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Saturday, 20 September 2014

Extant.


Extant.


Extant came a bit out of the blue – for me, at least. I imagine there were probably people who were waiting with baited breath for it to start airing, but I had heard not a single piece of buzz or rumour about it, not seen any trailers or teasers, had no idea it even existed until the first episode had aired. Which is strange, to be honest. With Steven Spielberg executive producing, and with Halle Berry and Hiroyuki Sanada, both massive names, on the cast, I would have thought that people would have been unable to stop talking about it. Apparently not so.

Once I knew it was there, though, I started watching, although I profess I didn't really know what to expect. What I got was something that contained a lot of the Spielbergian themes of family and sinister alien invasions, but a lot more of a slow build than, say, Falling Skies. Which isn't a bad thing, although as I've noted before on this blog, I personally tend to lack the patience for slow builds.

I never realised how short Sanada is until now.

Extant tells the story of Molly Walker, an astronaut who returns from a thirteen month solo mission to reunite with her husband, a roboticist, and her son, a robot. All is not well, however, as she is pregnant (remember, thirteen month solo mission), suffering from hallucinations, and realising that a conspiracy between her own agency and businessman Yasumoto threatens her freedom and the safety of her family.

I'm going to cut the plot summary short there, because any more will veer into spoiler territory, and this is probably the kind of thing you should go into as unspoiled as possible. There are a lot of twists and turns along the thirteen episode path, and a lot of subplots built up along the way, that ultimately all converge at the end.

The acting is all brilliant, not just from Berry and Sanada, but also from Goran Visnjic (formerly of ER, now playing Molly's husband), Pierce Gagnon (playing her robotic son), Charlie Bewley, Enver Gjokaj, Jeannetta Arnette and Michael O'Neill. Later on we get relative newcomer child actor Shannon Merrill Brown joining the cast as well, and putting in a pretty excellent and rather sinister performance.

Nobody with a moustache like that should be trusted.

The show does, however, have an unfortunate tendency to introduce characters without ever really establishing who they are, leaving your head spinning for about half an episode as this new person just materialises amidst the cast, and everyone acts like he was always there. I'm looking at you, Maury Sterling's character and Adam O'Byrne's character.

The slow pacing also means that sometimes the writers seem unsure what to do in a particular episode, as if they're tossing busywork at the characters to hold back the startling revelations that they're saving for later. It doesn't help that, for almost all of the series, the Humanichs Project storyline seems almost incidental to the plot, like there are two separate series awkwardly trying to sit in the same space and making everything just seem cluttered. It isn't really until the final episode that the two storylines become relevant to each other.

Which is a shame, because you can see pretty clearly how they're thematically related: The story is about Molly and her two sons, neither of which are human – one is a machine and the other is an alien, and the inevitable conflict between them looks set to be the bread and butter of the series, and the thing that will force Molly into more and more difficult situations as time goes on.

Getting a bit Kubrick.

The series does do a very good job of building tension, although the tricks it employs are of the 'tried and true' variety: Cryptic remarks, thumping music, sinisterly lit scenes in which people are doing shady or unnatural things. The 'creepy child' trope is invoked multiple times, for no less than three different characters. Much time is spent slavishly avoiding having the audience see Molly's alien child in any form, while having characters see him and react accordingly. It's nothing we haven't seen before, but that doesn't change the fact that it does work, and tension is appropriately built. It doesn't entirely pan out by the end of the series, but since this is just series one, and there'll doubtless be more, that's not so terrible an issue.

It's a worthwhile watch, and at thirteen episodes, can be marathoned fairly quickly (which is rather what I would suggest – a slow pace is much less grating if you can speed through it all in one or two days). Near as I know, there is yet no confirmation of a second series – while it did well critically, having been nominated for a Critics' Choice award, it didn't do as strongly in terms of ratings. I personally hope it does get another series – the story is pretty clearly not over, after all.

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