[8 July 2014]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
The first space ship you see in Extant is not the one you might expect. It looks, at first, magnificent, gliding across the dark blue screen, but in just a second, you see that it’s a child’s toy, remote-controlled by a young boy with an impassive face as carefully shadowed as the object he pilots. He walks to follow the ship, out of his bedroom into a warmly lit hallway and also into the camera. And here he pauses, as he hears his mother retching.
The camera cuts here to Molly (Halle Berry), who is, of course, the astronaut you’ve heard so much about during the run-up to Extant‘s premiere on 9 July. She’s been away on a 13-month solo mission, and now she’s pregnant, a mystery the series means to parlay into suspense and—if the first episode is indicative—a series of difficult questions about humanity and spirituality, scientific inquiry and corporate corruption.
As familiar as all this might sound to anyone who’s seen, oh, Solaris (either version), the Alien movies, Event Horizon, Gravity or A.I. (and yes, Steven Spielberg is executive producing this TV show), you might feel initially heartened by that first shot of the space ship and Ethan (Pierce Gagnon), as it suggests that the focus here won’t be entirely on the pregnancy, which is to say, the rather prosaic conundrum of a female body.
To the show’s credit, this particular conundrum is from its introduction messy and imprecise, and not only because Molly first appears in close-up with her messy head in a toilet. While she reassures Ethan that really, she’s okay, just readjusting to being back on Earth, and that she’s fine with attending the party held in honor of her “re-entry”, a couple of handheld, child’s-eye-level shots of Ethan navigating the adults’ world suggest that none of this is as comfortable as she says it is, for her or for her child.
To begin, Molly already looks like an unreliable protagonist, as flashbacks to her mission suggest she’s deceiving her husband and employers, and/or that she’s unsure of what happened to her (she may or may not have been visited by a figure who may or may not have been a version of her dead lover). These flashbacks appear first as if in her mind (via circular mirrors and quaint iris transitions) and then as if on digital recording (on a tablet), neither obviously accurate.
And so you’re left to wonder about what she sees, or whether she believes what she sees, a set of questions that might be intriguing (watching her distraught face as she watches herself) or annoying (watching her vaguely worried face as she spots a stranger at the end of her driveway in the dead of night).
The other primary question concerning what Molly sees has to do with Ethan, a robot child designed by her husband John (Goran Visnjic). While dad insists on his capacity to develop emotional and moral responses, mom’s less convinced. As she puts it, “I’ve always seen him differently.” Her concern is carefully phrased here, as seeing another person—your child or not—is always a matter of negotiations, compromises, doubts, and tests of faith.
John’s affection is more absolute (he insists Ethan can make an emotional “connection”, a word that floats before him during the presentation but doesn’t apply to an argument the boy has with his mom a few minutes later), but also more abject. This much is clear when he takes Ethan along during a pitch for funding so he can make more and improved “humanichs”.
With the boy on stage beside him, John tells an audience of executives that he has no emergency plan for shutdown, in case of a “robot uprising”. This because the very question is offensive to John, as no parent would build in a switch to be able to kill a child. And also because, apparently, John has never heard of Skynet.
Admirable as it may be for John to see Ethan not as an object to be owned, but rather, as a “real” boy, his short fuse with the investors leads him pretty directly to making a deal that you see differently than he does. Initiated by the extraordinarily wealthy, instantly sinister Hideki Yasumoto (Hiroyuki Sanada), this deal allows John to continue his research and production of more humanichs, and also a level of visible discomfort for Molly. John ignores this sign, and so Extant exacerbates the distance she’s feeling on her return to earth.
This distance takes on yet another dimension in that Molly is the only black body on screen, save for the one that may or may not belong to that dead lover in her flashbacks, Marcus (Sergio Harford). If Molly’s loneliness is most plainly associated with her work as an astronaut, this embodied difference is impossible not to see. And so, when you watch her watch herself on the (deleted) recording during her mission, first telling Marcus, “It’s okay”, and then in an interaction that is vividly not “okay”, you might appreciate a whole other set of differences, between what she can see and what she cannot, and how bodies become too visible and invisible, sometimes simultaneously.
This striking scene, alone, might mean that Extant is something new.