Major networks always seem to struggle with science fiction dramas. They offer audiences slick, glossy futures filled with flying cars and Blade Runner-esque neon cityscapes. Or the creative pendulum swings the other direction, and audiences are given crumbling civilizations and dystopian struggles for survival. However, these exercises in world-building are usually marred by flat characters who are “types” rather than people – the ever-present hollow core that can’t prevent the collapse of an otherwise interesting premise. Sure, it’s cool to look at, but there’s no real investment in the outcome.
Extant, the summer science fiction drama from CBS, mostly avoids these common pitfalls and proves to be compelling despite its flaws. The high-tech future isn’t overdone. This version of the United States is littered with self-driving cars, smart mirrors, and swanky transparent tablets that are all believable extensions of our present technology. And finding an Oscar-winning actress (Halle Berry) to play our protagonist, astronaut Molly Woods, also provides some emotional grounding for the proceedings.
Quality science fiction takes a well-rounded look at the many facets of society – politics, religion, ethics, and societal mores. Extant offers a plotline concerning robots that can develop sentient intelligence. Molly’s husband, John, is the pioneer of the program, and we learn the couple solved their infertility problems when he created their artificially intelligent “son”, Ethan. It’s unclear if this plotline will offer some existential depth by exploring the nature of life and what it means to be human, or if Ethan will simply become a Damian-like thriller device. The answer may be disappointingly obvious given that Pierce Gagnon (Looper) plays Ethan with hints of a sinister edge.
In the post-Lost television landscape, a science fiction show isn’t a science fiction show without a mysterious backstory and some nefarious conspiracies. Extant dutifully covers those bases. Molly returns from a 13-month solo mission in space to learn that she is pregnant. With only a HAL-like computer to keep her company throughout her voyage, she knows conception was not possible.
But what happened during the 13-hour gap in her chronological log when the ship’s electronic systems crashed due to a solar flare? Molly saw her deceased ex-husband onboard the ship, but the video from the surveillance cams shows Molly floating in a trance, interacting with a figment of her imagination. With the video footage deleted, Molly buys herself time to try to solve the mystery of her pregnancy. After returning to Earth, she receives a note from an anonymous source that says: I know what happened to you. Contact soon.
In a topical play on the current state of the aerospace industry, Molly is in the employ of a civilian corporation instead of a government agency. It’s too early to tell if her employer is an evil mega-corp or just a normal mega-corp. However, her boss spies on her therapy sessions and even offers her husband a private grant for his robotics research, so he can keep tabs on their family. Hiroyuki Sanada (Helix) appears to have the market cornered on playing enigmatic Asian scientists. Thankfully, he does it well.
Extant was likely born of creative necessity due to its network’s desire to find their next Under the Dome. The sci-fi/horror thriller struck ratings gold last summer, and Extant appears to be their bid to capture summer lightning in a bottle a second time. Dome floundered under the weight of endlessly stringing out a one-note mystery for week after week. Hopefully Extant will broaden its scope over its 13-episode run. Spending twelve more episodes waiting to find out what happened to Molly during her blackout would only serve to put the audience directly in Molly’s shoes. We’d all have thirteen hours in our past we’d prefer to forget.
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.