The Extant pilot tells us very little we didn’t already know from the promos for the show—so it’s hard to get too worked up about the episode, even though as far as premises go, Extant interests me in a way a lot of other science-fiction pilots have failed to. Halle Berry goes to space. Several weird things occur. Then she leaves space, only to discover she is pregnant. That—the central mystery of the show—is the best thing about Extant, and it’s the best thing about this pilot, too. Partly because Berry’s character, Molly, is complicit in the mystery a bit more than was obvious in the trailers for the show: She deliberately hides what happened to her on the space station, because to expose it would mean endangering herself even further.
Well, to be exact: The best thing about Extant so far is that this intriguing central mystery hinges on a character that can be played by Halle Berry. Alien brought the idea of a female hero carrying a monstrous child to mainstream sci-fi, but Ripley is still a unique example. Seeing Molly wander around her spaceship talking to “Ben” is as unsettling as seeing Dave talk to HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but the contrast in their voices struck me: Molly’s is lighthearted and sibilant; Ben’s is similarly smooth, but octaves lower.
I’m not big on socially just casting as a pure end in and of itself—which is why Extant interested me right from the get-go. Berry’s character needs to be female for the mystery to take hold, and more: Her blackness is part of the story, not tangential to it. Molly’s a remarried widow; her first husband was black. Her current husband, and current child, are both white. (The child is an android. We’ll get there in a minute.) Even though Marcus, as Molly saw him in space, is likely not really Marcus at all, the fact that a child with him would not immediately look like a child with her current husband is significant; she can’t just brush this under the rug, and chalk it up to their reunion sex and a weird fluke of fertility.
The likely issue with Extant will be that it will not make enough of its mystery; often, once shows strike a chord with something creepy and cool, their instinct is to draw out the mystery for as long as is reasonably possible (and sometimes, as long as is unreasonably possible). Alias and Lost had a lot of fun with that—well, I assume it was fun for them, because it wasn’t fun for their viewers. I’m also reviewing The Leftovers over on HBO and what’s impressed me about that show is that it is somewhat uninterested in the mystery it created—it’s interest instead lies in how humans grapple with mystery.
That’s not what’s going on with Extant, which is fine. I like a good mystery, and even though an executive producer credit can mean all kinds of things, in terms of creative influence, even the whiff of Steven Spielberg associated with Extant indicates to me that its producers care about making the show into something that has enough intellectual meat to be intriguing without navel-gazing, as a lot of prestige television tends to do.
The problem with neither being navel-gazing or purely fluffy is that it requires a hell of a lot of work. If the producers of Extant don’t know exactly what they’re doing, this lovely mystery, complete with its subtly appropriate production values and its (for TV) high-quality special effects, will not be enough to support a whole show.
Right now, it looks like it could go either way. What worries me most about Extant is the creepy android child; right from the start, he feels like a tired plot device, and one that buys into a too-easy, facile idea of what robot-people would be like. Must they always be horribly violent and rebel against us? Can’t they just, you know, chillax? It could be interesting, and at least “Re-Entry” is committed to getting through the whole mystery of whether or not he’s good or bad pretty quickly: It doesn’t really matter what handsome Goran Visnjic’s John says about teaching the tiny androids to be good or evil; Molly isn’t convinced already, and she’s our window into this world. I can see that plotline developing into something with a classic horror feel; I can also see it developing into classic silly camp. Like so many first episodes of anything, that remains to be seen.
As interested as I am in Halle Berry in this role, it’s also kind of a weird casting choice. One of the reasons she is powerful and yet perplexing as an actress is that she seems a little disconnected from everything else that’s going on. Storm always seemed like she was on a different planet from the rest of the X-Men, for example. I can see that kind of contained energy working very well for certain roles and less well for others. So far in Extant, it has seemed more than once like she is in a different show from everyone else—introducing a quaver in her voice while talking to a largely indifferent doctor friend; frantically deleting footage when it’s unclear why the video would be so incriminating. It’s jarring, but it also kind of makes sense—she is living her own personal drama, where she saw something that no one else did. And being alone for 13 months in space will mess you up, if RocketMan is any indication. (The previous sentence is a joke, but hey, I thought the slight insanity was pretty believable.)
Mostly, the high quality of the production values (the future in Extant is a highly believable one; it’s a less pretty Minority Report) and the expensive casting has me hoping that this mysterious sci-fi series has some more to it than just an interesting premise. It’s a good start, for now.
- Halle Berry is fucking 48 years old and looks perfect, by the way. It’s kind of absurd. (Though I do think there may be something in her contract about what angles she can be filmed from, because the light always seems to hit her face in the same way. That being said, perhaps she is just perfect.)
- Hiroyuki Sanada is in this, which is kind of a bad sign—he was in Helix, and girl, that did not go down well. In this he is some kind of cryogenic Bond villain, which, fine. I sure hope he’s more relevant and interesting than he was in that show.
- Also, his dinner, on that fancy up-lit table? I suppose if you’re going to eat about 400 calories, at least you can make it look really nice.
- Sonia’s speculation corner: Okay, let’s get into this. We know that Sanada’s character (Hideki Yasumoto) isn’t surprised by Molly’s weird adventure in space; he responds to his lackey’s intel by getting even closer to the family. So, he’s trying to get a hold of demon-spawn, right? Alien-human DNA? But why? Probably immortal life. (It’s always immortal life.) But wait: Is Marcus, as he appears on the ship, an alien form? Or is he a construction of Ben, the onboard ship? That would certainly me more immediately relevant to creepy android child’s life—if Molly is carring a child that is like, a cyborg, I guess. Or what, did she impregnate herself, with her imagination? But then what about Harmon, the other astronaut, who had a similar experience? Surely he didn’t impregnate himself? Hmm… I have run out of ideas fast!
- That’s Grace Gummer, Meryl Streep’s daughter, playing Ethan’s nanny. So presumably that role will expand.
- Always nice to see Camryn Manheim. I hope to see more of her.
- I looked up “extant” to be sure I knew what it meant. It looks like it’s actually the antonym of “extinct,” as the title card would lead us to believe. What would we think to be extinct that isn’t—that you could find in space? (Is it aliens? The answer is always aliens.)