Opening with a shot of a space shuttle, recently retired but through recent decades the symbol of America’s space programme and easily the only real spaceship recognisable to a modern generation, the first fully reusable launch and re-entry craft, the implication is that Extant is not to be set in some far distant future nor is it to be a space fantasy, that instead it is both grounded and relatively contemporary. Yet the shuttle is only a flying toy, piloted by young Ethan Woods, adopted son of astronaut Molly, recently returned to Earth after thirteen months on a solo mission aboard the Seraphim space station and her cyberneticist husband John.
A career scientist working for the International Space Exploration Agency, it is trying to adjust back to family life which is the challenge for Molly; she feels that both he and Ethan have grown apart from her during her year in space, something she had not anticipated, and John’s work has brought him to a meeting with a powerful corporation to seek funding for his groundbreaking work, increasing the pressure at home.
And there are more surprises for Molly, not the least of which when her physician informs her that she is pregnant, an impossibility for two reasons, having previously been told that she can never have children, quite aside from her total isolation in a floating tin can throughout the previous year. Requesting Doctor Gelineau keep that information strictly between them for the time being, Molly attends her mission debriefing where she is questioned about the missing log entries when the Seraphim suffered a system blackout during a solar flare event.
Apologising for the gap, she confirms the systems did restore but explains that it was when she was backing up the logs after the incident it was her own error which deleted thirteen hours of logs, but Molly is lying; during that time period she experienced something at odds with the recordings which she could not reconcile which she felt compelled to conceal and which could be connected with her unexpected pregnancy.
With the meanings of the title including not having disappeared, still alive, not extinct, those definitions extend to the show itself, a curious mix of event television with huge names attached – star Halle Berry and executive producer Steven Spielberg, with the sumptuous production values that implies – yet with the oddly mannered performances of the science fiction of the eighties and nineties, a throwback to the age before Battlestar Galactica demonstrated that science fiction has more impact when the characters expose their raw anger, disappointment and failings with the audience rather than behaving as well adjusted individuals who spend as much time with their analysts as in their ergonomic, soft lit offices.
First seen suffering from morning sickness, though she does not yet realise it, saliva dribbling down her chin as she purges her breakfast before struggling to her feet to escort Ethan to a party, that scene is the farthest Berry strays from safe territory in the opening episode; this is not to be a reinvention of the Hollywood star from her cultivated public image of glamour, sophistication and professionalism. Despite her casting as an experienced astronaut, the focus in Re-Entry is on Molly as housewife and mother, the flashback scene where she is shown panicking and deliberately wiping the video logs at odds with the trained scientist she is supposed to be.
With aspects of the recently remade classic Rosemary’s Baby and The Astronaut’s Wife, somewhat less than classic, another key touchstone both visually and thematically is Spielberg’s own AI – Artificial Intelligence, especially when Goran Višnjic‘s John makes his presentation on humatics to the powerful Yasumoto corporation, bridging the gap between humanity and machine in which Ethan is key to the demonstration. It may be Berry’s name on the poster, but so far it is Višnjic‘s confrontational character who drives the story.
With John‘s science pitted against the intractable and ultimately irrelevant argument that “machines don‘t have souls,” there is more at play here, for despite the apparent clean and healthy utopia in which they live, recycling points on every suburban corner, the final scenes recall the seventies paranoia of Capricorn One, indicating a conspiracy which apparently extends beyond the walls of the ISEA.
The logic and feasibility of a thirteen month solo mission in space with no backup in case of emergency or emotional support set aside as a narrative necessity, so far Extant is solid rather than outstanding but despite the pensive tone of the pilot directed by Allen Coulter should the show develop the required momentum and if creator and episode writer Mickey Fisher has a clear path it has the potential to be one of the superior genre offerings of the current season.
Extant launches exclusively on Amazon Prime Instant Video Thursday 10th July