[This is a review of Extant season 1, episode 1. There will be SPOILERS.]
Extant is clearly inspired by elements from other science fiction stories like Solaris, the Alien franchise and A.I., but at the end of its first hour, it feels as though we've seen someone glue those puzzle pieces together to form yet another puzzle piece - because we are far away from being able to appreciate the full picture that series creator Mickey Fisher is trying to pull together.
If that sounds painful and you don't like to feel as though you are being pushed toward a commitment of time and interest on a weekly basis to unravel a central mystery, then this show may not be for you. If however, you are down for a ride, then you may not mind being on the Extant revelation layaway plan.
Starring Halle Berry as astronaut Molly Woods, Extant takes place in a near future that, at the start, seems to embrace a few innovations of convenience that may be within our grasp (like Minority Report-style driverless cars). It's always lovely to see visions from the far out tomorrow and watch as writers test the fence posts of their mind with flying cars, regenerative tissue and cities in the sky, but it's also nice to see a vision of our future that seems more rooted in merely enhancing the world around us - not upending it, since those stories can be a touch more relatable.
Molly is, herself, trying to relate a bit to the world around her after a 13 month solo space shuttle mission. At the beginning of this story we find her with her head in a toilet and her perfect little boy at the door; he is concerned, but in a cool way. There is a party with all of their friends, Molly's husband John (Goran Visnjic) is manning the grill, and eventually she recovers and makes her way outside to engage in small talk with her friends - expressing her desire to have a cocktail, while leaning against John. It's all so very normal.
As the show advances, we quickly learn that something extraordinary happened to Molly while in space - she got pregnant. You remember the part where I said "solo mission", right? You remember health class, right? Exactly. This is what has Molly and her Doctor/friend Sam (Camryn Manheim) so confused, but eventually confusion turns to fear over what her superiors at the privately run space agency will say and do about this anomaly. With that in mind, Molly begs Sam to avoid putting her pregnancy into her report - something that seems a bit unlikely, but which Sam does do, temporarily delaying the medical report. This allows Molly to have a smooth meeting with her superiors, save for a few questions about a solar flare that hit the space station and interfered with communications for 13 hours - a period of time that is woefully un-documented, thanks to Molly's supposedly mistaken deletion of the file.
Molly's husband has a similarly vital meeting, one that could allow him to get the financing needed to continue his work with robotic children like his and Molly's son, Ethan (Pierce Gagnon). The fire that Visnjic brings to the standoff between his character and a board member who unashamedly asks him how he would put his son down were he to become dangerous is quite something, as are the deeper questions that come up as John and the board member go toe to toe.
This is an ideological fight between two diametrically opposed individuals. When John bristles at the woman's assertion that her child and John's child are different because her child has a soul, John also flippantly dismisses the notion of souls altogether, prompting the woman to reply: "Believe it or not, Dr. Woods, there are plenty of people in this world who still believe that there is more to us than can be explained by science." Unsurprisingly, Dr. Woods elevates the matter further by essentially calling the woman an idiot, causing him to lose his opportunity for funding. That is, until Hideki Yasumto enters the picture.
Yasumto (Hiroyuki Sanada) owns both the company that rejects John's pitch and the space agency that Molly works for, but as a "private citizen", he can fund John's work - and as the shadowy maybe-villain of this tale, he can monitor John's wife.
It's interesting how vague John is about the whys behind his work. Or maybe it's not vague, maybe it's just poorly developed. Either way, it's clear that Yasumto thinks of John as little more than a pawn to get to Molly and whatever happened in space, but it's worth keeping an eye on a man who sees no difference between something that he created and a human child.
Speaking of Ethan - from the early going, Molly seems to be increasingly weary of the boy whose capacity for real love she questions, after telling John that Ethan has changed in the time since she has been away. There is no bond between mother and child and the chasm only seems to grow after she is told that she is pregnant - an impossibility for the previously infertile Molly.
The bond between Molly and everyone else on the show is a bit lax from the start as well. She seems haunted and distracted, but while that is off-putting at the start, we quickly learn why as we begin to know this woman and what she has been through - not just on the space station, but prior to that as well. At night in a quiet moment, John finds Molly slowly caressing a picture of her and Marcus, a dead former lover. The picture moves like a memory and it provides Molly with the most human connection that she exhibits in the first episode; her marriage to John seems supportive but mostly passionless.
Soon, we discover that Marcus appeared to Molly while she was on her mission during that disruptive sun flare, but rather than report what seemed like a break from reality, Molly reacts with panic as if she did something wrong upon waking up from whatever it was that happened, purposely deleting those files after watching herself and nothing else on the tape. Was it a hallucination? Is Marcus or the Marcus avatar responsible for the pregnancy? At this point, we can't even be sure what Molly is carrying, but it seems unlikely that it is human.
A post-episode trailer for the season revealed some kind of odd shape pushing against the skin of Molly's stomach at one point, a symbol that she previously saw on a wall - so if that's not some kind of dream sequence or hallucination, that could point to a bizarre turn for the show. We also don't know much about Yasumto, the efforts to monitor Molly or why Harmon Kryger (Brad Beyer), who had previously gone up on the shuttle before killing himself, is instead standing in Molly's driveway, warning her to not trust anyone.
Again, this is just the first piece of a puzzle, but while Extant's initial virtue comes from its strong performances (most notably those of Berry and Visnjic), large themes and the show's ability to sell us on its capacity to explore any number of paths, we have no assurances - and can only hope that those paths will lead us to a place that is both interesting and original. Not following through on that obligation is more frightening than the prospect of a show that simply asks more questions than it can answer. Simply put, though both are detestable in their own way, I'd rather deal with a show that has no point over a show that has no ambition.
Extant airs Wednesdays @9PM ET on CBS.