Since beginning his television career on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Naren Shankar has worked across the spectrum of science-fiction drama. Now helming Syfy’s The Expanse, he discusses adapting the source novels and the increasing demands of being a showrunner.
For most aspiring writers in the late 1980s and early 1990s, landing a job on Star Trek: The Next Generation must have seemed light years away. Yet that’s exactly where Naren Shankar got his big break in Hollywood at the start of a career that – eight years on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation apart – has been dominated by science fiction.
Shankar has also written episodes of other Star Trek series, including Deep Space Nine and Voyager, and has worked on SeaQuest 2032 and The Outer Limits. Stints on Farscape and Almost Human came later, while he has also worked on fantasy series Grimm.
Shankar is now showrunner of Syfy space opera The Expanse, which has returned both the showrunner and the network to their respective space travel roots. Season one opens two hundred years in the future, when the case of a missing young woman brings a hardened detective (played by Thomas Jane) and a rogue ship’s captain (Steven Strait) together in a race across the solar system to expose the greatest conspiracy in human history.
The series, produced and distributed by Alcon Television Group, is based on a collection of books with the same name, written by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck (under the pen name James SA Corey).
The books were acquired by Alcon and executive producer Sharon Hall, who developed The Expanse for a straight-to-series pickup with the Sean Daniel Company. Writers Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby (who both worked Children of Men and Iron Man) were brought in to write the pilot, which was then picked up by Syfy for a 10-episode first season debuting in 2015. That’s when Shankar comes in.
“Alcon had never done a television show before, neither had Mark or Hawk and neither had Sean Daniel Company,” he explains. “Sharon and I had worked together through the years so she reached out to me, and that’s how I got involved in the project. I met with the team and just hit it off.
“This was everybody’s first experience of television except for me, and going from the feature world to television is not necessarily an easy transition. That’s how it all started and it’s been a great experience.”
Joining Shankar in the writers room from the start have been the original novel writers Franck and Abraham – and though that could have been a difficult partnership, the showrunner says the pair have been very open to adapting their books for television.
“Ty had worked with George RR Martin when Game of Thrones was getting set up so he had a front-row seat to the process, and with Mark and Hawk from the feature side, me from television, Ty and Daniel from novels, I think we’ve actually been able to get a little of each world into the show,” Shankar explains. “It’s just been a really enjoyable experience and here we are in season three.”
Much has changed in sci-fi, both on and off screen, since Shankar first started work on The Next Generation. He recalls the genre was “a little bit of a ghetto” with very niche storytelling that many people didn’t think translated into broad, mainstream entertainment.
Now, however, elements of sci-fi are littered across the TV landscape, from The X-Files and Black Mirror to Stranger Things, Orphan Black and, of course, Star Trek: Discovery.
After spending the first 10 years of his career working in the genre, culminating in Farscape, Shankar transitioned to cop shows, admitting he no longer found much to interest him in the genre.
“I hadn’t really liked what Syfy was putting on the air and, for a long time, they kind of lost their way in terms of programming,” he says. “They weren’t quite sure what it was and I think the network in some ways missed the boat. There’s no reason The Walking Dead couldn’t have been on Syfy. For whatever reason, that didn’t happen and then there was a big regime change there. Bill McGoldrick from USA Network was brought in and The Expanse was the first major project he brought to the network with the express purpose to restore science fiction to Syfy. He said to us, ‘Well, you’re either going to get me fired or get me promoted.’ He got promoted!”
Picking up The Expanse novels, Shankar found there was a lot of story condensed into each novel and that events moved quickly. So one of the first things he changed from the pilot when he joined the production was to shift the focus to character and give the show room to breathe. As a result, some elements cut from the original pilot eventually made their way to screen in episode four.
Novellas and short stories that Franck and Abraham had written to accompany the main books also serve to flesh out the show’s main characters. “It opened up this whole extra world of material and the show has become kind of a hybrid of the novels and novellas with additional material that we’ve created, so it’s very much its own thing,” Shankar says. “But what I’m finding from people who know the novels and watch the show is it’s very true to the spirit of the books, and that’s the key.”
Where The Expanse differs from other space-set dramas is in its dedication to physics, preferring to indulge the science part of science fiction that some titles in the genre have ignored.
“Star Trek had very little to do with science,” Shankar observes. “For the most part, and this is a broad generalisation, Star Trek was essentially a social allegorical kind of a show. There were problems of the day transposed to aliens and different races and how we deal with them. It was very much about ideas. The ‘technology’ was about the same as magic – faster-than-light travel, tractor beams, phaser beams and all this kind of stuff that just isn’t real. And spaceships moved like airplanes.”
The Expanse, however, is firmly rooted in science reality, with the writing team tasked with considering issues such as the state of gravity. “If a ship’s not under thrust then the people inside have to be weightless, because that’s just how space works,” the showrunner says, offering one example.
“Most television shows just ignore it [science], even Battlestar Galactica,” Shankar says, highlighting the space opera that ran on Syfy in the early 2000s. “It’s a war movie. The original series was about Pearl Harbor. Ron Moore turned it into a 9/11 allegory but in terms of the fighter battles, it is the Second World War in the Pacific. That isn’t how we do things on The Expanse. Battles are different but they’re much more about how, if you had these things happen in space, this is how they would be. Rockets only go in one direction, there are no brakes. The only way to turn around in space is to flip around and push the rocket the other way. The joke in our series pilot was the big action scene was a gigantic truck changing direction. That’s all it is. It feels very dramatic because of the aesthetic approach was to say living in space is hard, it’s difficult to do, it’s risky.
“When The Expanse was brought to me, I thought it was an opportunity to make space a character in the show in a way I had not seen done before on television, and we’ve really persisted in that. That’s very much baked into how we work.”
As a showrunner, Shankar says his method comes from his early Star Trek days, where the staff for the last two seasons included the aforementioned Ronald D Moore plus Brannon Braga and René Echevarria, with consultant producer Joe Menosky, showrunner Jeri Taylor and former showrunner Michael Piller.
“The room was very egalitarian,” Shankar recalls. “It was the old adage of the best idea wins. There was very little hierarchy, everybody could argue, nobody was afraid of fighting with the boss or saying what was on their mind in a really healthy way. That’s how we broke stories and that’s how I like rooms.
“The rooms I’ve found most problematic and least interesting to be around are ones where everyone’s worried about if the boss is going to like it or what does he think he wants or what does she think she wants. When you take that out of it, you get what’s in somebody’s head and if you really listen to them, it’s the best way to go about making shows.”
Having been a showrunner on CSI and now three seasons into The Expanse in the same position, Shankar describes showrunning as an “evolving” role, and considers television to be tipping into an auteur-based model often associated with cinema. “But I don’t know how great that is, necessarily,” he admits. “When I was starting out as a baby writer on Star Trek, the showrunner responsibilities were very much confined to the show. As the business has grown and as connections with the fans have grown, the portfolio for a showrunner has gotten much broader,” he explains, noting his responsibility in areas such as marketing and brand awareness, helping the show to break through the noise of more than 500 other scripted series in the US alone.
Shankar also sees a place in television for shows that are essentially “very long movies” such as Big Little Lies, which HBO has now confirmed will return for a second season. “They’re beautifully done, beautifully realised, beautifully acted… it was like a seven-episode movie,” he says of the Nicole Kidman- and Reese Witherspoon-starring show. “That’s one way of doing television, but I don’t know how that’s going to work if you’re going season after season after season. That felt to me like one story that you’re telling.”
That’s not the case with The Expanse, however, with the sixth novel in the series published earlier this month, season three of the show due in 2018 and the promise of more to come. “One of the great joys of television is when you put the right bunch of people together and let them take some creative ownership of material as a group,” Shankar concludes. “You can really do some amazing things. I think The Expanse is a show that could go to seven seasons, easily.”