Extant episode 1 review: Re-Entry

Review Holly Hogan 11 Jul 2014 - 07:06

Holly finds new Spielberg-produced sci-fi Extant feat. Halle Berry ripe with exciting potential...

This review contains spoilers.

1.1 Re-Entry

After months of cinematic trailers, the Spielberg-produced pilot of Extant has made its tropetastic debut. In its wake, the first episode of the much-hyped show leaves equal parts hope for a compelling, distinctive sci-fi hit and potential for a confusing, convoluted flop.

Leading an impressive cast, Halle Berry is Dr Molly Woods, an astronaut who has spent the last thirteen months in a space station. Upon her return, though her mission was supposedly a solo one, she is informed by her doctor/friend (Camryn Manheim) that she is pregnant.

But, not so fast if you think the show is going to automatically plunge into Rosemary’s Baby...in Space! Much world-building ensues, and what a world it is. In an advanced but not-terribly-distant future, there are TV projections in bathroom mirrors, very impressive home trash compactors, photos that animate à la Harry Potter, and myriad other futuristic touches that constantly establish just how far technology has come by this time.

As Molly begins to navigate her re-entry into this world that she left over a year before, there appear to be almost as many mysteries at home as perhaps she found in space. For one, what’s up with her stoic-faced son, Ethan?

Ethan is played by Pierce Gagnon, whom you may recognize from Looper - another futuristic sci-fi in which he plays another disturbingly serious kid with possibly-world-altering issues. In this case, though, young Gagnon’s poker face is even more appropriate - as it turns out, Ethan is not quite human.

Or is he? Ethan is the prototype that poses what is clearly going to be one of the show’s fundamental questions - just what constitutes humanity? Molly’s husband, Dr John Woods (Goran Visnjic), is pioneering a companion robot project, Humanichs, and is desperate for funding. In their world, he says, there are many helpful automatons - medi-bots, task androids - but what about warmth and our need for real interaction? Cute robot kid Ethan and his potential robot siblings, John would have potential donors believe, could very well fill the Uncanny-Valley-sized void in the human experience.

Ethan soon proves to be less than warm and cuddly, however, and Molly is currently the only one who sees so, which becomes an immediate strain on her return to family life. Her scary robot child and mystery space pregnancy, though, aren’t her only problems. There’s a 13-hour gap in the footage from her mission, and none of her superiors believe it’s just an accidental deletion. Already hiding the physical examination that revealed her pregnancy, Molly must now undergo mandatory psychological evaluations - sessions that she is unaware are being simulcasted not only to her higher-ups, but also to the mysterious Mr Yasumoto, a CEO who has just agreed to privately fund Humanichs for John.

Because circumstances are obviously a little too straightforward so far, via flashback to the spaceship we learn that Molly did not actually delete the missing footage on accident. Upon waking from a three-hour blackout, she had discovered that the film showed her interaction with her assumed-dead previous husband, Marcus - an interaction that she disorientedly recalls, but that takes place on film without any sign of Marcus at all.

Oh, and she’s also talking to her dead colleague Harmon when she takes the trash out at night.

Molly’s mental state is the filter through which we view this new world, and the pilot doesn’t tip its hand yet as to whether or not her perspective is reliable. Instead of just facing fairly standard reacclimation issues, she is instantly immersed into the constant questioning of her reality - what did she really see on the spaceship Seraphim? Is Ethan the tantrum-throwing, bird-murdering sociopath he seems to be when she is alone with him? Where do John’s allegiances lie? Did Harmon indeed not commit suicide, and should she heed his warning?

The mysteries of her personal turmoil only raise much more provocative questions. Shiny toys aside, this future-world is at a crisis point. In the space of an hour, Extant brings up the possibilities of conception via alien, the production of robots with all the essential trappings of humans, and the outright prospect of said robots’ uprising. Yet, this is still a world in which exist the very real human complexities of infertility, mental health issues, corporate power struggles, even the eternal search for what “life” and “soul” truly mean. The human toll of finding the answers, it appears, will likely be devastating.

Sure, Extant is derivative - off the top of my head, I can recall tips of the hat to 2001, Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen, Battlestar Galactica, AI, LOST, The X Files, Solaris, even I Know What You Did Last Summer (possibly a stretch, but that was my immediate thought when she opened the anonymous note in the park), and several more. The show has exciting potential, though, to be more a worthy heir than an ersatz copy.

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