As we rush towards The Expanse sixth and final episode of its sixth and final season – airing this Friday, January 14 – I can’t help but think of one thing: how many of this season’s pivotal moments revolved around pressing the wrong button on a touchscreen .
“If it turns out the touchscreen is the hero of the show, then we’ve really failed,” showrunner Naren Shankar says, telling me he objects to my entire line of questioning.
I wouldn’t say they failed! I enjoyed the whole season, although it was a bit cramped. i’m excited for the game, too much. But it’s been 15 years since Steve Jobs presented the first iPhone, and hopefully touchscreens won’t always trip us up in about 300 years. Unfortunately, like many excellent series, it’s too plausible.
I spoke to Shankar and writers/writers/showrunners Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham about these user interfaces last month. Moreover, I pestered them to know if and how The extent could come back.
But first, you probably want to know what I’m talking about regarding touchscreens. And that requires spoilers.
Spoiler warning: This story contains major spoilers for The Expanse season 6, episodes 1-5. If you are caught, you are good; I won’t talk about episode 6 at all.
At the end of The extent season 5, Camina Drummer and her Belter crew are on the run, having defected from Marco Inaros and his Free Navy. He effectively forced them to join or die, but they decided not to become his weapons.
They are tired. Exhausted. So tired that in the midst of a carefully planned ambush necessary to escape the clutches of the Free Navy, Michio stabs the wrong touchscreen button. Not just any bad button either: instead of detonating the enemy, it sends out a signal that reveals their exact position. “What did you do?” The drummer screams.
This single action sets up the entire chain of events for Drummer’s crew up to episode 5. Critically low on supplies (they had to blow up two salvageable ships to save themselves, using physical buttons, I might add) and after deciding they need to unload the mentally weary Michio after the touchscreen debacle, they find themselves making an uneasy alliance with another Belter captain. He leads them to exactly what Drummer needs to undermine Marco Inaros’ credibility.
I’m all for this plot, though I’m the kind of person who would never be trusted to stab a touchscreen in a moving vehicle. (Volume modules, please!)
2) Touchscreen drone controls
We now know that the mysterious new world Laconia, accessible from our solar system via the Ring Gate, is home to intelligent lifeforms with the power to fix things…and maybe even people. At the start of Episode 5, the “Dogs” appear to have helped precocious little girl Cara bring her brother back from the dead – one of the biggest revelations of what humanity might be capable of. The Expanse.
What gave him the idea to drag his brother’s corpse into the desert? A long time ago in Episode 2, she was flying a drone with touchscreen controls (already a bad idea if you ask me!), pushes the joystick in the wrong direction without looking at the drone’s surroundings, and it hits a tree branch and crashes to the ground. But when she returns in episode 3, she finds that the dogs have fixed her drone (as well as an alien chick she befriended and accidentally killed).
Go on, The extent: we already had autonomous drones that could have dodged this branch in 2019, let alone 2350.
3) The failed torpedo
This one is 100% intentional. At the end of Episode 3, the Rocinante has miraculously escaped the clutches of Marco Inaros (thanks to a combination of superior firepower, piloting, and luck) and is ready to deliver a killing blow…but after having firing a nuclear torpedo, Holden quickly and secretly disables the nuclear portion of his touchscreen wrist computer to avoid killing Naomi’s son. The torpedo does not explode, temporarily convincing everyone it was a dud – except the ship’s computer and the eventually recovered torpedo keep a record of Holden’s clearance in their logs.
You can argue whether Holden made the right choice or not, and in general I like how The extentThe interfaces automatically present commands that their owners could use next, such as quickly opening, locking, and unlocking doors on board a ship. But again, it’s a pivotal moment where pressing one button on a touchscreen instead of another has lasting repercussions.
Bonus: Holden’s Hammer
Twenty-five minutes into Episode 1, shortly after Michio’s touchscreen button fails, Holden is standing on an asteroid that has been fitted with its own engine so the Free Navy can pull him down to Earth. Suddenly, that engine starts firing… and without having time to react, Holden just smashes that fucking thing with a lever until it stops.
So I asked the writers and showrunners: how, exactly, have user interfaces hurt you?
“I’ve done nearly 10 years of front-line technical support; user interfaces and I are going to die with our teeth in each other’s necks”, replies Daniel Abraham.
“And I will challenge the issue,” says Naren Shankar (as I mentioned before). “Yes, they all involve buttons,” he admits, “but the scene is about the emotional decision to press a button.”
“What we should have done was go back and have a bunch of these switches,” Abraham jokes. “Old toggle switches and all,” agrees Ty Franck. “I wish we had a lot more of these buttons on the show.”
“But to be more serious for a second, all of those moments you cite are pretty emotionally driven, extremely in two of the cases. […] That’s how they fly the ship. Sometimes they do certain things while talking to it, that doesn’t mean it’s always a voice-to-text analyzer,” adds Shankar.
“Except in the Solomon Epstein one we did, it was totally the voice analyzer’s fault,” Franck says, I think, though I started to lose track as they spoke to each other. It refers to how season 2, episode 6 recalls how an engineer accidentally invented long-distance space travel and dies because he can’t turn off the engine; he disabled his crappy voice analyzer before launch, and the g-forces are too strong for him to reach the other controls.
What do touchscreens mean to you?
“It’s kind of the same question as ‘why do we use guns instead of laser blasters or something?'” Abraham says. “There’s kind of a technological endpoint that you can reach where something works well and then you stick with it. We have cartridge guns in The Expanse because they work very well; they’re sort of the personal armament sharks.
“What we’re positing here is that these touchscreens and these types of interfaces are robust and work well in these kinds of conditions, where to tune into your brain, maybe not so much? Speech, shouting commands to the ship, it’s cool, but it’s kind of a shitty interface in practice,” he adds.
“Humans interact with the world at their fingertips. There are millions of years of evolution behind it – our fingers are connected to our brain differently than any other part of us,” Franck adds. “When we want to accomplish something, our first instinct is to reach out, touch something and manipulate. with their fingers… so when I see something where people are no longer using their hands to do the job, it seems wrong to me, it’s ignoring the realities of what humans do as biological entities.
All that said, The extentThe writers and showrunners caution that they’re not trying to predict the future. “Science fiction is about at the age it is being written. We tried to keep what we did plausible, but I don’t know if we’re really aiming to say how a fusion engine will really work, how stealth technology will really work. I’ve always said we’ve reached Wikipedia’s level of plausibility,” says Abraham.