The Creators Of ‘The Expanse’ Talk About Building A Sci-Fi World Without Breaking It

Chief among Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby’s writing credits are the critically acclaimed Children of Men and Iron Man, as well as the less beloved Cowboys & Aliens. Listed in chronological order, these movies demonstrate a decrease in critical appreciation. They also inadvertently reveal Fergus and Ostby’s transition from the convoluted world of Hollywood tentpoles, to Peak TV’s burgeoning acceptance of independent projects more accepting of inhibited creative vision, sans studio interference. Hence The Expanse, the duo’s successful adaptation of the science fiction novels, novellas and short stories written by James S. A. Corey — the pen name for authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.

Now in the middle of season two, the hit Syfy series is delivering on its promising 10-episode first run from 2015. Not that these early episodes weren’t good. Many praised them for their adept use of world-building while expertly interweaving several seemingly disparate stories. Yet it wasn’t until the final few episodes, in fact, that Detective Joe Miller (Thomas Jane) joined forces with Jim Holden (Steven Strait) and the crew of the Rocinante. Six episodes in, the 13-episode second season has already split the band up — while U.N. operative Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo) tries to discern the nature of a plot to pit Earth, Mars and the rest of the colonized solar system into war.

Fergus, Ostby and the writers room managed to render an astute mix of hard-boiled detective dramas, noir thrillers, and hardcore science fiction throughout The Expanse‘s two seasons. While much of this has to do with Abraham and Franck’s exquisite source material, as both men cautioned in conversation with Uproxx, the series’ continued success primarily hinges on the intricate world the pair brought to life while developing season one.

“With the first season, we realized building the world of the show and laying the foundation is something you don’t get to come back and do again,” says Fergus. “If you lay a bad foundation and build on it, you’ve got to tear everything down and start over. It’s a mess. So we gambled. We really took the time to lay the world down and set it up well in the first season. There’s so much material, so many choices to make, so you decide on what your story is about and commit to those decisions. They key was to take our time laying a world out and building it up strong so that — toward the end of season one and at the beginning of season two — we can really start cooking.”

Ostby agrees wholeheartedly. “We like shows in which you feel like a tourist. You land in a strange a place, you don’t understand the language, and you don’t necessarily know what the signs say,” he explains. “But if you take a coffee on the street corner and observe everything around you, you might eventually catch on to a few things — what the signs and sayings around you mean. That was always the tough thing with season one, but season two feels so much greater. When we got into that writers room and said we were just telling the story now, and not working so hard to explain everything with successive layers of foundation, we realized we could move on.”

Of course, all the world-building that went into The Expanse would never have been possible without Abraham and Franck’s source material. Since 2011, the pair has written and published six books in the series. Much of the first season would ultimately derive its stories, characters and tone from the first novel, Leviathan Awakes. Despite the books’ strengths, however, Fergus and Ostby would have to undertake a monumental task — formulate their own vision, establish a sturdy base for it, and build the show on its foundations. Or as Fergus puts it, they had to “build the show around our vision — based on our previous work and the strength of Corey’s books — then build the rest of it from the first brick up.”

Cue the James S. A. Corey doppelgangers, who not only signed off on Fergus and Ostby’s pitch, but also came onto the show’s production as advisers. The roles Abraham and Franck inhabited on The Expanse aren’t all that different from George R.R. Martin’s over at Game of Thrones, where he serves as co-executive producer and occasional episode writer. Even so, the novelists made it quite clear The Expanse was not theirs to control.

“They wrote these books in a very cinematic way, and it’s been nice to have them in the writing room,” says Ostby. “However, they reminded us we were in charge. I remember them saying, ‘We understand these are books and you guys are making a TV series. You can break all the LEGO pieces apart and put them back together whichever way you want. Or throw them away, for that matter. We’re here to help.'”

Fergus and Ostby did just that, with a vengeance. After years of toiling on produced and unproduced scripts for various Hollywood studios, Fergus and Ostby decided to join the rising tide of talent and creativity of television. “As a writer,” Fergus tells us, “you always want to see your vision through to the end. Having full control of the show — not just writing it, but showrunning it, producing it, and being involved in every aspect — is one of the biggest frustrations about writing in Hollywood. You do your work and you’re sent away. When you see the finished product at the premiere, you’re not entirely sure what they used and what they didn’t. This was a chance to create something from good source material and see it all the way through to the end.”

That working in the film industry isn’t necessarily a writers’ game shouldn’t come a surprise, as movies tend to fall under the jurisdiction of directors and producers. Or the studios, for that matter — especially if the film in question is a major tentpole attraction. “In movies you’re usually so removed as a writer. You finish your job or your contract, turn it in and either it goes all the way, or it goes to two or three more writers. It could be years before you actually see it on the big screen,” Ostby recalls. With television, however, showrunners who simultaneously develop, write and produce their shows can exert far more control. “It was nice to have television’s immediacy. We wrote it a certain way — this was what we intended — and we could talk it over with the director, the actors and the crew to try and explain why.”

“The whole independent market has gone to TV,” he continues. “When we started writing, John Dahl’s thrillers and Joel and Ethan Coen’s Blood Simple were the kinds of stories that inspired us, these self-started projects. I think Joel and Ethan, when they made Blood Simple, went to various locations in Texas and just started shooting. Barry Sonnenfeld was their DP, and nobody had really been on a professional movie set, as I remember it. We were very enamored with that self-starting model — doing something intricate and small and cool — but it feels like that went away in later years. Now most movies have to be massive productions or shot on a shoestring budget. It feels like that middle tier — the six million-dollar movies of the world — has gone to TV instead.”

Then again, that’s not to say the Iron Man and Children of Men writing team would never return to the medium they started in. Fergus and Ostby stress their appreciation for the formative experiences they had while writing for movies. Yet with The Expanse‘s steadily increasing fanbase and popularity, the pair probably won’t have time for anything else in the near future. Especially since, as the show’s title suggests, its stories and characters are so expansive.

“We prefer television to be an extension of what we love, much like our work in film,” explains Fergus. “If we’re going to tell stories on a grand canvas, you want it all to be one story. Even if it’s a 100-hour movie, it’s one 100-hour movie instead of two. That’s very much the way they’re writing and planning the books, which is hugely important to us. We don’t just want to be building the bridge as we’re crossing it. We want to know this is one story, one mythology, it all connects and we’re always telling one big story.”

Asked about whether or not they had developed a comprehensive show bible, something akin to a guidebook for current and future writers should The Expanse expand for multiple seasons, Ostby declared such tools “certainly help” the process. “In the movies, you live with the story for an hour and a half. Maybe two hours. If there’s a sequel you can carry on with it. However, in television what you lay down becomes part of the canon, or whatever they call it. You’re sort of stuck with that. So it certainly behooves one to sketch out where they’re going, and whether or not they want to be stuck with whatever they add or subtract at certain points for possibly many, many seasons.”

As excitable and talkative as they were, Fergus and Ostby remained coy when it came to discussing just how much more there is to go for The Expanse. After all, season two has fallen six and 11 percent in the 18-49 demo and total viewers, respectively, when compared with its freshman season’s numbers. Yet that doesn’t mean the pair hasn’t at least thought about what they would want to do if Syfy decided to renew the program for a third season.

“There’s no guarantee for seasons three, four, five or six, but the material is there and we sort of know where we’d like to go,” admits Ostby. “When you first pitch these things, when you first come out and try to get a studio interested, you have to lay out a much bigger picture than is necessary. But with this, we certainly have a wealth of material to work with. Running out of steam is not something we fear at all. Would we love to keep going for 10 or more seasons? Sure!”

“We designed the whole season as a unit, as one big story,” notes Fergus. “The whole show is its own big story, but every season has its own movement. So if audiences liked the first one, I think they’re really going to be psyched about where we take it next with season two. But it all depends on that first brick you lay. It sets the tone for what comes later, always.”

The Expanse airs Wednesdays at 10pm ET on Syfy.