While CBS’ Under the Dome is vaguely tethered to science fiction through its (abysmal) storyline, it’s a show much more interested in dealing with human drama rather than genre conventions. On the complete opposite side of the spectrum is teir new offering Extant, a show that follows in Dome‘s “summer event series” footsteps, but completely outshines it in every single way. Barely a second of the series premiere, “Re-Entry,” goes by without a solid reminder that you’re watching a sci-fi series. Words cannot quite express how impressed I was by this hour of television. But I’ll certainly use a bunch trying to do so. (And I’ll try to keep it spoiler-free for the most part, but beware the bottom half of this recap.)
As astronaut Molly Woods, Halle Berry is a woman who can’t seem to find her element. She’s spent the past year on a solo mission in space, and all she wants is go home and re-adjust to life with her husband John (Goran Visnjic) and son Ethan (Pierce Gagnon). However, she must concede to various physical and psychological tests first, which prove troublesome since she’s keeping secrets from everyone. But her physician/friend Sam Barton (Camryn Manheim) soon discovers the seemingly impossible.
Molly is pregnant. Not only is this a shock because she was away from the entire human race for 13 months, but she had long been a victim of a barren womb. Despite fertilization treatments, she has never been able to conceive. Molly’s son, Ethan, is actually an android that the tech genius John invented for his burgeoning Humanichs project. Molly isn’t all that comfortable around Ethan, despite his extremely lifelike presence, and their relationship is strained all the more by her knowledge that something strange is growing inside of her body.
Through well-placed flashbacks, you learn that Molly was visited in space by someone or something that looked like her former lover Marcus (Sergio Harford), who died before Molly and John got together. Berry plays these scenes with the perfect balance of disbelief and longing, perhaps swayed by Marcus’ true nature, whatever that may be.
This meeting occurs during a particularly violent burst of solar flares, which causes her ship, the Seraphim, to malfunction. Molly’s superiors, including Director Alan Sparks (Michael O’Neil) and Deputy Director Gordon Kern (Maury Sterling), want to know why the Seraphim’s security footage had been compromised, but Molly blames it on a glaring mistake, something she isn’t known for. What’s she hiding? A former astronaut seems to know, and we’ll no doubt get to hear his wacky backstory in future episodes.
But Molly isn’t the only one in the midst of personal turmoil. The somewhat over-emotional John is presenting his Humanichs idea to a group of investors who don’t agree with his stance that the android children should be developed without a killswitch in place in case things go wrong. John truly believes that his experience-based artificially intelligent life forms should be given the same kind of free will as regular children, but he’s the only one that believes that.
John and Molly’s story also ties together with Hideki Yasumot (Hiroyuki Sanada), an extremely wealthy man who heads the privately funded space corporation Molly works for. His role as the show goes on seems to be as a bridge between the Woods family and whatever kind of repercussions the worldwide knowledge of Molly’s alien baby will bring about. You may remember that Sanada joined Lost right as that series completely flew off the rails, but Extant isn’t trying to be as far-reaching as that jumbled neo-classic.
From top to bottom, Extant is as fluid a narrative approach as anything that CBS has touched in years. “Re-Entry” shows off the true potential this series has to be one of the better sci-fi shows network TV has seen in a while. (Perhaps if Fox hadn’t ruined Almost Human as it was airing, my view would be slightly different.) This is a story about a woman’s alien baby pregnancy and her husband’s potentially evil A.I. inventions. It’s everything I want in TV life.
From the pacing to the performances to the constant reminders that Extant takes place in a world where touchscreens are king, this is quality science fiction through and through. Nearly every scene contains an “oh wow” moment, which will likely falter as the weeks go by, but there is enough of a foundation here that frequent surprises will no longer be necessary. Nobody is more surprised than me by how blown away I was at the end of this episode, and while I’m sure executive producer Steven Spielberg and his Amblin Television team had a lot to do with making this series feel as warm as it did, creator Mickey Fisher gets all the credit in the world for delivering such a solid piece of fiction right out the gate.
Below the picture are a few spoilery observations and questions I have, so read at your own discretion.
Are you kidding me with that Marcus-alien thing? It was creepy enough just having him repeatedly say “It’s okay,” as he put Molly under, but then to reveal that he wasn’t even in the footage? Wasn’t expecting it for a second, and I still have no idea what it actually means. Aliens are weird.
What’s up with Harmon Kryger, and how did he survive whatever supposedly killed him? Plus, wouldn’t it be easier for him to meet up with Molly during the afternoon at some point without having to sneak onto her property?
Is John really going to try and build more of his prototypes without any actual funding? Can we hope for shoddier looking androids as the weeks go by?
Ethan is going to end up becoming a monster, right? The episode was pretty obvious in laying out right and wrong, which makes the scene with him and the dead bird all the more mysterious. Did he actually kill the bird in a fit of mother-hating rage, or did he actually just find it there? I guess if he complimented my hair, I’d leave the issue alone as well. It’s a wonder his name isn’t Damien.
I’d rather not spend any more time wondering what’s going to happen, as it will inevitably go too far. The next thing you know my entire living room wall is covered in index cards held up by tacks and connected to one another with yarn. My point is, you should definitely catch Extant on Wednesdays on CBS throughout the summer.