The Expanse showrunner explains biggest season 4 changes from the book
Warning: This article contains spoilers about season 4 of The Expanse.
Season 4 of The Expanse was released in full on Amazon on Friday, Dec. 13. The first season produced for the streaming platform (after its move from Syfy) is an adaptation of the fourth book in The Expanse series of novels, Cibola Burn, and covers the events on Ilus when a group of colonists get into a land dispute with a corporate security detail sent to take control of the resources mined from the planet on the other side of the Ring.
In the book, James Holden and the crew of the Rocinante are sent to help mediate the dispute. While season 4 of the show follows the same central theme, there are also some big changes in the TV adaptation — including new stories for other characters back on Earth and Mars, the disposal of a love triangle subplot, and the earlier introduction of a key villain.
We spoke to showrunner Naren Shankar to get the inside scoop on season 4 and some of the big changes from page to screen.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You went through the first three books in the first three seasons, but at a varied pace that did not necessarily match up to a book a season. Season 4 at first seems to be pretty firmly set as book 4, Cibola Burn, but there are some other things going on as well, aren’t there?
NAREN SHANKAR: You’re right, every season has been a little different because most of the time we’re looking at it in terms of how much story does the material dictate? How are we going to make the adaptation? And it’s always a different set of problems. With Cibola Burn, the issue was the book is essentially a one-off, right? It’s entirely set on this alien planet. It only has a tiny bit of a prologue and an epilogue that’s back in the solar system. And so for us, the challenge for that and for season 4 was, well, how do we keep it connected to all of the characters back in the solar system who don’t go to Ilus?
So what we ended up doing is that Cibola Burn does form the spine of the show. Book 4 extends across season 4, but we created material that bridges book 4 into book 5. So there’s new material that deals with stuff that’s happening back on Mars, on Earth, in the solar system, in the Belt, that sets up things for the next season. And we incorporated Gods of Risk, which is the novella that’s set on Mars, into the narrative as well. So season 4 is all of Cibola Burn and a whole bunch of other things also.
I had some questions about all of that, because Bobbie’s not in book 4 at all, and Avasarala is barely in it if I remember correctly, but you give them some big story lines here in terms of Bobbie joining a criminal ring on Mars and Avasarala running an election campaign.
You’re absolutely right. Your memory has not failed you. Bobbie is not in the book. It’s funny because if you look at it, I forget the exact page count, but the Roci crew isn’t even on Ilus for the first 200 pages or something of the book. And Naomi doesn’t land on the planet in book 4. There’s a whole lot of stuff that’s different.
But what we realized with season 4 is we had this great opportunity to experience Mars, the culture of the planet, the culture of this big, very important society in our story line. We’ve never actually gone to Mars. We did on ships. You’ve seen Martians, we’ve met Martians. They’ve gone to Earth, but we’d never gone onto Mars. And so we have the novella, Gods of Risk, which is exactly set at the right time in our larger narrative for season 4.
And so we took the events of Gods of Risk, and we shifted the perspective probably more onto Bobbie to tell that story through her. And it was great actually, because she’s the star of her own story in that story line in season 4, and it’s got great ramifications going forward for the rest of the series.
You talked about setting things up already for season 5. I remember being very surprised when we saw Marco Inaros show up here in season 4. Talk a little bit more about introducing someone who’s going to clearly be a much bigger character later on.
Well, that’s what I meant with what I was talking about, the bridging material to set up events of season 5. Because we had the opportunity to explore part of Naomi’s backstory in a really, really interesting way. You actually hear the relationship between Naomi and Marco. You get it in two episodes where the individuals are talking to other characters. Marco talks to Drummer about the two of them. Naomi talks to Lucia about the two of them. They’re not talking to each other. But it was a really interesting opportunity to lay a foundation for an extremely important character in the series.
Let’s talk about some of the stuff that is happening on Ilus. I don’t know if gender-swapping is the right term, but in the book you have Basia, this welder who gets mixed up with some people and blows up the shuttle landing pad, and you now make it Lucia on the TV show. I’m curious why you went that way?
It wasn’t actually so much a gender swap as when we’re looking at the story, the overall sense was that we had brought a little bit of that round with Prax and May, and there were elements of it that felt a little more familiar. Lucia is in the book. She’s Basia’s wife in the book, and we just made it her story. And Basia, because we had a character named that, and in the books, it’s actually connected to somebody on Ganymede, there were a lot more direct connections to other elements of the story lines that her husband becomes Jacob in our story line.
But what it allowed us to do is actually create a very different dynamic that let Naomi identify with a character and a child, and it allowed us to get into aspects of Naomi’s backstory when we did the story in this way. So there were a lot of reasons for going this direction, and that was really the thinking behind it.
As you talk about the connections, it’s interesting because in the book, Elvi Okoye, the scientist, is infatuated with Holden at one point. And that obviously gives you the opportunity, should you want to explore it, for a love triangle situation. And certainly we’ve seen a lot of those before on TV before, but it seems you decided to forgo that route.
Yeah, we did talk about it. I would have to say it was not one of the aspects of the book that I really attached very strongly to. And it also seemed a little bit off point, because I think, unlike in the novels, Holden is explicitly tasked with being a mediator when they come down into Ilus in the novel. Our version of it’s a little bit different. He’s actually being told to stay out of the situation completely, and only focus on the protomolecule.
And so we played more into a guy who feels like he’s been given this terrible vision about the end of the world, and nobody’s believing him, and he’s determined to try to make sure that the end of the world doesn’t happen. And when you characterize it that way, it’s a little harder to get into this relationship infatuation thing with a celebrity. It just didn’t seem to work based on how we had changed other things around it. So it just dropped out in the adaptation.
What was the biggest challenge in terms of adapting this story?
Boy, that’s a big question because it’s got several answers. The production difficulties were significant because this was a real departure and real change for us, because from a physical production standpoint, we had been on ships and stations — so all built sets on our soundstage. We very, very rarely went on location, and certainly nothing like what we were looking at for Ilus, which was a rugged frontier planet, remote, desolate, and harsh.
Just physically mounting the production, we shot at a quarry about an hour and a half outside of Toronto. Difficult weather, difficult terrain, a hard place to build. It looks rugged because it was, and that was a big change for us, so that was a challenge. Based on when we started shooting and we got our pickup from Amazon, we had a bit less time on the script development side for season 4 because we were racing to beat the dead of winter in Toronto in terms of when we had to shoot there and when we could be out of the location.
And then, like I said, the elements of the adaptation that we had to create to link the story in with our previous seasons, and Bobbie, and Avasarala, all the stuff in the solar system, with this one-off, Western-themed story on another planet. And there’s probably some of our finest visual effects work that we’ve ever done.
I know we’re still a few books away, and I know this is thinking more long-term, but obviously at some point in this story, we know there is a massive time jump. Have you guys started talking about that? I know it’s a ways off, but in terms of “If we get to this point, how do we want to deal with this?”
We have actually talked about it, and I’m confident we can pull it off. I’m not sure I could say more than that, but I am confident that we can pull it off. It’s a really unique thing, and it is what I love about these novels and this adaptation is you get to do things that you generally don’t get to do.