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.'”