Perhaps contrary to its title, the Syfy space drama The Expanse, in its own way, shrinks the universe.
The Expanse, whose second season is airing Wednesdays at 10 p.m., envisions a future world where humankind has expanded its range into space and brought all its quirks, neuroses and plain old everyday problems along.
Even more to the point, say co-creators Mark Fergus and Hawk Oster, The Expanse focuses on the ordinary people who will inevitably be figuring out life on other planets, or in spaceships.
Not the Mr. Spocks. The worker bees.
“Most science fiction is grand and epic,” says Fergus. “Star Trek is regal. It’s philosophical minds ruminating on the big issues. Captain Picard, whom I love, speaks in poetry.
“We liked The Expanse because it’s a story about the little guy, who the science fiction genre doesn’t usually pay much attention to.”
He recalls a scene in the movie Aliens, “the famous engine room scene, where everyone is just talking about their jobs and everyday life. That’s what we love. So we figured, why not make it a whole series?”
“From the beginning,” says Oster, “what drew us was the human beings and their stories. The technology that usually drives sci-fi is there, but it’s pushed to the side.
“When humanity gets to space, it just brings along all its baggage on a larger scale.”
The basic story, adapted from a series of books by James S.A. Corey – the pseudonym for Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck – pictures life 200 years in the future.
Humans have colonized other planets. So now Mars and Earth have become antagonists, like two feuding countries that mix diplomacy with threats of military action.
In between lies the asteroid belt, whose people are caught between the two planetary powers and suffer ongoing deprivation.
One of the early trigger events in The Expanse is the destruction of an ice ship that was bringing water to the parched dwarf planet Ceres. Without that shipment, Ceres falls under severe rationing.
“Some science fiction tells you that with all the advanced technology, life in the future will be easy,” says Fergus. “For a lot of people, that won’t be true.
“Colonizing space is like setting out on the American railroad to the West or climbing on a wooden ship to sail across the ocean. It will be hard. We want this show to reflect that.
“You’re out in space and space doesn’t want you there. You have to fight.”
Even advanced technology may not come without literal physical pain.
“We don’t negate the laws of physics,” says Oster. “Technology lets you travel faster, but when you do that, your knee joints get knocked around, and your ribs get pushed in. It hurts.”
It’s immediately clear in The Expanse that not everyone gets to be Mr. Spock. There are a lot of worker bees.
“You look at the Starship Enterprise,” says Oster. “It’s always clean and perfect. Who cleans it up? On our show, we get into that. No matter how well some people live in the future, there will always be someone pushing a mop.
“A lot of sci-fi has been about what a better world we will have. But at some point, the future became a threat, not a promise.
“You look at how fast we’re moving with computers and artificial intelligence and self-driving cars, and you really have to wonder what it will all look like.”
That question spawns multiple micro-questions, of course, and Oster says he, Fergus, and the creative team of The Expanse spend considerable time on those matters.
“We talked for a long time,” he recalls, “about what phones will look like 200 years from now. In all likelihood, they will be implants, but that’s not very exciting dramatically. So we created one that has more visual impact.”
What viewers rarely see in The Expanse are traditional villains. Fergus notes that almost all the characters, even those who create trouble, are convinced they’re acting in the common good.
“Traditional villains to me are kind of boring,” Fergus says. “You have to take away their humanity.”
Fergus and Oster, who previously collaborated on projects that include Iron Man, say they never saw The Expanse as pure science fiction.
“I love mythical stories,” says Fergus. “Ridley Scott’s the gold standard in that genre for me. But I don’t geek out over it. I’ve always been into some sci-fi, but I love thrillers, Westerns, Alfred Hitchcock.
“I think we try to bring all those elements here. You’ve got the sci-fi, and you’ve always got a great cop story and a great Western. It’s like three genres in one.”
If there’s one predecessor to whom they bow above others, it’s Rod Serling and The Twilight Zone.
“There’s a book on The Twilight Zone that I probably read a hundred times as a kid,” says Fergus. “I loved the show, but this book just taught you how to tell a good story.”
Most good stories also have an ending, and Oster says that will be the case with The Expanse.
“[Abraham and Franck] have been contracted for a series of 9-12 novels,” he says. “They write one a year, and they already know the last sentence of the last one.
“The question for us is how much we bite off at a time. But it will all culminate in a proper and great ending.”