One word: “Miller-bot.” That’s the big tease The Expanse showrunner Naren Shankar shared with a group of journalists assembled to visit the set of seasons 4 and 5 in Toronto.
For readers of The Expanse book series, written by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck under the name James S. A. Corey, the word “Miller-bot” has a vastly different meaning than “Proto Miller,” the protomolecule-assembled space detective played by Thomas Jane in the series.
“The show is quite different than the books … in many, many ways. In chronology, in the way we combined characters and events even, but not in the big stuff. And not in the sort of the core emotional elements of the characters,” Shankar told Rotten Tomatoes in an exclusive interview during the set visit. “And people tend to say, ‘Yes, it’s really true to the books.’ I think they mean true in spirit. And that’s actually good. Because it’s a different medium, we’ve had to do different things, we have to tell the story in slightly different ways, but if we’re being true to the core material, I think that’s always been the goal of the adaptation.”
The “Miller-bot” concept should give book readers watching the series chills. For non-book readers, the television series is good — and just keeps getting better, according to its Tomatometer score — but you’re missing out.
The Expanse’s journey hit a bump after season 3, when its cable network home, Syfy, canceled the series. (Rotten Tomatoes and Syfy are both divisions of NBCUniversal.) But as Alcon Entertainment co-CEO Andrew Kosove stressed to reporters, the production company owns the show and they didn’t cancel it. In any case, it needed a new home in season 4 and found it in a dramatic way when Amazon founder, chairman, and CEO Jeff Bezos unexpectedly announced at spring 2018’s International Space Development Conference that the conglomerate had picked up the series.
“The business economic side of it on basic cable was really, I think ultimately, the problem,” Shankar told Rotten Tomatoes. “It was an expensive show for [Syfy] to make, and if you’re making money off of ad revenue … it’s hard to make that work.”
The gratitude the creators and cast feel for Amazon’s rescue is clear, but there are also production differences that have made life easier overall and, many contend, will make for a better viewer experience.
“The great thing about it is: now you don’t have to be worried about any kinds of language restrictions,” Shankar said. “We would get bleeped on Syfy, because I wouldn’t change the scripts. I wouldn’t change the scripts, I wouldn’t change the dialogue, so they would just bleep us. Again, another irritating thing: You don’t have nudity restrictions. The thing that I love, though, the most is that we don’t have runtime restrictions. There were episodes of the show that I had to — because we were limited on Syfy to 43 minutes, I had to squeeze these cuts in tight, and now these shows can breathe. Some of them go 52 minutes, or some of them are 48 minutes, or — that’s the way you should be able to tell these things.
“We never cut for commercial breaks. I never write like that. So, we’d never done that. We never end the scene in the … middle, and come back after a commercial break, right to that scene,” Shankar continued. “When we put them onto Amazon, the streaming side, we went back, and we pulled out all of the blacks so the picture is seamless. And then we fixed the music, and the sound transitions. So when you watch it, it’s just a continuous show. So when you’re watching it on Amazon Prime, even if you’re going back to season 1, that’s the way it should be enjoyed. No bleeps.”
On this visit, the organizers surprised journalists with a special look at Jane directing a season 5 scene with his costar, 2004 Oscar nominee Shohreh Aghdashloo. Here in the world of The Expanse at its new home on Amazon Prime, Earth’s U.N. Secretary General/interstellar crisis manager Chrisjen Avasarala lets profanity fly.
“At the end of the year [in previous seasons], they would take us to a sound studio and have us clean all the f—s or curse words. Rather than saying ‘f—,’ [you say] ‘fine.’ … Thank god you don’t have to sanitize them anymore,” Aghdashloo said. “Now left and right, ‘f—, f—, f—‘ … I’m enjoying it.”
Aghdashloo credits the fans with her newfound freedom. It was the fans, after all, who started the #SaveTheExpanse movement on social media and went to extraordinary lengths offline to make sure that the right people got the message.
“I have never ever seen the impact of fans on a show like this before in my life, and I’ve worked 40 years,” Aghdashloo said. “It was interesting, we all knew the show was canceled, and then I receive a text message with a balloon carrying a message, ‘#SaveTheExpanse.’ And we’re not doing this. Who’s doing this? So I called and they said fans. They got together, they put pennies and dollars together, sent a balloon up. And it was… I could not believe it. A minute later I hear that it’s been picked up by Amazon.”
The show’s fans had contributed to a GoFundMe effort to get the message out and sent a plane trailing a #SaveTheExpanse banner over Amazon Studios in Santa Monica. They created homemade trailers to promote the series and their mission to rescue it from cancellation.
The passion fans have shown has floored the cast and creators.
“There’s an enthusiasm and excitement that we’d haven’t really experienced before being a part of the show,” said Wes Chatham, who plays Rocinante mechanic and muscle Amos Burton in the series. “Also, there’s a kind of relationship and a connection to the fans that’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before because they were so supportive and instrumental. We went through this thing together. It kind of like ties you. Like, I see people in Whole Foods, and we’re just like hugging it out. He’s like, ‘Man, I love this show. I was there from the beginning, you know?’ So, we kind of have this kind of relationship and this connection. It’s just an incredible thing to be a part of.”
Chatham also relishes the storytelling opportunity that comes with their new streaming home.
“Being on broadcast television in general just has its challenges, because if you’re trying to tell a story, and the story wants to go somewhere that’s honest and truthful, and there’s a lot of edge to it, you’ve got to round those edges out in broadcast television,” Chatham told reporters. “You got to work until commercials, you got to have the act breaks, five act breaks that go to the commercial, and have the time a specific way. You’re not following the story; you’re following guidelines for an advertisement.
“Being on Amazon, you can follow the story wherever it takes you; it can be beautiful, it can be ugly, it can be harsh, it can be violent, but you have to go through all those to be able to express the story and have it live to its highest potential,” he continued. “From a creative perspective, the story is the most important thing — which in broadcast TV, there’s a lot of other important things — and I love that. I love working like that. I don’t know if I could go back to any other version of working.”
Speaking of storytelling, season 4 reflects the events of Expanse book Cibola Burn, propelling our heroes through the Ring System to the human-habitable planet of Ilus, disputed territory that a ship of Belter war refugees has settled. The settlers want their own permanent home, while Earth’s government wants measured settlement of newfound Earth-like planets, and private industry wants, for one, to get in on the mining opportunities on planets like Ilus, which they call “New Terra.”
Avasarala sends Jim Holden (Steven Strait) and crew in on a diplomacy mission, to act as her eyes and ears between the settlers and representatives of Royal Charter Energy, which had a U.N. charter for scientific exploration of the planet.
“My writing partner, Daniel, has a biology degree,” Franck said about the origin of Ilus, “and we would talk a lot about all the things that other sci-fi gets wrong with alien biology. So we started playing around with the idea of a planet with alien biology on it and the ways that that would present. That’s mostly where it came from.”
But that alien biology is trying to kill these characters.
“That idea of when you go to a new place, anything there that isn’t trying to kill you doesn’t know you exist,” Franck said. “The minute something realizes you exist, it’s going to try to kill you, because that’s how nature works. And dropping people into that alien biology … you’re a big bag of moisture with high-energy atoms in it — something’s going to try to eat those, because that’s delicious.”
The season also reaches beyond the story in Cibola Burn, which allows the writers to continue utilizing characters that didn’t appear in the novel.
Asked what challenges the storyline changes presented, Franck said: “This is going to sound cheesy, but it wasn’t really challenges; it was opportunities. We had a novella called Gods of Risk that Bobbie Draper appears in, and we used that as the launching point for a Bobbie story this season, which was a lot of fun to write. Bobbie is one of my favorite characters to write for.
“Then the whole election of Chrisjen Avasarala was a thing that we had always talked about for the books but had never done, because obviously she is a politician who has never been elected. What is that like when somebody who has never been elected has to run to office for the first time?” Franck continued. “That was a lot of fun just watching her put up with the indignities of having to answer to anyone, because, I don’t know if you guys watch the show, but Chrisjen Avasarala is not a person who likes answering to people. She’s not a person who tolerates being questioned, and having her run for election where all people do is question every decision she makes and put a lot of demands on her time, that was a lot of fun. So, yeah, it wasn’t challenging, it was awesome.”
Holden has his own reasons for wanting to venture beyond the rings — a journey that requires permission or else your ship is blown to smithereens.
“He’s not with the RCE, he could really give a s— whether or not they got their lithium or whatever,” Strait said. “But the protomolecule is of deep importance to him. Not only because he’s being haunted by it, but because he understands what the ramifications for not dealing with it are. And every once in a while the greater powers’ interests align with his.”
That intention, however, thrusts the Roci crew into an impossible position between the settlers and RCE’s security forces, balancing power between often-irrational forces, which serves as the through line for the entire season. Irrational, but not necessarily wrong. RCE mission lead Adolphus Murtry (Burn Gorman), for one, has very good reasons for his lashing out, Franck noted.
“We wanted to give him a good reason for the attitude that he has,” Franck said. “He’s not there to twirl his mustache and shoot people.
“Murtry has a very justifiable position he’s taking. But it’s also horrifying,” Franck continued. “I think that’s the way the real world works. I think all of the most horrifying things that have happened somebody felt like they had a good reason for doing them, and we always try to play that. Nobody’s evil for evil’s sake. Well, Hitler. Hitler was evil for evil’s sake — and because he wanted a snazzy uniform. But outside of him, most people aren’t.”
Jeff Woolnough, who has directed six previous episodes in the series and directs episodes of the new season, has high expectations.
“We’re about to blow up. I think Amazon is about to take us much, much wider, and that passion is going to leak into the audiences that aren’t necessarily sci-fi people, but they’re going to realize that this show is so much more,” Woolnough said. “This show is reality-based, to me. This show, to me, is a blue collar sci-fi show. This show, I always think of it as more Alien than Star Wars. You feel like this is what it’s going to be like to live in the future, to live on these ships and to be out there in the belt and be mining ice. There’s a veracity to this show that most sci-fi shows don’t have.”
The Amazon dream does have limitations, however. Franck, for one, is disappointed viewers won’t get to experience his lizard.
“I didn’t get my mimic lizard, which made me very sad,” the author said. “He was a little lizard in the books that we didn’t get to have because he would cost one jillion dollars. And the studio didn’t want to pay one jillion dollars, so we didn’t get him. But we got all the other stuff.”
Like, apparently, a Miller-bot.
The Expanse season 4 premieres on Friday, December 13 on Amazon Prime.