How SyFy's The Expanse cast its multiracial future

Genre TV is relying on increasingly gender-balanced, multicultural casts to populate its far-flung worlds


There's something's visibly missing in the first season of Syfy's space-opera series The Expanse. When a catastrophe strands a handful of working-class ice miners in a treacherous situation, most of them immediately look to their black female engineer for guidance, rather than to the ranking white male officer. When those miners are taken aboard an immense Martian warship, the captain is a no-nonsense Asian woman. One of the series' primary protagonists is a septuagenarian Indian woman in a crucial executive role in the United Nations. There's no glass ceiling in The Expanse, either for women or for characters of color. There's also no reason to assume, sight unseen, that any given referenced characters, regardless of their position in the world, will be white men.

The show, which wrapped its first season earlier this month (and which can be streamed in its entirety on SyFy's website,) takes place in our universe, around 200 years from now, in a future in which humanity has spread throughout the solar system. It's also a future where racism and sexism have become obsolete. Without fanfare, the creators behind the show have created one of the most egalitarian futures on television.

The Expanse

(Jason Bell / Syfy)

"It was one of the things we talked about early on," says executive producer Naren Shankar, one of three showrunners on The Expanse. He credits authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck (who write together under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey) with the show's broad ethnic mix, because it's such a significant part of their books. "They always said, ‘The people who make it out into space, it's not just going to be Neil Armstrong, clean-cut, classically white Americans. It's going to be Indian, Chinese, Russian [people], a mix of everybody, every ethnicity. And that's just going to melt and mingle.' We really wanted to reflect that, and retain that in the show, because it does say something about humanity, and that movement out into space."

Shankar has plenty of experience with science-fiction shows and diversity agendas. After getting a PhD in electrical engineering, he became a science consultant on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and a story editor on Star Trek: The Next Generation. He served as a writer on both shows, and as a producer on Farscape and Almost Human. But The Expanse has a take on multiculturalism that he hadn't seen before. "I started my career on Star Trek, and for its time, it was a diverse cast," he says. "But it was very different. The knock against Star Trek, rightly or wrongly, was that the cast felt very hand-picked, trying to have every color of the rainbow. It was the best of intentions, but it didn't really deal with humanity. It was a cross-section of perfect humans on ships meeting aliens who had problems. Star Trek did many, many good things, but this is pretty different. We're trying to really represent human beings, and to extrapolate, to the extent it's possible with this kind of drama, where humanity might go, how ethnicities might mix, how people might look."

"There's a reason books have followings. There's a reason people connect to the material."

For Syfy, The Expanse represents an excellent chance to catch up to the diversity enlightenment that's slowly sweeping across television. With so many channels and such a splintered viewership for any given show, production companies are finding some value in either targeting narrow audiences, or in filling shows with a variety of faces to appeal to the widest range of viewers. Genre television is just starting to catch up with earlier waves of diversity-related thinking in genre comics and novels. Shows like Sense8The Walking Dead, and Heroes Reborn are relying on increasingly gender-balanced, multicultural casts to expand their idea of what the future might look like, and who might be affected by world-spanning crisis. SyFy embracing this new wave marks a major change from just a decade ago, when the network was involved in one of television's ugliest, most high-profile cases of "whitewashing" — removing the multicultural characters from its adaptation of Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea books, to her vocal disgust.

The Expanse is only a drop in the bucket — a recent study suggests that while television has a reputation as a more diversity-friendly medium than film, it's still largely skewed male and white. Statistically, TV still has the exact same exclusion problem that got Hollywood into so much trouble with the all-white Academy Award acting nominations this year. What makes The Expanse an interesting case isn't just the range of people onscreen. It's the ways, and the reasons, the people behind the scenes are addressing the issue.

Abraham and Franck's books, starting with 2011's Hugo-nominated series launch Leviathan Wakes, are focused on action and load-bearing dialogue, not description. The prose moves quickly, and doesn't spend much time detailing how individual characters look. The hints about ethnicity mostly come in the names: That black spaceship engineer is Naomi Nagata. The Indian politician is Chrisjen Avasarala. The Martian warship commander is Theresa Yao. Beyond those names, it can be easy to gloss over their national identities in print, especially since most characters identify with their planet of birth, rather than their country of historical origin. But onscreen, the gender balance and racial mix become far more evident. And so does the range of accents, which differentiate the white cast members from each other as well.

The authors describe their racial blend as "aspirational." "Part of the mandate when you're writing a future is to write the kind of future you want to see," says Abraham. "Not that we're utopian, but the idea of a future where it's less mixed and interesting than my immediate day-to-day life would have been weird."

The Expanse

Shohreh Agdashaloo as Chrisjen and Frances Fisher as Elise Holden in The Expanse (Rafy / Syfy)

Though The Expanse takes place in a fictional future, Franck and Abraham were deliberate about bringing in characters from existing countries and cultures. Franck describes it as "making sure this future had clear roots in the present, and making it clear that nations were still around."

But writing a diverse cast into the books didn't guarantee a diverse one onscreen. The producers had to share the authors' interest in a multicultural future. "I've never liked adaptations where the first thing they do is throw out the book," Shankar says. "There's a reason books have followings. There's a reason people connect to the material. And when we came at this, it was my intention to be very true to the spirit of the work."

The nature of television means that even the best intentions can get filtered out in the development process. "I understand how hard it is, where you run into trouble," Franck says. "If casting agents have problems finding a specific thing they're looking for, they say, ‘Maybe we could broaden the search,' which means ‘Let's look at white people for this role, because we have hundreds of times more white people in our Rolodex than these other ethnicities you're looking for.' And it would be so easy to just say ‘Yeah, let's take a look,' and then you wind up with a much less diverse cast."

Shankar says respecting the books' implied multiethnic cast required a worldwide search for actors for key roles. "You have to go to places like New Zealand, Hawaii, places people don't normally look in casting," he said. "Of course those talent pools are going to be smaller, which means you have to look harder ... But in the end, hopefully you get to create a star. You get to launch somebody new. And that's a great thing."

As an example, Franck mentions a role The Expanse is currently trying to cast for the show's second season: Gunnery Sergeant Bobbie Draper, described in the series' second book as a tall, muscular Polynesian woman, possibly of Maori ancestry. "We're looking for our Gwendoline Christie," Franck says. "We're looking for a talented actress with a body type that does not fit traditional Hollywood roles, and who's had a tough time finding work, and will be thrilled to get a part like this. Over and over, we keep looking for those people, so we can say ‘Here's the part you've been trying to get for years now.'"

One of the new stars The Expanse has launched is Dominique Tipper, a British-Dominican singer and dancer who auditioned in London for the role of tough engineer Naomi Nagata. Tipper has acted before, but never in such a major role, and never such a confident, capable one: "She's so unapologetic in her approach, which is what I love about her, and what I love about playing her."

The Expanse

Wes Chatham as Amos Burton and Dominique Tipper as Naomi Nagata (Syfy)

Naomi's brashness gets her into plenty of head-butts with her male colleagues, but those conflicts, like all conflicts in The Expanse, are about the decisions, never about the gender of the person making them. The show is remarkably lacking in sexist or racist invective, or stereotyped portrayals. Women aren't the only people in authority in the series by any means — they just stand out because they're so unlike women in power in so many other shows.

The women of The Expanse don't use sex as a weapon. They don't exhibit discomfort with authority. They don't use soft power or gently defer responsibility. They aren't concerned about alienating people by speaking too harshly or directly. They're all written exactly like men, with all the "wouldn't-it-be-great-if" idealism that sci-fi allows its authors. "That's what's awesome about Naomi," Tipper says. "If it was a man in these situation—no one's talking about [white protagonist Jim] Holden being bossy when he's throwing down the law, and saying what he wants to happen. And I think it's as simple as that. They're two people who are smart, and they have different ideas of leadership and how things should be done, and neither of them are apologetic about it. I like that that wasn't compromised because she's a woman."

Jean Yoon, who plays Captain Yao, had a similar affinity with her character. "What I loved about her was her authority," she says. "She's in command, and she's earned it. There are lots of times where as an Asian actor, I'm playing authority figures, but as a foil to the hero. They're usually flawed authority figures that get discarded partway through the story. Whereas in this case, it really became the whole story. For the Martian ship to be credible, you needed to believe she was an engineer and had fought as a soldier. It was really satisfying to have an opportunity to access that depth of strength."

Race goes similarly unremarked in the series. There's no tension or factionalizing over skin color. Veteran Iranian-American actor Shohreh Aghdashloo, known for House Of Sand And Fog and 24, plays UN politician Chrisjen Avasarala; for her, the show represents a particular opportunity for racial unity. "When I came [to America] 28 years ago, I thought, ‘With today's modern technology, we should be able to tell our stories together," she says. "We don't have to just have white people telling their stories, and brown people telling their stories. And we're there now! That's why I'm so proud of our show. You can see the diversity on this series on-camera, and also behind the camera ... Different beautiful accents from all over the world, from Australia to Malaysia."

Shankar, Franck, and Abraham also all emphasize the behind-the-scenes diversity at The Expanse's production company, Alcon Entertainment. "Either you commit to diversity, and it's just a fact of how you do business, how you live, or you're not diverse," Franck says. "You can't say ‘I know, we'll be diverse, we'll gift one black part.' That sort of tokenism is not diversity. To be truly diverse, you have to start at the top. Our production company, one of the presidents is a black man. The president of our TV division is a woman. Our writer's room is pretty close to fifty-fifty, men and women. It's not like there were checkboxes, the attitude was just, ‘Let's hire an interesting array of voices.'" That attitude extends to the script and the screen. "We're not trying to champion anyone in particular," Abraham says. "We're telling a story, and in the course of the story, there are people who aren't all white guys. What's important is what the Zuni woman is doing, not that she's a Zuni."

But is a colorblind, genderblind future really a utopia? While rich ethnic diversity is the norm in The Expanse's version of the future, there's no sense of cultural diversity. The writers have done away with racism and nationalism, but also with individual cultural experiences. And in writing the women exactly like men, they've erased any sense of gender specificity or identity, any sense that women might perceive the world differently, or have different, unique, or notable experiences.

Instead, the writers address the very real drama of prejudice and discrimination with a fictionalized conflict. National and racial factions have been replaced by world-of-origin factions. Earth, Mars, and the physically distinctive "Belters" who live and work in the asteroid belt are facing off against over scarce resources. Smaller distinctions over skin color have taken a back seat to larger ones of survival and political necessity. Classism is alive and well in the future as well, and in an outer-space future where the poor literally may not be able to afford the air they're breathing, poverty becomes an accelerated and vividly explored issue.

By shifting discrimination to the fictional Belters, Franck and Abraham are able to address the subject in a way without feeling like they were exploiting real-life victims. "We both wanted to talk about prejudice and racism, but not in a way where we were stepping on and co-opting the experiences of people who were actually suffering these things," Franck says. "We're not hurting anyone who actually exists."

They also aren't incriminating anyone who actually exists, or encouraging viewers to identify with one group over another. The setting allows for storylines dealing with inequality in a way that equally touches men and women, or white and non-white viewers. Like the various Star Trek series before it, The Expanse replaces real-world racial divides with metaphorical alien ones to help erase knee-jerk defensiveness. But by limiting the story to humanity, the series gains a sense of realism that Star Trek lost in its utopian version of humanity's inclusive future. The Expanse acknowledges that people are tribal, that they identify and discriminate based on appearance, that they create in-groups and out-groups automatically. It acknowledges the worst parts of human nature, and makes them part of the story.

"The more people see this, the more they'll get used to it."

But it does all that while celebrating some of the best parts of human nature: tenacity, loyalty, bravery, and adaptability. And part of that mandate is embracing the diversity of humanity, and celebrating equality without preaching about it. That diversity makes for a stronger and more daring show, and a rarer and more distinctive future. Specifically, it's an escapist future that is still able to grapple with current ideas about identity politics. It doesn't acknowledge the complex experiences of modern-day women in politics, or people of color in the military, but it isn't trying to. It leaves that to other shows that are more steeped in individual perspective and experience. Instead, it provides an inclusive fantasy, where people of any race or gender can feel like their choices, rather than their appearance, will be the important part of the future.

And the viewers aren't the only ones getting to live vicariously through the show. For the actors, it also offers a chance to play out fantasies that have traditionally been limited to white men. "I was just so excited being cast into a spaceship," Yoon says. "I grew up watching Star Trek and The Next Generation, and those were the only shows where I would see another Asian onscreen. I'm pretty sure every Asian Canadian, male or female, has always had a secret dream to be the captain of a starship."

"There's no doubt that we're underrepresented," Tipper says. "I hope Naomi, and me portraying her, inspires people, and lets women of color know that they can either act and play these roles, or actually be the engineer on a spaceship. Either way! It's everything I believe in. That women should be in positions of power. That people of color should. We are at liberty as artists to create worlds where [this is already happening.] And the more people see that, the more they'll get used to it."