Naren Shankar started out not in science fiction but in science. It wasn’t until after he earned a doctorate in applied physics and electrical engineering that he shifted over to working on television. He started out writing for perhaps the most classic sci-fi show of all time, Star Trek: The Next Generation. After a decade spent writing for other genre shows including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Farscape, he pivoted to cop shows, working as a consulting producer and head writer for CSI: Crime Scene Investigation from 2002 to 2010.
Then, he decided that he wanted to return to his roots in genre TV. Shankar was approached to serve as showrunner and executive producer on The Expanse, a series based on the Hugo and Locus award-winning book series of the same name by James S.A. Corey (the joint pen name of authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck). Although not originally interested in the pilot script, he picked it up after seeing that it was written by Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby, known for writing the film Children of Men.
The Expanse aired on SyFy for the first three seasons before being canceled by the network. After an impassioned fan campaign, the show was picked up by Amazon and will return in December for its fourth season. I sat down with Shankar to discuss the upcoming season, from lens choices to historical inspiration. Here is our conversation in full:
The Expanse is a show that takes the physics of gravity very seriously. How do you feel your engineering background has contributed to how it portrays physics?
It’s so rarely done right, almost never done right on TV. You know, you probably have to go back to 2001 [A Space Odyssey], feature-film wise, to find something that got it right. So it was a great opportunity to show a video signature in this style and also create a drama that hasn’t really been seen before. Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham, who wrote the books, they do all the time. And so, you know, I think that the fact that I had a science background meant that I wasn’t scared off by that. I felt like the possibility was enormous to make something cool.
What other hard sci-fi has served as inspiration for the show?
Hard sci-fi? It is a sub-genre. I don’t know if there’s one that immediately comes to mind. I would say emotionally, and on the drama side of things, Battlestar Galactica is probably the closest, and that comparison gets made a lot. Hmm. How many hard sci-fi shows have really been out there? I mean, how many could you name?
Yeah, it’s very few.
For sure. How about not hard sci-fi? What else has tied into the show for you?
You know, this may sound funny, but history. There’s a real deep current of it that runs through the show of history and politics, the history of colonization, and economics. One of the books that we talked a lot about in Season 1, for example, was The Guns of August, which is a Pulitzer-prize winning book about the first several months of World War I and how that got started. It was a series of miscalculations and mistakes and limited information and all of these things sort of combine together to create this massive conflagration that nobody wanted. If you look at Season 1, that is what it is. Everybody is making moves in a highly charged political environment and what happens is, they start a war. It’s a book that I’ve always loved, and Ty and Daniel, they’re both students of history themselves, and so it strongly informs the narrative of The Expanse.
The Sol system did not play a large role in Cibola Burn (Book 4), but the promotional material for Season 4 shows that Avasarala, Bobbie, Drummer, and Ashford are all going to be present. Are you pulling material from Nemesis Games (Book 5) ahead to this season, or how is that coming about?
Well, yeah. I mean, Book 4 is basically … Ty and Daniel describe it as a one-off. It was entirely set on Ilus I think, with the exception of the prologue, right?
It’s set entirely on Ilus. So, when we came to doing the adaptation, what we realized was there was actually an opportunity because we didn’t want to leave all our characters in the Solar System behind. But there is a jump in time between Book 4 and Book 5, and so what we realized was that there was a way to create new stories that are not in the novels that bridge the events in the Solar System and to build that into Season 4. There is a tiny bit of material from Book 5 that we pulled forward into Season 4, but most of the material on Earth and in the Solar System is new material we created for Season 4 to bridge those two [books].
In an io9 interview at SDCC, you discussed shooting the Ilus scenes in a wide-screen format with an anamorphic lens, is that right?
Could you elaborate on that a little, the look that you are going for with Season 4 in contrast to previous seasons?
Yeah. What we wanted to do was … we’ve never really done a frontier-planet kind of look on the show ever. We’ve been on Earth a little bit outside, and then occasionally like when Bobbie goes down to the water in Season 2. What Ilus provided us was a way to kind of up the look of the show in a way we hadn’t done before. We shot it in 2.39:1, so it’s a very wide aspect ratio, which gives you a sort of huge, you know, like Panavision Westerns, you get the massive, big, wild view of the world. Typically, that was done with anamorphic lenses which are also interesting because they’re cylindrical lenses, so when you roll focus you see that weird shift as the picture sort of stretches and compresses; you see that in a lot of movies that are anamorphic. So what it did was, it gave Ilus a sort of eerie, otherworldly, alien quality to it. Because as soon as you’re out there, the frame is bigger, it’s wider. You feel the outdoors more. You feel the horizon. That was a great opportunity. And so, if you’re watching closely, we mix those different aspect ratios. When we’re back on the ship, we’re back in 16:9, and the frame fills up. When you’re on Ilus, it’s 239:1 and the wide frame with bars. Your brain kind of factors it out pretty easily.
You usually shoot in Toronto, right? Where did you shoot the outdoor Ilus scenes?
We were in a quarry about an hour and a half out of town. It was an active quarry where drone photography could be used. That’s essentially unretouched; that’s what that thing looks like. It looks haunting and weird and alien and otherworldly and it was just a great location for us.
You started your career in television working on Sci-fi shows like Star Trek and Farscape. How has working on The Expanse been different from working on those classic sci-fi shows?
It’s the first time I’ve come back to science fiction in a long time. I spent about the first 10 years of my career doing sci-fi. I got less interested in doing it because of what was being made. I didn’t think it was that interesting. I went off and did a lot of cop shows and did CSI for many years, and when that was done, I really wanted to go back to genre. I felt like I’d missed it. I find it very stimulating and fun. I loved Battlestar Galactica. So when The Expanse came around, it was a real opportunity to come back to it, but also to come back to make a series that did something new. I hadn’t seen this kind of show before, and I thought that we could make it in a way that hadn’t been done before. That’s what was attractive about it. It’s been good fun and tremendously enjoyable.
The Expanse is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video on December 13th.