Extant, the Halle Berry SF vehicle that tried to impress us this summer, turned out to be one of those cases of having all the right elements… and somehow just not using them right.
Part of me is glad we got it… the part that recognizes an attempt at serious science fiction television for what it is, that appreciates spending enough money to turn in good special effects and bring in actors who can act, that appreciates television producers willing to look further than the last successful movie waiting to be remade.
Nonetheless, I’m sorry it tripped over its own feet and did a header in our living rooms.
I can’t fault the premise about mind-influencing alien spores trying to reach Earth. I’ve heard much worse. I thought the series did a great job with its technology of just a few years ahead of today (heck, I’d be an incredible hypocrite if I criticized technology so very much like the tech I’ve described in Sarcology and Chasing the Light). And I thought the series had a good balance of characters, played very effectively by the actors.
All of my criticism, therefore, goes into the story. It may have been a team of sophomore writers given this project; or maybe the original story was sub-par, and the writers weren’t given enough time to clean it up. Or maybe the producers wouldn’t allow it, meddling with the writers and the story until it came out the hash that it did. I don’t know, I wasn’t there (though, I suppose, someone will tell us eventually).
All I do know is that we were presented with characters whose actions and motivations were highly questionable, situations that bordered on sitcom-style improbable, dialogue that was occasionally painful, thoroughly wasted SF elements, and a non-ending that was clearly intended to be the beginning of a new series about astronaut Molly chasing a shape-shifting alien around the country, aided by her son the robot, living his life from within the inter-tubes.
Experts always warn new writers against coming up with a cool “what if?” concept, developing your characters and settings to the limit, then not putting enough effort into the story itself. In science fiction, the temptation (and the sad result) is even more significant. I’ve got a number of “what if?” ideas that I know are completely useless until I find a story to pit them against. And until I have that story, I won’t start on it. Extant feels like exactly that: A great “What if?” concept that wasn’t actually finished; and at the end, it looked it.
Without doing a complete play-by-play of the miniseries, I’m just going to point out the parts that bugged me the most:
Molly Woods, right off. Here’s a trained astronaut and scientist who is first forced into a hallucination of her dead lover, destroys the evidence of said encounter and doesn’t report it (despite the obvious fact that there might have been a station malfunction that caused her hallucination and needs to be repaired), returns from a solo mission to be told she’s pregnant (despite being infertile), and even after she confirms that the thing inside her is alien and willing to kill, she still acts like this product of an alien rape is a legitimate human child deserving of her love and protection. I would’ve been: “Thank GODD you got that thing out of me. Now I can get busy suing the entire U.S. government out of its socks for knowingly putting me in the position of being raped by an alien in the first place.” And by the way, if you’re going to hire one of the most beautiful actresses in the country for your show’s lead, maybe you don’t want her spending 90% of her time onscreen with that deer-in-the-headlights expression.
- The mission. I’m sorry, but there is simply no way in the world that it makes sense to send an astronaut into “deep space”, the most dangerous environment there is, on a solo mission. I don’t care how good of a conversationalist the computer program BEN is; the chance of a disaster happening because there is only one set of hands up there is downright guaranteed. And tending plants? You can do plant tests in low-Earth orbit… fine, go a little higher to get outside of the Val Allen Belt. (Then it turned out the Seraphim wasn’t that deep at all, but could be returned to Earth on maneuvering thrusters. Make up your minds.)
- The IASA. An organization of total incompetents. They build space stations that allow astronauts to manually delete on-board surveillance footage that they cannot recover. They actually don’t know why it makes more sense to send 2-3 astronauts on a mission, to work in shifts, back each other up and render assistance when needed (like when aliens show up to rape them). One of their chief security people is a drug addict. Their ground security is lax enough to let a famous man, a late astronaut who is supposed to be dead, waltz right in with a stolen set of fingerprints (read my post on biometric security some time). They don’t know how to secure a lab designed to study life forms of possible alien origin. And they send lone individuals into space on big shuttles designed to hold multiple astronauts and cargo… waste resources much?
- Sparks. The IASA head watched his daughter die in space, then sets in motion a plan to get that daughter-killing alien to Earth, riding in Molly’s uterus. He has been led around by hallucinations of his dead daughter… he knows she isn’t real, because she appears as a child to him… and he is actually okay with that. He recruits his ex-wife to help him, she sees the child-version of her dead daughter… and she is actually okay with that.
- John Woods. Brilliant robotics engineer and a master of disaster in relationships. He doesn’t know how to reassure or support his wife. He snaps at his assistant for being over-protective of Ethan, the robot boy he’s become even more overprotective of. When he talks to Ethan, he tries to talk to him as if Ethan is a human boy… but every time, he uses words that make it painfully clear (to Ethan and to the viewer) that he’s a toaster. This guy had zero chemistry with anyone else on the show. I refuse to believe that anyone as socially inept as this guy would’ve landed Molly, gotten a grant to build his robot, and be allowed to take it home and call it “son.”
- Hideki Yasumoto. He funded and assisted Sparks in his efforts to secure the alien, because he once touched remnants of a meteor that extended his life by decades. No relation to the spores, by the way. Once this fact is revealed, Hideki and his backstory vanish into “What the hell was that?” TV limbo.
- Ethan. The modern Pinocchio that you’re convinced must be a major part of this plot… are told as much in every episode opening voiceover… only to find, at the end, that he blew up and ended up in the web. I emphasize: He is never. Critical. To this story. An adopted child would’ve worked as well. It would’ve allowed them to ditch the stupid anti-robot terrorist side-story that made me cringe when I watched any part of it. A copy of BEN would have sufficed for the ubiquitous net assistant set to follow Molly around. He’s a pointless distraction to the show’s premise and should have been left on the concept room floor.
I could go on (unfortunately), but I’m sure I’ve made my point. Extant was just not ready for prime time, no matter how pretty it (or Halle Berry) looked. Yes, an ongoing series may have closed up some of the plot holes we witnessed; but not most of the things I singled out above. The miniseries won some acclaim when it was released… certainly an indication of how bad a year it’s been for science fiction television and how short people’s memories are (if Person of Interest or Orphan Black had been airing its new season at the same time, I’m convinced Extant would’ve been laughed out of the room).
But, man, it was this close to being good. Next time, give the writers the time they need to do a proper job. Then maybe we’d have been watching that series all winter…
On the other hand… we have seen that series. It was called Starman. Or was it The Phoenix? The Powers of Matthew Star?
Y’know what? Maybe it’s just as well.
Did you see Extant? What did you think?