Amazon Prime TV review: Extant Season 1
James R | On 01, Jul 2015
Ahead of Season 2’s premiere on Thursday 2nd July, we look back at Season 1 of sci-fi series Extant.
“Just give me some time to figure it out.” That’s Molly’s reaction to her doctor in Episode 1 of Extant. It’s understandable: she’s just returned home after 13 months isolated in space. And discovered she’s with child.
It’s an intriguing starting point for the sci-fi series, which was snapped up exclusively by Amazon Prime in the UK. It’s also par for the course for any modern, high-concept TV show. Curious premise? Check. Questions to be answered? Check. That’s almost all a series has to do these days: find a way to hook a viewer.
But if the vaguely familiar ennui suggests this is a fruitless entry in the genre, Season 1 of Extant shows fruit can grow in even the most barren of gardens.
Creator Mickey Fisher weaves his near-present world with all the big themes: maternity, mortality, modern technology. Molly, we soon learn, is unable to conceive. Which is why her husband, John (Goran Visnjic, of ER fame), has adopted his latest lab project as their son. The project’s name? Ethan (Pierce Gagnon), an android indistinguishable from humans – something of which Dr. Luka Kovač would no doubt disapprove.
But if that screams “nature versus nurture” in your face with all the subtlety of Brian Blessed competing in Eurovision, Molly’s reaction from earlier is worth bearing in mind: this is a show that takes a while to gestate.
On the one hand, the alien plot only becomes more ridiculous, as Hiroyuki Sanada’s sinister businessman Mr. Yasumuto decides that Molly’s unborn child is a miracle cure for eternal life. Repeated to-ing and fro-ing with his troubled henchman, Gordon Kern (Maury Sterling), becomes tiresome – there are only so many times that people can be caught and re-captured and still maintain a sense of peril – while Molly’s dodgy boss, Alan Sparks (Michael O’Neill – whose moustache reeks of middle-management), becomes involved in an increasingly illogical way.
As characters make laughable decisions (Visnjic’s John is given the worst of them in the season’s second half), the super-serious tone occasionally comes unstuck – not helped by the fact that Halle Berry’s hair remains in near-pristine condition throughout. That’s not to say there isn’t a creepy quality to the alien stuff on offer: Berry does a good job of looking dazed and confused for 10 hours; hallucinations involving dead relatives and lovers, created by the infant’s telepathic powers, offer a myriad opportunities for freaky rug-pulls; and a recurring circular logo dances eerily across the sky and people’s skin alike.
Despite its space-centric premise, though, Extant is at its best when it removes ET from the equation. Halle Berry’s name may be above the title, but the real star of the show is Gagnon. The young actor, who gave good creepy in Looper, is the series’ strongest asset, a robot gradually coming of age in a rapidly evolving time. He swings from scary to sweet, asking questions with a curious innocence one minute and threatening mechanical violence the next. The stroppiness, though, is never played for schlocky horror; rather, it’s just a symptom of his natural teenage mood swings.
That human quality makes his narrative extremely engaging: one scene with a broken trash disposal unit is surprisingly sweet. Grace Gummer as Ethan’s co-creator, Julie, adds to the sympathy with a complex turn that manages to be emotional yet never trite. She carries a constant sense of maternal care for Ethan but never makes a move on his dad; a smart avoidance of soap opera-style melodrama. The introduction of her boyfriend, Odin (Charlie Bewley), keeps the focus firmly on Ethan in the latter episodes, as he seems to be a poor role model for the boy – despite the fact that he has a robotic limb to replace an arm lost in the war.
The production values manage a similar balance of the good and the cheesy. The chunky, low-budget aesthetic suits the genre: this is, after all, an old-fashioned woolly jumper of a sci-fi, in which you can see the threads of Steven Spielberg (he’s an executive producer), 2001, Blade Runner and Alien. That chunkiness, unfortunately, weaves its way onto the page, leaving the cast to deliver such awkward dialogue as “He executes a series of programmed instructions that are designed to look like love! That’s not love!” Stabs at religion – the words “immaculate conception” hover around more than once – also fall flat. But Extant’s silly study of conspiracies and corruption disguise a fully-rounded exploration of motherhood and human nature that builds to a satisfyingly personal climax.
The result may occasionally resemble a string of programmed parts designed to look like the Next Big TV Show, but Extant matures into a series pregnant with ideas, even if they’re not always the ideas it thinks.
Extant is available on Amazon Prime Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription – or, if you would also like unlimited UK delivery on products, as part of a £79 annual Prime membership.