The Expanse producer Mark Fergus on setting the scene for Syfy's return to space

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Dec 15, 2015

So, The Expanse premiered last night. Fans of James S.A. Corey's series of books and those hoping to at least get a high-quality space opera back on TV were pretty fired up for this one, and the first episode finished with a bang (see what we did there?). 

We'll be keeping up with the show every week by having a chat with the people making it happen. To kick things off, we talked to Executive Producer Mark Fergus about setting the scene for Syfy's big return to space. Beware: Some spoilers follow.

This first episode establishes the scifi noir/tech noir tone early, which isn't really something we've seen on the small screen before. Were there sources, like Blade Runner or Dark City, that you turned to for inspiration when creating the look and feel for the show?

We are big fans of iconic sci-fi staples like Blade Runner, Alien and Dark City, but we wanted the overall look of the show to be unique and to stay away, as much as possible, from the cold blue/ black palettes and designs normally associated with the genre. Our goal was to create a realistic and functional world, where the economics of space colonization would dictate a certain aesthetic. The grandeur of Ridley Scott, the grit of Danny Boyle -- if we may be so bold.

For example, the streets Miller patrols on Ceres were inspired by shantytowns like Kibera and slums of Rio de Janeiro, which are actually filled with bright colors, exploding with life and vibrancy, and not just poverty.

Admittedly, it’s tough for anyone to get past Sir Ridley in any science fiction world-building -- and with good reason, since his visions of the future are so iconic and just plain awesome. But at some point, one must try!

Miller’s backstory, which is touched upon in this first episode, isn't in the books. How/why was this change made?

Miller is such a fascinating and complex character, and we wanted to explore how he arrived where he is in life, and how it reflects where he is going in the story. Along with the book authors, we revisited his past and brought to light certain elements that shaped Miller in the present -- a “throwaway kid” who had to fight for mere survival on the mean streets of Ceres. In later episodes, Miller’s backstory will reveal why he is so determined to find Julie Mao, and what she ultimately represents to him.

Miller may begin the series as an archetypal “noir” figure, the hard-boiled detective, but where he’s going from here, as a human being, will blow everyone’s mind. Every indignity, every disappointment, every bribe and act of corruption -- it’s all preparing him for a destiny he never imagined.

So, what is the deal with Miller's hat?

Ah, the hat. This was a source of much debate from day one. In the book Miller does wear a noirish hat, standard equipment for the genre, but on screen there is always the danger that a hat can become an affectation that overtakes the character. But in the end, Thomas Jane just looked really cool and great in that porkpie, so that finished the debate.

Plus we saw an opportunity to create an intriguing story of how the hat ended up in Miller’s life — who gave it to him, and what it means to him. How it reflects his rejection of his own “Belter” identity, and his embracing of the corrupt power structure he serves. The hat now has its own story -- we’ve even given it its own publicist and trailer, much like Daenerys’ wig in Game of Thrones. Why not?

The UN operating a black site and essentially torturing a prisoner for information is starkly different from the U.N. of now. Can you explain what the function of this U.N. is, by comparison, and how it differs?

In our story, the U.N. is the sole governing body of Earth and Luna, and operates much like our own federal government. It has elected and appointed leaders, representing all Earth nations. One of its essential security directives is to protect Earth from the rising threats from Mars and radical factions of the Outer Planets Alliance. And also to protect Earth’s economic interests, which span the solar system.

This vision of the U.N. is threaded throughout the novel series as a plausible, realistic version of a future world government -- when nations essentially band together for the common good, planetary survival in the face of mass overpopulation and environmental blight. But this doesn’t mean such a governing body will be any more enlightened; human beings have as much trouble handling power as ever, and the path to hell continues to be paved with our best intentions.

Everyone seems to have some secret they're hiding already. Holden has a some secretive past, Miller is morally "flexible," even Avasarala shows she is far more devious and shrewd than she lets on. There isn't really anyone that you have the sense is "good" yet. How do you think/ were you concerned about how would play to the audience?

People are complex and messy, and that’s what makes life and storytelling so damn interesting. Heroes who are squeaky clean are unrealistic and, even worse, boring. So-called “villains” all have their point of view, all think they are the heroes of the story from their angle. It’s all about struggling with our nature, with each other, and with the gods, who never seem to chime in. Walter White -- probably the most brilliantly realized character of modern times -- was (to this viewer anyway) a man who had to pay the price for being a great artist. He became horrible, did evil things, destroyed everything he cared about -- but we admired the hell out of Walt for raging against the dying light, and taking his power back from the cold cruel world that had tossed him in the trash.

Our characters want things that come with big stakes, and the question is, how far will they go to get what they want? That’s what we’ve tried to to do in the show. Give every character a flaw and a virtue, and see which path they will ultimately chose under pressure. Will Miller rediscover his purpose and become the cop and "hero" he was always meant to be? Holden has turned his back on responsibility for reasons we’ll learn later in the show, yet he can’t help himself to do the right thing when the moment calls for it. Will he crawl back into his apathy or become the responsible leader he was born to be? How far will Avasarala go to keep her beloved planet safe? Will she become enlightened and realize that for Earth to survive, she needs to build bridges to her enemies? Or will she trust her darker side?

Morally compromised heroes have really fueled this new Golden Age of TV we’re all reveling in, and the reason is simple: We recognize ourselves in these characters and ask, “What would I do?”

The universe as conceived in The Expanse is politically involved and also not a level of sci-fi tech (interplanetary, but not interstellar) that's been done much. What, if any, concerns did you face in getting an audience up to speed on all this in the first episode?

That’s always been a big question: How do we get this complex world up on its feet for the audience, without resorting to long expositional devices? We love the kind of shows where you’re dropped into a world, and at first it’s a bit like being a tourist in a foreign country. You wonder what’s written on that sign, what people are saying, what things mean, but quickly you begin to understand by observing and inferring.
One thing we’ve tattooed behind our eyelids is that we never want to talk down to our audience. They’re smart and they love to figure things out for themselves. Give them a puzzle and they’ll tinker with it. And if they can’t figure it out, they’ll look online, or start a discussion. Part of the joy of Game of Thrones was swimming in that world, watching the disparate stories gradually converge and connect, having a chance to guess right or wrong, to wonder, to speculate, and ultimately realizing it’s all one giant canvas, one big beautiful story. We are extremely lucky that James S.A. Corey’s novel series gives us a similar opportunity!

What did you think of the first episode of The Expanse? Are you on board for more?

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