Utilitarian spaceships that account for gravity’s pull in every facet of their design. Characters from three factions, each with their own form of dress. The neon-blue organic, crystalline horror of the alien lifeform called the protomolecule. From the outset, The Expanse took the world created by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck in their series of nine novels and established itself as a show with a visual identity unlike any other science fiction series, with every element designed to reinforce its fundamental theme – how the disparities between different social classes might play out against the vastness and alienness of space.
The story told by The Expanse begins not with the opening action of its first episode, but with its title sequence. The purpose of any television show’s opening sequence is to establish the show’s identity, and The Expanse’s opening certainly accomplishes that, creating atmosphere and setting the tone with its haunting Norwegian vocals. But more importantly, the title sequence, created by graphics company Breeder, rewards attentive viewers by showing a visual history of humanity and the solar system, providing crucial context for the tension between Earth, Mars, and the Belt. In The Expanse’s version of the future, ‘we are wanderers, explorers and survivors,’ according to Sharon Hall, executive producer for The Expanse. ‘Breeder mapped the universe while adding specific texture and touch points that makes this journey very accessible.’1
The opening sequence begins with the image of the Earth, as seen from space, at night, with its population centres lighting up the globe. This is a subtle, powerful choice. When most people picture Earth from space, they picture clouds swathing blue oceans and mottled green and brown continents. But The Expanse is about humanity, not nature, and in this version of the future, population growth and humanity’s exploitation of natural resources has continued unchecked. The next shots, masterfully filmed by Breeder with a stuttering timelapse, tell this story through the images of retreating glaciers and the rising sea levels submerging Liberty Island, as a new platform is constructed to house the Statue of Liberty. These dire environmental conditions are ultimately what necessitate humanity’s expansion into outer space – a story not of human curiosity or of scientific exploration, but a desperate, greedy grab for resources to further humanity’s consumption.
The sequence continues with a shot of expanding construction on the lunar surface as a spare, elegant swarm of lines, representing the flight paths of spacecraft, circle the moon. According to Breeder, these rays of light draw inspiration from the work of German artist Carsten Nicolai, who used cathode ray TVs and pendulums to make magnetic forces visible to the human eye. Humanity’s inexorable push into the solar system then continues out on Mars, as habitat domes are constructed on the surface. We see the shipping lanes of the asteroid belt and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn before the camera closes in on an astronaut, alone against the blackness of space and looking toward the sun. While later seasons add shots of Earth, Mars, the Belt, and the Ring Gates to other solar systems that contextualise the events of prior seasons, the visual story of humanity’s push into the expanse of space remains fundamentally unchanged. It’s a stylish, masterful opening sequence that establishes a visual lexicon for the show and grounds the viewer in its universe.
The Design of The Expanse
When it comes to the design of The Expanse – from its spaceships to its costumes to its architecture – one principal generally rules: the supremacy of function over form. This is not to say that The Expanse is not stylish; its improvisations on different aesthetic themes within each of the solar system’s cultures are distinct and breathtaking. But all of its ships, from the smallest corvette to the largest dreadnought, take into account the limitations of physics and are designed accordingly; the clothing of anyone flying on a spaceship is designed to allow for both zero-gravity movement and high-g burns.
Unlike the ships of other science fiction series like Star Wars and Star Trek that handwave physics away with MacGuffins like hyperdrives or warp speed, gravity is king in the ship designs of The Expanse. In the world of both the books and the show, artificial gravity is only possible on ships with the use of hyper-efficient thrusters that accelerate ships to speeds that approximate a planet’s gravity. Most of The Expanse’s ships are thus designed with its thrusters in the rear of the ship (although from the perspective of the crew, the thrusters are always beneath their feet). We do not yet have the benefit of the fictional Epstein drive technology that makes this sort of spaceflight possible, but the ships in The Expanse are nevertheless designs that could conceivably be built in the future. Both military and civilian ships in the show are also generally quite large and bulky, with multiple layers of protection against the vacuum of space; in the case of military ships, they are also outfitted with rail guns, point defence cannons, and torpedoes that make for imposing profiles. There is also a certain irony in the fact that for a show called The Expanse, most of the interiors of its ships and stations are quite enclosed and claustrophobic; a spacefaring civilization might involve travelling unfathomable distances, but it’s all done in very advanced tin buckets.
Of course, the show’s most quintessential ship is the Rocinante, the Martian Navy’s corvette-class frigate commandeered by the main characters in the show’s first season. Although the ship is cutting-edge Martian technology, it eventually becomes a symbol of neutrality and independence in the solar system. According to showrunner Naran Shankar, ‘[t]he orientation of the decks and the distribution of mass relative to the direction of thrust, these and many other factors dictate the form of our ships, which often end up resembling big, chunky buildings (which we love).'2 Dr. Ryan Ridden, a post-doctoral research fellow at the Space Telescope Science Institute, describes in a YouTube video the Rocinante as something like 'a Dutch canal house with a rocket attached.'3 The Rocinante’s design, with its heat-resistant tiles and missiles that can fire without affecting the ships velocity, is a far cry from science fiction’s well-known sleek ships like the Millennium Falcon or the Enterprise, but the show’s production and art designers ultimately achieved a design that is functional yet iconic – a true workhorse.4
For the ships of Earth, Mars, and the Belt, The Expanse created a compendium of ship designs that effectively convey information about their respective factions. Ships like the UN’s Agatha King, the Thomas Prince, and the Arboghast are depicted to illustrate Earth’s fading empire – according to production designer Seth Reed, '[w]e wanted to show that the UN was slightly behind Mars in both technology and ‘style,’ opting for a more plain ‘gray-ish’ look, and with ship silhouettes that were more blocky, less refined.'5 In keeping with Earth’s identity as the blue planet, the livery of its ships features blue trim as well as the UN flag. Mars’ ships, on the other hand, are on the cutting edge of military technology: they are sleek, state of the art ships that reflect Martian society’s authoritarian emphasis on military might, with black and red-orange livery and a flag reminiscent of Mars and its two moons, Phobos and Deimos.
In terms of a unifying aesthetic, the ships and stations of the Belt are more difficult to pin down. They range from run-down rock hoppers held together with spit and grit to high-tech stations and ships like Tycho Station or the Behemoth/Medina. Concept designer Tim Warnock identifies Belters as 'truckers in space,' in essence spiritual successors to the crew of Alien’s Nostromo.6 Over the course of the series, as the Belters rise and become a political force to be reckoned with, their ships grow more technologically advanced, with the Belters often repurposing the ships of other factions for their own uses, like the Mormon Nauvoo, which becomes the Behemoth and later Medina Station, or the Pella, an MCRN ship repurposed by Marco Inaros to become the flagship of the Free Navy. What does seem to unite this disparate group of ships is a 'waste not, want not' philosophy and an enterprising spirit – a willingness to make use of anything and everything at hand, disregarding legality and regulations in the process. The redesigned Behemoth reflects Belter pragmatism and lack of sentimentality, with workstations and cables crisscrossing the Mormons’ carefully designed ship interior.
Spaceships are one of the centrepieces of The Expanse’s design, but environments like Earth’s futuristic New York City, the asteroid colony of Ceres Station, Tycho Station, Mars, Ganymede, and Io are also key aspects of its worldbuilding. Except for Earth, all The Expanse’s stations and planets are locations that are hostile to human life, and their environments must be constructed to prioritise air filtration and other types of life support. However, within that constraint there is a large degree of differentiation between the locations of different factions. The skyline of New York City, with its added futuristic skyscrapers, buzzing drones and helicopters, is seemingly inspired by deconstructivist architecture, a postmodern architectural movement that often features fragmented non-rectilinear shapes. The buildings of Mars, appropriately for an authoritarian society that disdains ornamentation, are inspired by brutalist architecture, featuring exposed, unpainted rock or metal and minimalist shapes. The environments of Ceres and Tycho Stations, on the other hand, are a mishmash of human cultures and stacked prefabricated buildings that suggest crowded urban cities. 'The pioneers who left Earth to mine the asteroids were a mix of all ethnicities, and Ceres reflects this: it has high-density Asian apartments, Middle Eastern marketplaces, Brazilian favelas, and Western comedy clubs,' Shankar says.7
It’s also important to note that The Expanse does not depict its factions as monoliths; there is a wide range of social classes on Earth, Mars, and the Belt, and the show manages to accurately convey this nuance. Compare the decadence of Jules-Pierre Mao’s yacht, the Guanshiyin, for example, with the tent cities of people living on basic assistance from the government that Bobbie encounters in season 2 or the slums of Baltimore that Amos visits in season 5. These are all Earther living spaces, but The Expanse recognizes that even within the sphere of its most privileged political faction, there are still haves and have-nots.
Cinematography and Background Detail: Shooting the Expanse
Less conspicuous but still striking elements of the series include its cinematography, lighting, props, and graphics and heads-up displays. 'The Expanse is different from a lot of typical television science fiction,' says series cinematographer Jeremy Benning, CSC. 'The series has a hard-edge look without being clinical. The sets are often techie and harsh, and the lenses help take some of that edge off and add more character, sort of a graphic novel look to the images.'8
The lighting of the show is carefully considered and designed, with the lighting mostly built into the architecture of the sets, providing a multilayered look. Benning cites American battleships as an inspiration for the Rocinante’s signature blue battle lighting.9 However, the frequency with which artificial lighting is used in The Expanse’s spaceships and space stations does present one possible criticism. The artificial lighting is a slick stylistic choice for the viewer, but in-universe, one would think that characters living on spaceships without access to sunlight would want their lighting to be as naturalistic as possible.
The crew of The Expanse also brought their signature attention to detail to the show’s props. The ingenious mag boots are a practical solution for filming scenes in zero-gravity. Mag boots are used much less frequently in the books since they are not a realistic solution to walking in space, but they provide the show with a way to shoot scenes that take place in zero-gravity without having to resort to expensive wire work and special effects. Similarly imaginative are the transparent comms that pervade the show, which take the current trend toward thinner, lighter electronics to its natural conclusion. Even the graphics of the screens and interactive displays, from small communicators to large, curved screens to holographic displays, all adhere to a similar futuristic but practical aesthetic; in an interview, motion graphics designer Rhys Yorke noted that showrunner Shanker wanted as many displays as possible to be functional for the actors.10
Wardrobe and Style
The costumes of The Expanse, expertly crafted by costume designer Joanne Hansen, are an effective shorthand for the culture of each faction. The show admittedly features a lot of jumpsuits, space suits, and military uniforms. But within those limitations, there is nevertheless a huge amount of variation, as well as a few spectacular exceptions.
One of the most common looks for characters in The Expanse are the jumpsuit and the VAC suit, a space suit designed to be worn in the vacuum of space. The crew of the Rocinante is most often shown in one of these outfits, but each of the four members of the team adapt the look to suit their own style. Jim Holden is often shown with the top half of his jumpsuit worn around his waist, almost as if in rebellion against his role as the reluctant leader. Naomi Nagata wears a jumpsuit with a higher waist and open at the neck to show off her Belter tattoos. Amos Burton’s jumpsuit features patches from the various crews he’s worked on throughout his career, and is styled with the sleeves rolled up, while Alex Kamal wears his original Tachi jumpsuit as a point of Martian pride. 'The costumes were designed in time and place, and individuated,' Hansen says. 'Each of our cast brought their ‘character’ to the costume. It’s really about creating a language between costume design, story, and character.'11
The military uniforms of Earth and Mars are also carefully differentiated from each other. The Martian uniforms reflect their authoritarian, militaristic society – perfectly polished and completely buttoned up, with nothing out of place. In contrast, Hansen said in an interview of the UN’s military uniforms, 'Earthers, they believe Earth is No. 1. Earth must come first, it’s Avasarala’s mantra, and in a sense, it clings in some ways to the past. So we give [the Earth costumes] a little bit more connection to a world we recognize now.'12
The Martian military has the edge, of course, with their power armour worn by the Martian Marine Corps’ top soldiers. In-universe, the armour is equipped with a hydraulics system that magnifies the wearer’s strength, an inbuilt multi-barrel minigun, rocket-propelled grenades, and an advanced heads-up display that monitors the wearer’s environment. This $150,000 prop suit was one of the show’s most remarkable achievements, bringing to life the fierceness and absolute competence of Bobbie Draper, as well as the incredible Martian investment in technology and weaponry.
The Expanse was also forced by necessity to create a visual shorthand for what a Belter looks like through costumes. In the books, Belters are uniquely identified by their elongated skeletons that are an effect of growing up and living their lives in very low gravity environments. Although the first episode of The Expanse shows such a Belter, this was unfortunately impossible to include long-term, especially for main characters like Naomi and Camina Drummer. Instead, the show uses clothing, hair, and makeup to define what a Belter looks like, drawing on a variety of cultural backgrounds and bringing in a variety of fabric patterns and colours for their look. This also results in one of the show’s coolest looks: the Belter tattoos. As in the books, members of the OPA (Outer Planets Alliance, or the radical faction of the Belt) are identifiable by the split-circle tattoo. But in “Rock Bottom,” (S1E6) Anderson Dawes explains that the old suit EVA helmets – cheap equipment usually provided by Earth corporations – would burn and 'the contacts would cook your skin.' Members of the older generation of Belters like Dawes wear these scars proudly, while members of the younger generation like Naomi and Drummer have geometric neck tattoos that mimic the scarring and pay homage to their elders’ sacrifice.
No discussion of The Expanse’s costumes would be complete without addressing Chrisjen Avasarala’s fantastic wardrobe, of course. She combines iridescent jewel-toned South Asian saris and ornate jewellery with more avant-garde pieces, like the burnt-orange cloak she wears while walking through the snow to James Holden’s family’s home in “Windmills” (S1E7). She is in a category of her own, and one could devote an entire essay to exploring the nuances of her style, but there is a wonderful kind of tension and ambiguity to Avasarala’s look. She is one of the most powerful people in the solar system, and yet she is also a woman of colour and a member of a historically oppressed nation. Her outfits convey elegance and sophistication, and yet she is foul-mouthed and often forcefully uncompromising in her interactions with other characters. As Hansen puts it, 'She’s the only one with maybe enough freedom and power to exercise that privilege' of wearing bright colours.13
The Expanse’s Vision of the Future
The Expanse forecasts today’s political, social, and scientific conditions 200 years into the future, and the show is thus necessarily grounded in physical reality. But the series also moves more firmly into the realm of science fiction and science fantasy with the introduction of the protomolecule and its associated constructs, like the ring gates and Laconia’s alien hounds. The techno-organic protomolecule is technically not an alien lifeform in and of itself; rather, Protogen scientist Antony Dresden describes it in the first book of the series, Leviathan Wakes, as 'a set of free-floating instructions designed to adapt to and guide other replicating systems.'14 The show’s interpretation of the protomolecule perhaps slightly softens the full-on horror of the books’ vomit zombies, adding more blue bioluminescence than the book depicts, but the show’s version is still plenty grisly and surreal. Like the creators of the video game The Last of Us, the concept artists of The Expanse drew on the look of endoparasitoids, or organisms that grow inside a host. 'We looked at examples from nature of one species invading a host,' concept artist Tim Warnock said. 'One really compelling example is that of an insect-pathogenizing fungus that infects ants, turning them into ‘zombie ants.’ There was also the idea of a metamorphosis that we wanted to convey.'15
One particularly clever choice that the show makes is the callback in “Home” (S2E5) to the bird flying in artificial gravity on Ceres from the first episode. The bird’s appearance to Miller as he makes his way through the protomolecule-consumed Eros, whether it’s really there or visible only in Miller’s imagination, reinforces the protomolecule’s power to synthesise intelligent life and create an alien hive mind as a byproduct.
After the events of Eros’ crash into Venus and the protomolecule’s deconstruction of the Arboghast, the protomolecule reveals its ultimate purpose, forming the Ring Gate – not a biological function, but a technological one, and the design of the Ring Gate, with its black filaments and blue glow, reflects this. The designs of the protomolecule and its associated constructs, like the Ring Station and the structures on Ilus, provide an effective shorthand for the questions raised by the series – what was the civilization that built the protomolecule and the Ring Gates? What was the force that destroyed that civilization?
Unfortunately, The Expanse, with its cancellation after season 6, didn’t get to fully explore the answers to those questions (although fans can read the story’s end in the last three books of the series). But the show was nevertheless an unparalleled achievement in science fiction, creating a vision of the future that felt grounded in the possibilities projected by current technology, the limitations of physics, and the realities of human conflict. It is to be hoped that in the coming years, the technical and artistic achievements of the show’s creators in building this fictional world will inspire other creators in the genre.
1. Justin Sanders, “Design/Dissect: ‘The Expanse’ Show Open,” Brief.promax.org, 2016, https://brief.promax.org/article/design-dissect-the-expanse-show-open.
2. Titan Books, The Art and Making of the Expanse (London: Titan Books, 2019).
3. Ryan Ridden, “Are the Expanse Ships Realistic? - Science of the Expanse,” YouTube, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qA0fKJy9ewg.
4. Jim Thacker, “Behind the Scenes: The Concept Art of the Expanse,” ArtStation Magazine, 2016, https://magazine.artstation.com/2016/02/scenes-concept-art-expanse.
5. Titan Books, The Art and Making of the Expanse.
6. Thacker, “Behind the Scenes."
7. Titan Books, The Art and Making of the Expanse.
8. Michael Burns, “Cinematographer Jeremy Benning on Creating the Look of the Expanse,” Fired by Design, 2018, https://www.firedbydesign.com/2018/01/18/cinematographer-jeremy-benning-on-creating-the-look-of-the-expanse.
9. Andy Mogul, “The Cinematography of the Expanse | Camera and Lighting Breakdown,” YouTube, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=29MzR2m88G8.
10. HUDS+GUIS, “The Expanse UI Design,” HUDS+GUIS, 2021, https://www.hudsandguis.com/home/2021/theexpanse.
11. Titan Books, The Art and Making of the Expanse.
12. Gavia Baker-Whitelaw, “‘The Expanse’ Costume Designer Joanne Hansen Explains Her Futuristic Fashion,” The Daily Dot, 2018, https://www.dailydot.com/parsec/expanse-costume-design-interview-joanne-hansen.
13. Costume CO, “The Expanse Costume Design: Part 1,” YouTube, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IWo3mDrEe3o.
14. James S A Corey, Leviathan Wakes (New York: Orbit, 2011), 344.
15. Titan Books, The Art and Making of the Expanse.