Summer television—as far as broadcast networks are concerned—is a dead zone. With ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox (and The CW, I guess) sticking doggedly to the traditional Spring/Fall premiere seasons, summer is filled with reruns, cheap concert specials, random reality shows and the occasional drama/sitcom that wasn’t good enough to make it in the regular season. Last year CBS had a moderate summer hit on its hands, though, with the relatively high-profile, Stephen King-based horror series “Under the Dome.” Perhaps that was enough to give CBS the courage to air the Steven Spielberg-produced sci-fi series “Extant.”
This futuristic mystery drama revolves around astronaut Molly Woods (almost-slumming movie star Halle Berry), who returns to Earth after a 13-month solo mission in outer space. During a routine medical evaluation, Molly learns she is pregnant. This is shocking not only because she spent the last year alone in space, but also because she’s infertile. For reasons of narrative convenience, Molly convinces her doctor (Camryn Manheim) to not mention any of this to NASA. She’s scared, you see, and doesn’t want to go into quarantine. Honey, have you never seen Alien 3 or Xtro or Prometheus or The Astronaut’s Wife or V: The Final Battle or basically any movie involving women and aliens? Traditionally, these things don’t end well. For whatever reason, the good doctor agrees, and Molly goes on pretending that everything’s OK. Except, of course, it’s not.
On the surface, it’s a slick package. The futuristic world looks glossy and familiar, but with enough high-tech touches (robots, holograms, criminally understaffed space stations) to feel sci-fi-y. The problem is, ever since “Lost,” TV writers have been trying to refine the “series-long” mystery concept.
Molly’s infertility was the primary driving force motivating her brainy husband (Goran Visnjic from “ER”) to create an android prototype known as a “humanich.” (Terrible name, buddy. Get the PR people on that right away.) Since this is a Steven Spielberg production, the android takes the form of a creepy/cute little kid (Pierce Gagnon, Looper). The kid wanders around, contemplating what it means to be human, making much of the show look like outtakes from A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Occasionally Molly remembers she’s pregnant with some alien love child and freaks out. Flashbacks eventually reveal that Molly ran into her dead boyfriend back on board the space station Seraphim. (Yeah, that’s not a prophetic name.) And she wasn’t the only one. Apparently everybody who spent 13 months alone on the space station encountered some deceased loved one—which astute sci-fi viewers will recognize as the plot to Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 film as well as Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 remake).
On the surface, it’s a slick package. The futuristic world looks glossy and familiar, but with enough high-tech touches (robots, holograms, criminally understaffed space stations) to feel sci-fi-y. The problem is, ever since “Lost,” TV writers have been trying to refine the “series-long” mystery concept. Each episode of “Extant” gives us plenty of “Who’s that guy?”/“What does that mean?”/“What just happened?” moments. They prolong our need to figure it all out in the long haul, but they don’t make for very satisfying viewing in the short term. At any given time, it’s hard to tell what kind of show “Extant” is trying to be. As the show wraps up its (alleged) 13-episode run, it might coalesce into something solid. For now, though, it’s a disjointed jumble of robot kids, alien pregnancies, space ghosts, government conspiracies and corporate cover-ups that may or may not be going anywhere interesting.