Thursday, July 10, 2014

In Which I Review Extant (1x1)

Space. The final frontier. These are the....

Oh. Wait. It's not that sort of space show? Okay, cool. When I first saw the previews for Extant, I was both befuddled and intrigued. Science fiction mission in space meets Alien-esque pregnancy conspiracy meets a whodunit. None of that is to say that it didn't look cool, but rather I was confused as to what the show was supposed to be. Still, Halle Berry. Can't go wrong with her. I was genuinely surprised by how good the first episode, "Re-Entry," was. It kept me on the edge of my seat; it had a lot of thought provoking ideas woven in between an actual mystery. I am hoping this summer show doesn't go the way of Under the Done with its science fiction silliness. The basic premise is of a woman who returns from a year long solo mission in outer space to find that she's pregnant and all sorts of mysteries unfold. I know it sounds trite, but what saves the show, at least from the pilot, is that it's not simply a "who is the baby daddy!" type scenario; there is an actual philosophical bent the series. It's about more than just alien pregnancy.

Let's just get this out of the way: there are a lot of characters in this show. And I don't remember all their names or why they are important. That was the one weakness so far. They introduced characters off stage and then, when they were brought in, I couldn't quite remember who they were. At the center of the show is the basic family unit of mom, dad, child. Some time in the future, Molly and John Woods are raising their son, Ethan. I don't know how far into the future, but technology has come quite a way yet people are still driving cars and fashion remains very 2014. So, I'd guess it's at least 50 years into the future, maybe 60-80. Both Molly and John are scientists but of a different variety. I'm not scientifically inclined enough to understand what Molly was doing in space, but apparently it was important enough to warrant a year long solo mission. The pilot is set after her re-entry. John works with robots, but, interestingly enough, seems to strive for the all essential human connection that artificial intelligence lack. You would think these might be reversed, and not because of gender. People who work in space, at least on TV, tend to have a more positive outlook on life and humankind, having seen Earth from afar and understood that the things that divide humans--religion, money, culture--don't exist except through human agency; we make those things divide us, but in reality, out there in space, Earth is just a big blue marble with no such divisions. So it's refreshing to see Molly be the one who is more skeptical about life. Which leads us to their son: Ethan. First "omg--what!" moment of the show; Ethan is a robot powered by batteries.

This came completely out of left field. I was not expecting John to open his son's back and insert a new power source. But once you see that Ethan is not human life, you can't stop noticing how inhuman he is. He has a quiet demeanor, he stares a lot, there is a certain "Daemon, son of Satan" vibe about him. He's prone to anger and rage, but also seems to love his father very much. The show definitely has a philosophical slant to it: what is life? how do we define what is human? Is a little boy who runs and plays soccer and like ice cream and sleeps with a night light any less human because he happens to be machine? I like that Ethan is self-aware; he is under no delusions about his state of being; he tells his father, "I'm not real" despite John's protests. John and Molly both love their son but have a different view on him. Molly is obviously more scientific when it comes to Ethan--the love he displays is not "love" but a series of electrical impulses hardwired into him to mimic love; John thinks Ethan is fully conscious of emotions and how to display them because he was raised, from the start, by humans. Despite claiming that Ethan is their son, Molly is wary around him. She seems awkward and unsure; John is the one who ties Ethan's shoes and tucks him in at night. John created Ethan as part of his work, but whatever his original purpose was behind AI creation, it has changed since raising Ethan. The best scene of the episode was John talking to share holders of a major company, looking for funding to continue his research and development into robotics.

During this presentation, John sums up what is probably the over arching theme of the show: life--whatever that may be--will out. The title of the show, Extant, refers to that which is still in existence. It's the opposite of extinct. The machines John is creating are a new form of life, but that doesn't mean that they can't be "human." If you raise the machines, from their conception and birth, with the all important "human connection," then they are just like you and me. They know good from bad and have free will. When asked what is to stop the machines from rising up in rebellion over fleshy humankind, John simply replies "nothing." But there is nothing to stop fleshy human beings from uprising against each other either. Because John sees these AI's as just as human as himself and his wife, he doesn't think any precaution needs to be taken against the dangers of AI. It all centers around, what is life? At the same time that John is trying to persuade businessmen, and the audience, that machine life in the form of Ethan is just as real as flesh, Molly receives some startling news about another form of life.

We're given just a glimpse into Molly's past. Before she married John, she was involved with Marcus, who I think we can say is "dead." Yes, note the quotation marks. Molly clearly still loves him and misses him, but we aren't given any insight into how he died. Keep this in mind. Her solo mission in space, so far as we can tell from the small glimpse we got, was fairly normal. Until, suddenly, it wasn't. The event in question must have happened only very recently, within the final month of her mission. A solar flare took out the power (or something, I'm not an expert on space stations, I'm just going with what I saw) of Molly's "home." When she went to investigate the outage, a man appeared to her. Now, bear in mind, Molly is supposed to be 100% alone on this station. For a man to suddenly appear behind a closed door, having written "help me" on the glass is enough to make anyone freak out a bit. But when you add in the ex-factor, it's gets even freakier. Yes, the "man" on the outside of the door is Marcus, the dead lover. Or at least, someone wearing a Marcus suit. Alien? Most likely. But we don't know from where he came or what he wants. All we know is that he and Molly share a moment before Molly blacks out. When Molly comes to, the footage taken by the space station shows her totally alone. No dead-alien-ghost-ex to be seen. Molly makes the hasty decision to erase all evidence of this encounter. Back on earth, during her first medical exam, it is discovered that she is pregnant. Cue the dramatic music.

There are some other mysteries going on outside of sudden alien pregnancy. The agency Molly works for obviously knows a bit more than they are letting on. Working in tandem with the owner of a multimillion dollar company who refuses to fund John's research into AI, they are keeping close tabs on Molly and whatever happened to her up in space. We get the impression that this is not the first time something mysterious has happened to a returning scientist. Before Molly went up, there was another. But upon his re-entry, his readjustment did not go well and he committed suicide. Except, he's apparently alive as well--appearing in the final moments of the episode. I assume he is the one who sent Molly the note about knowing what happened to her in space. How he faked his death and what he knows and whatever happened to him on his own mission is part of the mystery. And finally, Mr. Yasumoto, the owner to the company who is privately funding John, has a whole aura of suspicion about him. Whenever someone is "hatched" some a substance, you should probably keep an eye on them. I don't know what is up with him. Is he looking for new life? He is just really rich and bored? Is dying a slow death and looking for way to subvert it? Is he an alien himself?

Overall: check it out! There are a lot of threads being dangled in front of the audience and right now the connection between all of them is incredibly nebulous. However, unless the show goes cheesy, I think it's going to be a very good summer mystery.

Miscellaneous Notes on Re-Entry

--"We always end up where we're supposed to."

--Molly was infertile before her run in with the alien. I wonder if that played a factor in the alien "choosing" her.

--Ethan is a creepy kid, but I think that's part of the overall themes presented in the show: what is life. Is Ethan creepy because he's not "human" or is he creepy because that's part of his personality and development?

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