Extant Series Premiere Review: Aliens, Robots, and Ghosts, Oh My!
CBS's new alien drama Extant stars big-named actors like Academy Award winner Halle Berry, ER alum Goran Visnjic, and The Practice vet Camryn Manheim. It's executive-produced by Steven Spielberg. But there's one name in the credits you won't recognize: Mickey Fisher. Extant is Fisher's first job in television; he won a screenwriting competition with the pilot script that eventually became Extant's "Re-Entry," and now he's running a splashy limited-event series on CBS. Let this be a lesson to you, kids: One day you could be selling your knitted socks out of the back of your van while doodling in your diary, and the next day your alien baby drama could be picked up by a major broadcast network. Dare to dream!
From one perspective, Fisher is a living, breathing motivational poster, proof that aspiring screenwriters should never give up hope, and that if they work hard all their dreams will eventually come true. From another perspective, depending on how well Extant performs over the next 13 weeks, he's a cautionary tale, reminding CBS and writers alike that there's a reason it's really tough to get a TV show on the air. Given the quality and direction of the pilot, I'd bet that Fisher is likely somewhere in between.
Extant bills itself as a science-fiction thriller that tells the story of Molly (Berry), an infertile astronaut who returns home to her scientist husband John (Visnjic) and android son Ethan (Looper's Pierce Gagnon) after a 13-month solo mission in space. As she attempts to readapt to life on Earth, she's startled to learn that she's pregnant. Whoops! Talk about awkward—how do you have that conversation with your husband? More importantly, how does that even happen? Well, it's actually quite easily explained.
As "Re-Entry" showed us, at some point during Molly's mission, a man who looked like Molly's known-to-be-dead ex-boyfriend appeared on the space station asking for help and generally acting super weird. So, like any sane person would do in such a situation, Molly opened the hatch, let him in, caressed his face, cried a bit, and then they got busy (technical term). I don't really know what happened, truthfully, and neither does Molly for that matter—we saw all this happen during a flashback, which involved some very confusing shenanigans recorded over the course of 13 hours of security camera footage that Molly eventually erased. All I know is that I sat through a health class in high school and I'm told that's how babies are made so until I'm told otherwise, that's my story and I'm sticking to it.
Molly's (probably alien) pregnancy is only a small part of the mystery at the heart of Extant, however. A former colleague of Molly's at the International Space Exploration Agency (the government has outsourced the space program to the private sector in Extant's version of the future) experienced something odd during his own solo mission, and after returning to Earth, he eventually took his own life—or so we're supposed to believe. He's actually still alive and kicking, creepin' in Molly's driveway and delivering ominous warnings to trust no one (so far, all signs point to him not being pregnant, though). And it's the question of what happened to each of them that Extant promises to explore, which gives the series the "thriller" part of its description. On that same note, the ISEA knows there's something fishy going on, and that Molly's and her former colleague's stories are somehow connected, and they're doing their own investigation while putting on smiles that are just as fake as that of their newly returned and inexplicably preggers space bunny.
Extant isn't just about alien babies, though. It's about all forms of life, up to and including artificial intelligence. Because Molly couldn't conceive a child, John built them a robot kiddo, and he's played to creepy perfection by Gagnon. "Re-Entry" hinted at future storylines when it addressed a hypothetical situation in which androids like Ethan eventually rebel against their creators. The idea of a robot uprising is wholly unoriginal in science-fiction, and it's something we've seen countless times before, but just like the cylons in Syfy's Battlestar Galactica, having him look and appear human brings to light the debate about what constitutes humanity. When a potential investor inquired about a contingency plan to shut down Ethan and any beings like him in the case of mass resistance, we found out there isn't one—and that John vehemently considers Ethan to be his son and not a machine. In contrast, Molly struggles with that notion, claiming that the kiddo can't love because he's only capable of executing commands that John has programmed into him.
As a viewer, we can already sense where this arc is headed, but the fact that Ethan is a child makes it a bit of a touchy subject. He's already showcasing violent tendencies toward other children as well as birds (he totally killed that bird in the woods, I don't care that he said otherwise, and also that bird totally had it coming because birds are gross and terrifying creatures who should be stopped before they join the robots and we all become slaves in their robot bird kingdom). However, since Ethan is a kid, this story feels a bit unlike the "rise of the machine" motifs we've seen before. Is Ethan acting out because he's a robot on the verge of rebelling and becoming uncontrollable, or is he acting out because that's just what kids do?
He's still a moody child who wants to choose his own ice cream, and who runs away from his mother because she won't buy him what he wants. Maybe it doesn't matter if he's a robot. Maybe in the future we still won't be able to stop kids from throwing temper tantrums in the park and that's just a natural part of life, real or artificial. So just as John insists that Ethan is a real boy, maybe it's his experiences that've made him that way. I hope Extant dives deeper into this idea of what makes us human, whether it's flesh and bone or just our shared experiences, because it's way more interesting than whatever's happening in Molly's uterus (unless, of course, she gives birth to an android baby, because that would be AWESOME).
It's probably accurate to describe Extant as the equivalent of a typical summer blockbuster: It won't be winning any awards anytime soon, but it will probably get a lot of eyeballs. At the outset, the series isn't bad—in fact, it appears to be a perfectly fine sci-fi drama by normal broadcast standards—but it does feel unoriginal and a bit slow-moving, which isn't great for a series that only has 13 episodes to tell its story. The pilot admittedly had to set up a futuristic world, but Extant is acting as if it has all the time in the world, and right now, it doesn't. It's certainly possible that CBS will eventually pull an Under the Dome and renew Extant for Season 2 if the ratings are good enough, but I'd rather see the series pick up the pace and charge full steam ahead for its remaining 12 episodes.
– Did you guys see what taking out the trash will be like in the future? I want that compactor for real. Someone make it happen.
– Also in our future: moving pictures, just like in Harry Potter! But to be honest, that kind of creeps me out.
– Random thought: Are there no new ideas in sci-fi now, meaning we have to keep recycling the same types of stories? Have we somehow hit on every possible theme? Shouldn't that kind of be impossible?
– What the HELL was up with Asian dude? I left him out of the review because I'm still confused as to what role he plays in all of this.
What did you think of "Re-Entry"? Will you be back for Episode 2?
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