual who represents all those voices who are willing to put themselves on the line to get information out there,” Anvar concluded.
When I asked Aghdashloo what she was most excited to see viewers react to in season two of The Expanse, she said, “I want to see how they will react to all these powerful female roles. If we can encourage more women to stand and fight for their rights and to join the free world and live the life they deserve.”
As for what science fiction does for us, Aghdashloo concluded our conversation by saying, “It’s a visionary who can tell us a story without making us feel bad about ourselves. Just warning us with a glimpse of the future.”
The Expanse season two premieres on Syfy tonight.