While we go to The Expanse’s Sixth and final episode of the sixth and final season – airing Friday, January 14 – I can’t stop thinking about one thing: how many of this season’s pivotal moments revolved around pressing the wrong button on a touchscreen.
“If it turns out that the touchscreen is the hero of the show, we’ve really failed,” says showrunner Naren Shankar, who tells me he objects to my entire way of asking questions.
I wouldn’t say they failed! I enjoyed the whole season, even if it felt a little… cramped. I’m also interested in the game. But it’s been 15 years since Steve Jobs introduced the first iPhone, and I really hope touchscreens don’t still trip us up in another 300 years or so. Unfortunately, like many of the excellent series, it’s all too plausible.
I spoke to Shankar and authors/writers/showrunners Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham last month about those user interfaces. Also, I harassed them about if and how? the vastness could return.
But first, you probably want to know what I’m talking about: touchscreens. And that requires spoilers.
Spoiler Warning: This story contains huge spoilers for The Expanse Season 6, Episodes 1-5. If you’re overtaken, you’re fine; I won’t mention episode 6 at all.
1) Those buttons are right next to each other
At the end of the vastness 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. dazed. So tired that in the midst of a carefully planned ambush needed to escape the clutches of the Free Navy, Michio the wrong touchscreen button. Not just any wrong button: instead of blasting the enemy to scrap, it sends out a signal revealing their exact position. “What have you done?” Drummer screams.
This single action kicks off the entire chain of events for Drummer’s crew through 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 had to unload the mentally weary Michio after the touchscreen debacle, they find themselves a form an uneasy alliance with another Belter captain. He leads them to exactly what Drummer needs to undermine Marco Inaros’ credibility.
I’m totally fine with this plot, even if I’m the kind of person who would never trust myself to stick a touchscreen in a moving vehicle. (Volume dials, please!)
2) Drone control with touch screen
We now know that the mysterious new world of Laconia, accessible from our solar system through the Ring Gate, is home to intelligent life forms with the power to fix things… and maybe even people. At the start of Episode 5, the “dogs” appear to have helped precocious girl Cara bring her brother back from the dead – one of the biggest revelations about what humanity could be capable of in The vastness.
What gave her the idea of dragging her brother’s corpse into the wilderness? Way back in episode 2, she flew a touchscreen drone (a bad idea if you ask me!), pushes the joystick the wrong way 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 repaired her drone (as well as an alien chick she befriended and accidentally killed).
Come on, the vastness: We already had self-flying drones that could have evaded that branch in 2019, let alone 2350.
3) The Dud Torpedo
This one is 100 percent intentional. At the end of Episode 3, The Rocinante has miraculously slipped from the clutches of Marco Inaros (thanks to a combination of superior firepower, pilot and luck) and is ready to deliver a deadly blow… Having fired a nuclear torpedo, Holden quickly and secretly disables the nuke portion of his touchscreen wrist computer to avoid killing Naomi’s son. The torpedo fails to explode, temporarily convincing everyone that it was a dud – except that both the ship’s computer and the eventually recovered torpedo keep Holden’s permission in their logbooks.
You can argue whether Holden made the right choice or not, and in general I love how the vastness‘s interfaces automatically bring up the controls that their owners can then use, such as quickly opening, locking and unlocking doors on board a ship. But again, it’s a crucial moment when pressing a button on a touchscreen instead of another has lasting effects.
Bonus: Holden’s hammer
Twenty-five minutes after Episode 1, shortly after Michio’s touchscreen button went down, Holden is standing on an asteroid equipped with its own engine so that the Free Navy can fire it at Earth. Suddenly that engine starts to crank… and with no time to react, Holden crushes the damn thing with a crowbar until it stops.
What the writers of The Expanse had to say
So I asked the authors and showrunners: how exactly did user interfaces hurt you?
“I’ve been doing frontline technical support for almost 10 years; user interfaces and I’m going to die with our teeth on each other’s necks,” Daniel Abraham replies.
“And I’m going to question the question,” Naren Shankar says (as I said). “Yeah, they’re all about buttons,” he admits, “but the scene is about the emotional decision to push a button.”
“What we should have done was go back and have a bunch of those switches,” Abraham jokes. “The old toggle switches and everything,” agrees Ty Franck. “I wish we had a lot more of those buttons in the show.”
“But to be a little more serious, all those moments you quote are quite emotionally motivated, extreme in two of the cases. […] That’s how they fly the ship. Sometimes they do some things by talking to it, but that doesn’t mean it’s always a speech-to-text parser,” adds Shankar.
“Except in the Solomon Epstein version that we did, that was entirely the fault of the voice parser,” Franck says, I think, though I’m starting to lose track as they’re talking at the same time. He references how season 2 episode 6 flashes back to how an engineer accidentally invented long-range space travel and dies because he can’t turn off the engine; he disabled his crappy voice parser before launching, 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 are we using guns instead of laser blasters or something like that?'” Abraham says. “There’s kind of a technology endpoint that you can get to where something works well, and then you kind of stick with it. We have cartridge guns in The Expanse because they work really well; they are a bit like the sharks of personal weapons.”
“What we’re arguing here is that these touchscreens and interfaces like this are robust and work well in these kinds of conditions, where you might not penetrate your brain as much? Speech, yelling commands at the ship is cool, but in practice it’s it’s a bit of a bad interface,” he adds.
“People communicate with the world with their fingertips. There’s millions of years of evolution behind that — our fingers are connected to our brains differently than any other part of us,” says Franck. “When we want to achieve something, our first instinct is to reach out and touch and manipulate something with their fingers…so when I see something where people no longer use their hands to do their job, it feels like False to me, it ignores the reality of what humans do as biological entities.”
That all said, the vastnessThe authors and showrunners caution that they are not trying to predict the future. “Science fiction is about the era in which it was written. We’ve tried to be plausible about what we’ve done, but I don’t know if we really want to say how a fusion drive will actually work, how stealth technology will really work. I’ve always said we’ve reached a Wikipedia level of plausibility,” says Abraham.