The Expanse showrunner Naren Shankar on Episode 4's big battles, Belter extreme sports, and Shed's head


Episode 4 of The Expanse ramped up the action in a big way, bringing us our first big space-based battle in the attack of a group of unknown assailants on the Martian warship Donnager, and upped the stakes for Miller as he got deeper into what looks like a complex story behind the disappearance of Julie Mao.

We chatted with showrunner Naren Shankar about trying to portray a more physics-friendly form of space combat, the Belter extreme sport of slingshotting, and that gruesome scene featuring the unfortunate fate of a member of the Knight crew.

We see our first real ship-to-ship combat when the Donnager comes under attack. Can you talk a bit about the role realistic (or quasi-realistic) physics play in the way ships fight in the world of The Expanse, and some of the tactics used? 

Basically, we do whatever (The Expanse novels co-writer) Ty Franck tells us to do. We try whenever possible to honor and observe actual physics. One of the signature aspects of the book, and what makes it interesting and different and unique, is that there are no no deflector shields, no photon torpedos, no tractor beams or phasers. We have big chunks of metal traveling really, really fast. Things take a long time to travel long distances. Ships don’t maneuver the same way we see in Star Wars, which is really just World War II aircraft carrier battles. We utilize plasma warheads rather than traditional explosives. And there is no combustion, because there is no air in space, so explosions are different. We use plasma hits, which melt metal, and if you watch the visual effects you’ll see that. 

This episode introduced slingshotting as a kind of Belter extreme sport. What are the finer points of the practice? What happens to Bizi at the end?

It’s something we stole from the prologue of book 3, Abaddon's Gate. It’s basically unpowered flight through various gravity wells as a race. Whoever does it fastest wins. Think of it essentially like how we send satellites through the solar system. Belters bet on it, it’s extremely dangerous, and Bizi Betiko (which is Basque for “Live Forever”) ... does not! He miscalculates, flies too close to Jupiter and burns up. 

Shed's death was a surprising moment, and really visceral.

It’s one of my favorite scenes from Leviathan Wakes, and it is pretty much as written, with certain adjustments. It required wirework, visual effects, camera tricks, and it just went on and on. It’s one of the most complicated scenes in an episode full of them. The episode’s director, Jeff Woolnough, our VFX supervisor, Bob Munroe, our actors ... they all did an amazing job. And Shed’s head when it drops to the ground always makes me laugh! It’s a combination of visual effects and set special effects (for the longest time, Shed’s head was a balloon filled with blood).

This is certainly the most action-packed episode we've seen so far. What was the process of producing the big battle scenes like? How did you seek to give them their own identity compared the the numerous sci-fi battles we've seen before?

Like the space battles and the way we pulled off Shed’s head, we try to respect physics, momentum and the fact this is all happening in zero gravity with no air.  

OK, so, Havelock's alive! Why was the decision made to put him in a situation in which he seems dead when that wasn't something that happened in the books?

It's actually adapted from the books. In Leviathan Wakes, there’s a mention of someone getting spiked to a wall in passing, but we wanted to use someone we met and cared about. It’s a much more interesting arc to his character when Havelock is jammed up by Belters for trying to help a Belter that he cared about. And it escalates just how people will do things to cops on Ceres now. It’s a power shift on Ceres in which it’s open season on cops for the OPA. By the way, in our first version of the beat, Havelock actually died, and then Ty and Daniel told us he was an important character in the other books. Oh! Even better!

This episode continues what has looked very much like a "show, don't tell" philosophy in terms of storytelling and character development (i.e., Holden going to help the wounded soldier instead of for his gun). Was that a guiding principle when it came to developing The Expanse?

It’s not like we have the slogan printed on the wall, but as a group we like visual storytelling. “Show, don’t tell” is generally a good rule in filmmaking. It’s a visual medium. We respect the intelligence of our viewers. 

So, at the end of the episode, the Knight crew has what looks like a pretty formidable ship and seemingly no one telling them where to go next. What can we expect from this ragtag bunch?

Hijinks … shenanigans … tomfoolery! It’s safe to say they’re probably not going to give the ship back.

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