Origin review: a fascinating sci-fi world with less-than fascinating characters

YouTube Premium’s big original drama push has moments of greatness but will ultimately feel familiar to sci-fi fans...

This review is of episode one and episode two.

The grandparent of all streaming platforms and media juggernaut that it is, YouTube has yet to conquer the original programming sphere. Battling against the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime with its YouTube Premium service, Origin has been positioned as the show to change all that.

A group of strangers wake up early on a ship that was supposed to take them to a new planet. The trip has been arranged by an organisation called Siren, but something has gone wrong on the way and all but a few of the crew and passengers have been evacuated. Those who remain must uncover the truth of their present while also contending with the demons of their past.

We’re quickly told that the characters on board were all told their pasts would be erased should they choose to help colonise a new world, making their individual histories one of Origin’s central mysteries. But was this even the truth, or might Siren have had ulterior motives from the beginning?

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The structure of these first episodes, and presumably the rest of the series, will feel strikingly familiar to anyone who’s seen Lost. Even the sound effect used when characters stare off into space and enter their own expository flashback is the same, and it’s a comparison that doesn’t do Origin any favours.

Right now Origin’s greatest strength and biggest problem is its characters, both the amount of them introduced in these first episodes and the lack of reasons to care about those who haven’t had their backstory spelled out. It’s an issue that will presumably fade with time as, by the end of the first two hours, its disgraced bodyguard Lana (Natalia Tena) and ex-Mafia lackey Shun (model Sen Mitsuji in his first TV role) who feel like our de facto protagonists, entirely because we know them so much better than their fellow passengers.

And because the flashbacks are set in a future world that’s so inventive and detailed, it’s often disappointing to return to the ship after spending time there. The cityscapes, futuristic touches on familiar things and small background moments make this world feel utterly lived in and exciting, and may alone make the show a must-see for sci-fi fans. The main body of the story is far less interesting.

So far parts of the series set on the ship is much more focused on jump scares and light body horror than any real drama, and the show could stand to even its tone out a bit. An ensemble sci-fi like this lives or dies on its human drama and relationships, and its this distinction that has prevented so many hopefuls from replicating the success of something like Lost. We have to care.

But when Origin gets it right, it’s just a tonne of fun. The slightly scrappy nature of the series works in its favour, with fresh talent both in front of and behind the camera (the show’s writer and creator Mika Watkins has only a few credits to her name) lending it a freshness that could set it apart for viewers.

Similarly, beginning the series with Shun’s story is a brilliant decision, not least because it throws us into the enticing urban environment of future Japan. It also establishes the concept of why so many people would elect to leave Earth and populate an entirely new planet. They’ve either lost everything that matters to them, or they’re running away from past sins – for Shun it’s both. Mitsuji is also the stand-out of the cast so far, and makes a great leading man.

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Origin benefits from a truly diverse cast, with recognisable British stars like Tom Felton and Tena joined by little known or unknown actors of various ages, genders, ethnicities and body types. Thankfully this means that flashbacks will be able to show us new locales and countries, and explore how those cultures may have developed in this imagined future.

While there are great moments and elements of mystery present in Origin’s opening, the strategy of playing too many cards close to its chest may push audiences unwilling or unable to binge the show’s ten episodes in one sitting away to something less taxing. While understandable in this world oversaturated in ‘content’, based on this small snippet it might be a mistake to give up on this carefully crafted world and its characters before they have time to unveil themselves fully.

The first two episodes of Origin are available now for free (see links above), with subsequent episodes available to YouTube Premium subscribers.