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How Amazon (and Jeff Bezos) Saved 'The Expanse'

From the beginning of Season 1, "The Expanse" resonated with fans of sci-fi.
From the beginning of Season 1, "The Expanse" resonated with fans of sci-fi.
(Image: © Amazon)

Cast your mind back to December 2015, when a series called "The Expanse," based on the series of novels of the same name by James S. A. Corey, first aired on the Syfy channel. It didn't take long for sci-fi fans to sit up and take notice; it was well-written and had amazing production design and a good cast, including Shohreh Aghdashloo ("Mass Effect," "The Punisher") and Thomas Jane ("The Mist," "The Thin Red Line").

The show soon earned praise from critics and most notably for its visual effects, character growth and politically-inspired plots. In 2017, the Syfy series received a Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, and it has received three Saturn Award nominations for Best Science Fiction Television Series.

The second season had a lot to live up to, but it surpassed expectations, adding the talent of Cara Gee, Chad L. Coleman (Klyden from "The Orville") and the legendary Jared Harris to the already impressive cast. The third season was a similar story and continued to maintain the high standard of visual production and intelligent storytelling, adding David Strathairn ("Sneakers," "The Firm") and Elizabeth Mitchell ("V," "Lost") to the talent. 

Related: With 'The Expanse' on Amazon Prime, Actors Hope to Film in Space
More:
Here's a Recap of 'The Expanse' Seasons 1-3

Poster artwork used to illustrate Season 2 of "The Expanse."  (Image credit: Amazon)

However, only three seasons had been sold to Syfy and there are eight novels in the series with a ninth on the way. Not long after Season 3 started to air, Syfy announced it had not purchased the rights for future seasons because of restrictive distribution arrangements, and on May 11, 2018, it was officially canceled

However, by now the show had built up a considerable following and fans protested the cancellation. 

Such a display of displeasure from fans isn't entirely unusual. When "Star Trek: The Original Series" was canceled in 1968 after just two seasons, a letter-writing campaign orchestrated by fans – Bjo and John Trimble in particular – kept the show on the air for an additional season. And while one more season might not seem like a substantial victory, it set a precedent for many subsequent campaigns to keep shows on the air. Some were successful, like "Star Trek" and "Quantum Leap," but sadly, others weren't, like "Firefly" and "Almost Human" – both were canceled by Fox after just one season, and both were high-quality sci-fi shows with massive potential that had amassed a loyal fan base in a short amount of time.

When production of "The Expanse" first began in 2014, large swaths of the viewing public hadn't yet started to cancel their television network subscriptions; streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime weren't producing much original content and thus weren't considered a threat. Consequently, Syfy was comfortable with having only first-run, live-viewing rights, and early indications were that this decision proved to be a wise one. 

Season 1 was not only a critical success, but a financial one, too, with almost 1.5 million viewers. However, the audience figures for Season 2 dropped 20 percent, and the Season 3 numbers were even worse, despite the series still receiving widespread critical acclaim. 

Related: Save 'The Expanse'! Fans, Celebs (and Even an Astronaut) Rally Behind Canceled Show

Poster artwork used to illustrate the third season of "The Expanse."  (Image credit: Amazon)

What further exacerbated the situation for Syfy was that fans on social media were spreading the word of what a great show this is, and as a result, people went to Amazon Prime to stream earlier episodes — and Syfy wasn't making a single cent off that. The result was inevitable; Syfy's parent company NBC was not about to let "The Expanse" drag Syfy into the red. 

There was a slim chance that "The Expanse" would find a new home, but whoever took it on would need to not only spend money on producing the show but also absorb potential losses until online streaming had become a viable success. The biggest stumbling block was that "The Expanse," just like "Star Trek: Discovery" and "Lost in Space" and every other high-quality sci-fi TV show is that the cost of visual effects can send the budget soaring into space. In the pages of the novel, a scene might be set in space, but to make that scene look real for TV probably requires wirework, practical effects and models, plus greenscreen and a lot of expensive CGI. In fact, one of the biggest draws to "The Expanse" is just how accurately the show portrays the laws of physics in space.

Related: 'The Expanse's' Cas Anvar Talks Science, 'Floaty Arms' and a Thrilling Season

Fans of "The Expanse" call themselves the "Screaming Warhawks" (much like fans of "Firefly" called themselves "browncoats") since this was the name that Alex Kamal (Cas Anvar) wanted to use for spacecraft Tachi before the crew named it Rocinante. Plus, it's the nickname Anvar uses for the fans on Twitter. These fans gathered over 100,000 signatures for an online petition. They lobbied Amazon Studios and Netflix to pick up the series and set up a crowdfunding campaign that paid for an airplane to fly a "#SaveTheExpanse" banner over Amazon Studios in Santa Monica for a day.

Celebrities including Wil Wheaton, George R. R. Martin, Patton Oswalt and Andreas Mogensen supported the campaign.

Meanwhile, at the 2018 International Space Development Conference (ISDC) in Los Angeles, despite being in a production limbo of sorts, writers from "The Expanse" together with most of the main cast had been invited to talk at the conference about the science of "The Expanse" that had been used and visualized in the show. The tension between realism and the needs of dramatic storytelling was a key theme running through the discussion. This was a little over two weeks after Syfy's official announcement that it would cancel "The Expanse." 

Related: Fizzy Beer and Exploding Heads: How 'The Expanse' Keeps It Real

After this panel discussion, the guests at the ISDC gathered for dinner and the awards banquet, during which Amazon's billionaire founder, Jeff Bezos, was going to give a talk on stage. The head of Amazon Studios, Jennifer Salke, said in an interview with Deadline that the plan to officially announce the rescue of "The Expanse" was cooked up while Bezos was sitting at a dinner table just a few feet away from the cast.

Salke had planned to ask about the fate of "The Expanse" during the talk on stage, but once they got up there, Bezos beat her to the punch.

"Ten minutes ago, I just got word that 'The Expanse' is saved," Bezos said to cheers and applause in the banquet hall. "The show is extraordinary and these guys are unbelievably talented."

"I was talking to the cast half an hour ago, before the break for dinner started," Bezos said before the big announcement, which Anvar recorded and shared on Twitter. "I was telling them that we are working hard at Amazon to save 'The Expanse' but it wasn't a done deal yet." So they knew there might be a chance, but it was far from certain.

Oh, how the champagne must have flowed that night. And rightly so.

For viewers of "The Expanse" and other shows, there are a lot of advantages of switching to Amazon Prime. There are no commercial breaks, and there are no restraints on the language used – and if you've watched Season 4 yet, you'll know that Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo) takes full advantage of that – the VFX budget has increased and finally, all the episodes drop at once.

Sadly, the same can't be said about other quality sci-fi shows that were forced to prematurely pass into obscurity, but oddly enough, being canceled by Syfy was probably the best thing that could've happened to "The Expanse."

Related: After 'The Expanse' Move to Amazon Prime, Actors Hope to Film in Space

Season 4 of "The Expanse" is available to watch on Amazon Prime. Principal photography on Season 5 will finish around February, but there's no word yet on when the new season will air.

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