The Expanse’s Secret Weapon? Actual Science

Season 2 of The Expanse premieres February 1 on Syfy. The show features colorful characters, sharp dialogue, and complex political machinations, but what really sets it apart from other sci-fi TV is the realistic way that it handles gravity and orbital trajectories. Much of the credit for that goes to showrunner Naren Shankar, who holds a PhD in physics and engineering from Cornell.

“Most space battles are just re-hashes of World War II fighter battles in the Pacific,” Shankar says in Episode 240 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “And that’s fine, if they want to be that kind of a fantasy, but I find great beauty in the way the ships move in our show.”

That attention to detail is most evident in Episode 4, “CQB,” which is set aboard a damaged spacecraft whose engines are failing, resulting in an intermittent loss of the ship’s artificial gravity. The episode also features a memorably violent scene in which a room is perforated by railguns.

“I really wanted to do that scene on film, and I knew we could do it,” Shankar says. “Because I’d never read anything like that or seen anything close to it in a science fiction show.”

The Expanse is based on a series of novels by James S. A. Corey, the pen name of authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, who are both members of the show’s writing team. Having two professional science fiction writers on staff has also definitely contributed to the realism of the show.

“Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham know a lot about science,” Shankar says. “And Ty in particular really understands and has thought very deeply about the real physics of how the stations and ships and everything work.”

The Expanse has achieved such a following among science buffs that an image from the show recently appeared on the cover of Physics Today. That’s the first time the magazine has featured science fiction on its cover since 1974.

“I sent an image of the cover to my thesis advisor at Cornell,” Shankar says. “And he was so, so pleased. One of his grad students made the cover of Physics Today. Sweet.”

Listen to our complete interview with Naren Shankar in Episode 240 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

Naren Shankar on writing for Star Trek: The Next Generation:

“There were a lot of things that you could do and couldn’t do. It was something that we fought against quite often, and in the latter seasons of the show you see it changing a little bit, but still it wasn’t a massive dramatic shift. I mean you had people who couldn’t lie because lying is bad. They wouldn’t get drunk because that’s not good. Everybody was too good and too noble, everybody was a little too pure. … It was a reaction to the original series. Gene Roddenberry had wanted the baser instincts of humanity kind of worked out and gotten out of our systems by the time we got to the world of Next Generation. But dramatically it’s a less interesting place to be.”

Naren Shankar on Farscape:

David Kemper was the showrunner. We shot everything down in Sydney, and he brought me on. Rockne O’Bannon created the show, but David was really the heart and soul of it in so many ways. He just had a magnificently crazy and operatic sensibility, and just an awesome imagination. It was unusual and beautiful and strange. It didn’t always work, but it was certainly a fascinating, interesting group of people, and just stylistically it was quite beautiful as well. … I think it was a little bit ahead of the curve and ahead of its time. That’s the kind of show that today I think would have a tremendously strong cult following.”

Naren Shankar on joining The Expanse:

“When I originally got the material, my agent said, ‘Hey, I’d like you to look at this script.’ They said, ‘It’s from the Syfy Channel,’ and I literally just hit Trash in my email. … Every year I would get material from them, and every year I would tell my agents, ‘I hate this. I’m not doing this.’ And so when the email comes in with the script, I’m like, ‘I’m sure this is just terrible.’ And three weeks later my agent says, ‘Read this script. I really think you should.’ And I scroll to the bottom, and that’s when I saw that it was written by the guys who wrote Children of Men, a movie that I think is terrific. And I said, ‘OK, I’ll give this a shot.’ And I read it and I go, ‘They’re making this show?’ Because it was grown-up, it was smart, it was interesting. And that’s actually what got the ball rolling.’”

Naren Shankar on the themes of The Expanse:

“It’s the nature of human beings to identify people who look different or talk different or have a different culture as ‘other’ than you, and when that happens that’s when wars occur. And so even though we’ve got this multicultural polyglot expansion into the human system, Earthers are different from Martians who are different from Belters. We’ve tribalized once again, and we’re already at each other’s throats once again. And that’s a sad state of human nature. I think that when you’re dealing with things like that, and you transpose them into space, and you add all these other things, I think that you have the ability to have some very interesting storytelling that just happens to be set in space.”

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