Toronto-shot series 'The Expanse' returns this week, thanks to fan base

TORONTO — They call themselves the Screaming Firehawks.

They're passionate fans of the Toronto-shot series "The Expanse" who quickly formed an online army of sorts when the show wasn't renewed by Syfy channel after its third season last year.

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They culled about 150,000 petition signatures, amassed a campaign team to resurrect the show, and raised about $5,000 to fly a "Save the Expanse" banner over Amazon headquarters in Seattle.

And their efforts paid off.

On Friday, season 4 will premiere on Amazon Prime Video, beginning a new chapter for the sci-fi drama about the social and political struggles surrounding colonization of the solar system in the 23rd century.

"Our fan base is feral," says Canadian cast member Cas Anvar, who plays Martian pilot Alex Kamal on the show.

"Quite honestly, we owe them our lives, because they're the ones who came and fought for us like phoenixes. They would not relent until someone, and eventually Amazon, heard their cry. They were fierce, they were creative, they were innovative and they were unrelenting."

The show's journey to Amazon has been nearly as epic as its space-travelling storylines, which are based on "The Expanse" novels by James S. A. Corey and reflect real science and current concerns including climate change and overpopulation.

American executive producers Naren Shankar and Andrew Kosove say it all began when Syfy didn't renew its licence fee for the show after season 3.

As Kosove tells it, viewership was strong but Syfy only had the linear TV rights to the show and it didn't make much business sense for the channel to renew it. All the other rights were owned by Alcon Entertainment, which produces the show and was co-founded by Kosove.

When Syfy backed out of "The Expanse," Alcon had to find a new home for it, but that seemed a difficult task given the show had already run for three seasons.

"It was really quite dark," Anvar recalls of that period of uncertainty.

"We all had our hugs and kisses and walked away and were looking for other work."

Enter the fans, who quickly pulled together a team to do graphic design, copywriting, video editing, publicity and social media for their "Save the Expanse" campaign.

Anvar wrote a press release announcing plans to fly the banner to ensure video and photo coverage of it from the ground.

"I was like, 'Damn, this is way too good to end,'" says Anvar, a self-proclaimed "huge science-fiction nerd and fan" who studied bioengineering, biochemistry and psychiatry before getting into acting.

As luck would have it, Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos was also a fan of the show, and by the end of June the company had picked up "The Expanse" as its own original series for season 4.

Production began just a few months later returning to Toronto, which producers say has been the perfect multicultural location to find the diverse mix of cast members needed for the story.

Amazon also has seasons 1-3 of "The Expanse" and has been "extraordinarily supportive," say the producers.

They feel being on a streaming service allows the dense storylines to play out with more authenticity and in the way they were meant to be watched: in bingeable format and commercial-free, much like a long-form movie.

"It's like driving with your emergency brake on and now somebody's let the emergency brake off and we can actually drive the car," says Kosove.

Shankar, who is also the showrunner, says they're now able to do things they weren't able to on basic cable.

"We don't have runtime restrictions anymore ... and there aren't content restrictions (on) nudity, language, all of those things that conspire to make shows seem bogus and phoney on other platforms."

Season 4 picks up where season 3 ended but has "a brand new type of energy and perspective," says Anvar, one of many Canadian cast members who've been on the show. Others have included Cara Gee, Shawn Doyle, and Jamaal Grant.

The new episodes follow the crew of the Rocinante spaceship on a mission from the United Nations to explore new worlds. Meanwhile, a refugee crisis continues as tensions rise between Earth, Mars and citizens of the resource-heavy Asteroid Belt.

Anvar says he's attended space conferences in the past two years on behalf of "The Expanse" and feels the show is a good predictor of what may lie ahead.

"People are looking at 'The Expanse' as kind of a blueprint, as a business card in terms of what the future might be like," says Anvar, whose character struggles to connect with his family as he dedicates himself to his job this season.

"'Star Trek' influenced a lot of the science and the technology and the advancements in our current era and I think 'The Expanse' is doing the exact same thing for the next generation of exploration."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 9, 2019.

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