Lizard Brain is a shared blog about Science Fiction and Fantasy from Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.

GUEST POST: Losing Science in Drama (and Finding Drama in Science)

04.04.17
by Daniel Abraham

[NOTE: This post contains minor spoilers!]

There is a singular feature in the novels of The Expanse that we have tried very hard to express in the series: the idea that space itself is a character.

From the start, we’ve always attempted to portray the physical realities of life in space with as much, well, realism, as we can while still serving our dramatic needs, and whenever possible, we use physics itself to create drama in a way that almost every science fiction film or TV series tends to ignore, avoid, or just get flat-out wrong (the one film that got pretty much everything right was Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey—which was made almost 50 years ago).

I feel there have been lots of times we succeeded at this, other times we got things mostly right or not entirely wrong, and a few times where we failed. This is about one of the fails.

In Episode 11 of Season 2 (which airs this Wednesday at 10pm ET on Syfy), one of our characters (Alex, the pilot) has tucked his ship behind one of the smaller moons of Jupiter to keep it hidden from Martian patrol ships that have blockaded a base on the inner moon Ganymede, while his crewmates carry out a mission on Ganymede Station. When his crewmates become trapped, Alex has to come up with a risky rescue plan:

He plots a complex, gravity-assist (“slingshot”) trajectory to return to Ganymede without using the ship’s main fusion drive (which would expose him to detection by the patrols). Later, while he’s performing a maneuver, he barely avoids straying into the path of an unexpected ship.

The sequences are quite beautiful, well-acted and nicely directed, and the visual effects are gorgeous (particularly the immersive, holographic orbital trajectories of the Jovian moons, which are all scientifically accurate… at least I hope they are). And it’s a lot of fun to watch.

It’s also utterly preposterous.

But if we already knew that, then why did it end up on screen? Here’s what happened:

When we were working out this particular story line in our writers room, we needed a pick a  moon to hide the ship behind, so off we went to Wikipedia, and we settled on moon #54 (Jupiter XLVIII), “Cyllene”.

Why Cyllene? Well… mainly because it was a girl’s name and it sounded pretty, which suited the scene and Alex’s character. It wasn’t until the picture had been locked and we were well into post-production that I realized we had a problem, due to one, simple fact that we hadn’t fully thought through:

Cyllene is really, really far away from Ganymede.

And that has big ramifications. The gravity-assist trajectory Alex (i.e., we) had devised would’ve in reality taken months to complete, but the sequence we’d created showed Alex slingshotting around several moons and getting back to Ganymede in a ludicrously short period of time.* (In a moment of derangement, I briefly considered fixing the problem by using VFX to make Alex’s beard appear longer each time we cut back to him, with empty beer cans and food bar wrappers accumulating around him to imply that a lot of time was passing in each cut. I’m only half kidding.)

By the time I was able to really focus on this sequence and understood the problems, it was too late. We were married to what we had physically shot on stage and the (extremely expensive) VFX already being built in our pipeline.** So I decided to let it go and wrote it off to dramatic license.

And that’s what bugs me more than anything else.

It’s far too easy in TV/film science fiction to ditch reality for (what you perceive to be or rationalize is) the sake of drama. In a fantasy space opera, this is forgivable, but for a show like The Expanse that prides itself on a realistic portrayal of space, it is not.

I did finally come up with an alternative sequence, one that would’ve better reflected reality and been far more exciting to boot… but by that time it was too late to change what we had. For the record, what I should have done was this:

1) Change the moon we picked to another one (with a pretty, girl’s name, of course) that was much closer to Ganymede (this would’ve required changing a few words of Alex’s dialogue, but that wouldn’t have been difficult to do);

2) Build the flight sequence around a single event: a complex trajectory adjustment around one moon, perhaps involving a dangerously close pass over the surface, with a limited window for Alex to complete the maneuver, which gets further complicated by the appearance of an unexpected patrol ship. Remember that terrific sequence in Apollo 13 in which James Lovell (Tom Hanks) has to hit a tiny re-entry window on manual control? This could’ve been as riveting like that.

As they say, that and a buck will buy me a coke (though I would much prefer a martini).

But stayed tuned. We’re planning another slingshot sequence, far more elaborate than this one, in season 3. I’ll make sure we get the science (at least mostly) right.

Naren Shankar

Executive Producer/Showrunner

The Expanse

*Ludicrous even by our own standards. One area where The Expanse consistently takes big liberties with physical reality is time-to-travel. The novels don’t do this, but they have the luxury of literary devices like interior monologue; in TV, you tend to cut out the parts where things aren’t happening. The series adaptation of Game of Thrones also often significantly compresses time and distances for the same reason, so at least we’re in good company.

**The accounting department at our studio often refers to the show as “The Expense”. 

35 Responses »

  1. space travel, just like sea travel is really really boring…until it isn’t, but then it’s really really boring again. So yeah, compress the heck out of it, and I for one will forgive you. Though that skimming the moon on a slingshot would have been awesome to see. Oh, one nit that does keep bothering me. The Roci is laid out on the wrong axis. But you knew that already, right?

    Ernest

    • What do you mean its laid our in the wrong axis? The Roci is tower-style just like in the books.

    • I know that you are wrong about that.

    • > The Roci is laid out on the wrong axis.

      It’s not the only ship in the show that has a bridge that looks tubular but laying perpendicular to the thrust vector. As far as shooting goes, it’s much easier to build corridors than stairwells.

      Still, it’s a bit bothering a lot of the bridges are long and narrow instead of more circular like the cross section of the ship. Also, it seems to be on one the opposite end from the drive while it should be very close to the center of gravity to allow faster rotations without killing the crew.

      BTW, I loved the way the incandescent fragments from the shooting around the comms relay station fall to the floor when the drive kicks in.

  2. Thanks. As a fan, I find it exciting to read about the inner workings of how the show is put together, how creative decisions are made, and how logistics such as this return to Ganymede are addressed. It’s fun reading and adds to my enjoyment of the show.

  3. Mr. Shankar,
    As a fan of all the books and the show I really appreciate your transparency about this upcoming scene. I don’t think I would have noticed had you not pointed it out, however I am aware of the scrutiny that some fans put the show under. I noticed the core issue was the gap created between research time for the plot device and the “you don’t know what you don’t know until you know” factor. As a possible solution to avoid this in futute episodes I like to share an idea. I recently enjoyed an exceptional podcast of The Churn that follows each airing of the The Expanse. They had a guest scientist talk about things he liked that the show gets right. He was so happy with the attention to detail the show commits to. Possibly he could put together a “human wiki group” for your show as a resource?
    I’m confident that with the level of care and dedication that you and everyone else involved in the show has shown, The Expanse will run all the way until book 11 concludes the series.

    A quick thank you; I really loved the Epstein episode and I hope we’ll see more side stories like that in future episodes. Thank you for writing that.

    • I noticed the crazy gravity assist path blooper right away – which is why I sought out this commentary.
      I thought, “That would take months, if not several years. How could he rescue his crew mates in that time?” Plus all the planets would not statically stay in the same position while the gravity assist loop-de-loop ran its course. It would have to be a dynamic hologram to show the true path.
      Anyway, this show makes a major effort to be scientifically accurate in so many ways that when they goof up like this it really stands out.

      I have also wondered if the Expanse CGI artists have put the locations of Jupiter’s moons (and the rest of the planets in the hologram) in their correct locations for the date/time in the future when the story is supposed to take place. Just a perfectionist nitpick. But expecting perfection on this show is not unreasonable.

  4. My favourite bit is sgt. Draper’s vac suit spraying blood flakes like a gruesome snow making machine at a space ski hill on Ganymede. I’m not smart enough to notice the flight trajectory mistake but I appreciate the apology nonetheless. Waiting on the audiobooks from the library next cause won’t be patient enough to wait until more televised seasons are complete. Stoked.

  5. I really like the books and the SiFi series. I’m pretty stoked that a “hard” science fiction show is as popular as the Expanse seems to be. You guys have a fine combination of good storytelling/writing, a fine cast and some super art direction.

    I have noticed a few “director liberties” in the SFX sequences. Mostly minor stuff. For example there was shot of a spacecraft docking Tycho so quickly that the people inside would have gotten rattled like peas in a can. On a couple of occasions various ships can be seen “blasting” towards a destination when they should have been blasting backwards. (50% of the flight time should be decelerating.) When the Nauvoo missed Eros, it should have been a momentary streak of light.

    I guess my blanket comment for this is, “if it doesn’t cost any more to do the physics right, you might as well do the physics right.” Back in the 1940s, model airplanes in films did strange flat turns which look silly today.

    The physics of space flight matter. Vessels moving at tens of thousands of kilometers per hour and many hundreds of kilometers apart will never be in the same frame. All of those Star Trek films with ships blasting broadsides at each other looks as silly to me as the planes in 1940s movies. I loved the depictions of space combat in the books. You imply that the combatants are using kinetic weapons and missiles which take minutes to reach their targets. That’s great stuff!

    I think that depicting space combat more like modern submarine combat (ie all remote sensing against a foe which is too far away to see) would be just as gripping. And cheaper to film too!

    Regarding the moon physics business. In future they might just postulate an unknown moon. New rocks orbiting the outer planets are found all the time. Jupiter is up to what? About sixty moons right now?

    All the best! Here’s hoping for season four!

  6. “One area where The Expanse consistently takes big liberties with physical reality is time-to-travel.”
    This is something I’m sensitive too, and I’m actually okay with your rendition. Characters occasionally mention the travel time, so I can combine that with an awareness that what we’re focusing on is the juicy parts and it’s okay. The easiest example is the chase of Eros as it approached Earth – many scenes had long gaps between them in time, even if we were seeing them immediately follow each other, and we had been told so when General Jerk talked down to Avasarala. It worked.

    ” The series adaptation of Game of Thrones…”
    Please, please don’t compare yourself to that series. You’re actually trying to maintain chronology; they’ve more or less given up for seasons. The last episode where they rushed everything back and forth and ignored the months of sea travel needed to gather that pretty fleet at the end was just the most egregious of many, many examples of plot before continuity.

  7. What bothered me more than the slingshot maneuver was the few scenes that showed the Roci pass behind some of the moons, especially when Amos is trying to evade the martian ship he runs into. Those scenes make it seem like the moons are way smaller than they actually are. They look like they are no larger than a few hundred meters in diameter…

  8. So I have to ask, did the writers for Here be Dragons deliberately do a “homage” to The Man in the High Castle? Bobbie’s defection scene was practically identical to Juliana’s defection scene in The Man in the High Castle.

    Or did they both just fall into some standard Hollywood defection scene trope? :-).

  9. Much respect for acknowledging the error. That’s why The Expanse has the best VFX and science on television.

  10. Maybe a tad off topic, but am I the only one that cringes every time the PDC’s are shown. The scale looks completely wrong to me. The Roci is supposed to be a rather big ship, when the PDC’s are deployed they look fricken huge! Like they themselves are the size of a 747. where do things even fit inside the ship?
    I get that you want them to be easily viewable, but it totally throws off the scale of the ship and make it look super fake.

  11. So I had one question in relation to this scene (which btw I loved!)…. When Alex encounters the MCRN ship he takes over manual controls and reverses his direction, essentially negating all of his acceleration that he was trying to build up in his gravity assist maneuver…. Then once he has cleared the MCRN ship’s range of view he ends up taking over with thrusters only and goes into Ganymede…. This seems like a bit of a plot hole…. Wouldn’t he have needed to repeat another gravity assist process (with different moons since he was in a different location with relation to Ganymede then when the scene started) to help him build acceleration backup to reach Ganymede? Might be a small plot hole or maybe I missed something when I was watching it.
    Love the series (books and show), Keep up the great work!

  12. As a professional astronomer, with some slingshot experience on Jupiter, I spotted immediately the problem. It was as telling that someone, having lost a jet plane, is forced to take a bike to travel 10,000 km, ad makes it in a few hours. So I really appreciate that you admit you were cheating. And I understand that sometimes you have to.

    But please, do this sparely. Every time I see something so obviously nonphysical my inner self shouts “No, this is utterly impossibile”. Give some hint that a lot of time has elapsed, or that we are seeing something much slower. Give us the feeling of the hugeness of the expanse. The name of the series is there for a reason.

    Another important thing. NEVER NEVER show a spaceship approaching its destination with the Epstein drive pushing FORWARD. It gives me the physical fear of the imminent inevitable crash.

    PS. Yesterday I had a look at Jupiter with a small binocular. And there, Ganymede was clearly visible. With the last episode still in my mind, it gave me a very strong emotion. Thank you for that.

  13. “It’s also utterly preposterous.”

    Is it really? Ever looked at Robert W. Farquhar’s work?

    R. W. Farquhar, D. P. Muhonen, C. R. Newman, and H. S. Heubergerg. “Trajectories and Orbital Maneuvers for the First Libration-Point Satellite”. In:
    Journal of Guidance, Control, and Dynamics (1980), pp. 549–55

    Trajectories and orbital maneuvers for the ISEE-3/ICE comet mission
    Article · Sep 1984 · Journal of the Astronautical Sciences

    and it goes on.

    • Pretty sure by “preposterous” they meant how little time it took for Alex to do it, when in reality, due to Cyllene’s position relative to Ganymede, it would have taken months.

      The writers already know that slingshot navigation is possible. They just weren’t careful about which moons they were picking for that scene.

      So it was just a case of picking the wrong moon to start from, and not coming up with a good fix in time.

  14. Only real problem I had was the reversing out of sight of the martian vessel, as if radars weren’t in play at all..apart from that the slingshoting was fine. The holomap and Alex walking through it cutting off the light beams..a small touch most shows wouldn’t have attempted.

    Bravo.

  15. Well, this is unfortunate indeed (and yes, I did think durng the episode: This is goind really, really fast.).
    But, one only learns by doing mistakes. Here’s hoping you’ll have plenty more opportunities to make it right and entertain us witha quality show.

  16. Thank you for your post.
    thank you very much.

  17. 2001: A Space Odyssey is amazing for keeping the facts straight.
    But in recent times Gravity and The Martian have done a good job.
    The dust storm in the Martian is the only obvious glitch , but then Andy Weir had discarded more reasonable scenarios for drama’s sake.

    Gravity has a lot ultra low probability events , and some tortured astrodynamics, but it does sound in a vacuum like 2001. Only sounds one hears are transmitted through space suits, that is quite clever. Zero g is some of the best I have ever seen.
    Wikipedia originally listed Gravity as an ‘alternate universe’ science fiction story that was perfect, alas for some stupid reason that designation went away. That tag fit the location of spacecraft in orbit and that the story takes place in an alternate but ‘shadowing’ future.

    (Not SF but Apollo 13 did a good job of the science too.)

  18. Every Kerbal player cringed at that sequence. They know gravity assist, they know how boring it is and how tedious it is to plot a course using them.
    I understood the reason for the quick manoeuvres when I saw it, but I hoped the producing team would acknowledge the artistic license taken. I’m glad you did.

    • LOL! I love KSP, and playing it has given me a real appreciation for the “geography” of The Expanse (although I do wonder why Ganymede in particular would be considered appropriate for argiculture). I also love the Mass Effect series, but having played KSP, I now cringe at every single interplanetary travel sequence!

  19. I didn’t mind the “slingshot” scene at all. I knew the gravity assist would’ve taken a lot more time, even if it were just one or two moons…. What I DID mind was the pod in the incinerator….

  20. Yes, the sound-in-space thing is also a big liberty that is used too frequently. However, generally, a close portrayal as possible to the “physical realities of life in space” is appreciated.

  21. My biggest problem with the Ganymede scenes was how unrealistically large Jupiter was as seen from Ganymede. At 100,000+ km, it would only be 8 degrees wide, or 16x the width of Luna from Earth. It looks closer to 30 degrees wide (or larger) in shots. It’s not even that big from Io. It seems like that would be easy to research and get right for such a major setting.

  22. ^^^that was supposed to be 1,000,000km+

  23. Apology accepted. It looked great at the time.

  24. So when is the season 3 premiere date? We must know. We are already in withdrawal! Please don’t tell us you are going to add a big hiatus again :-).

  25. And on a different topic: Were the effects for the protomolecule man done by the same folks who did the robots in “I Robot”? It seemed to move exactly like those robots, as if the same motion algorithms were being employed.

  26. I skipped through this scene as I found Alex talking to himself fairly uninteresting TV.

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