Plot: Astronaut Molly Woods (Halley Berry) is returning to Earth after a yearlong excursion in outer space. During that timespan, she was completely alone. Yet upon return she discovers that she has somehow become pregnant. Now she is the focus of a potentially major conspiracy. Meanwhile, her husband John (Goran Visnjic) is pushing reform on Artificial Intelligence.
The “inexplicable pregnancy” is tired ground for thriller fiction. Ever since Rosemary’s Baby went on to become one of the most critically acclaimed films in history, people have repeatedly tried to emulate the premise. Most have obviously not ended well. Yet somehow, someway, no one has ever tried to bring this subject matter into space. Seeing as nearly everything with a tinge of science fiction is being thrown to the stars, it was simply inevitable that someone would attempt this. Which brings us to Extant, CBS’s new science fiction thriller that is basically Rosemary’s Baby but without demons, in the future, and from space. Needless to say, this could have easily been a stupid gimmick for the sake of filling the summer schedule. However, with an Academy Award winning actress at the helm and plenty of thrills, Extant is a great new show.
There are a lot of reasons why Extant works really well. To start off, its greatest strength by a long shot is definitely the tone. This show is straight up terrifying. Unlike a lot of horror fiction these days, Extant doesn’t rely on any jump scares. There aren’t any monsters or people popping up out of nowhere to make the viewer leap out of their seat. Instead, you get a deep unsettling fear that absolutely chills you. An excellent example of this is when you witness what seemingly transpired on the Seraphim space station which is obviously the big mystery of the show. I don’t want to spoil it here, but everything about it was practically nightmare inducing. It’s a delicate combination of Halle Berry’s physical acting, the spooky soundtrack, and a deep sense that what you’re witnessing is supposedly impossible according to the simple laws of nature.
Yet as this show constantly proves, our laws of nature don’t really apply in this world anymore. Extant takes place in the future where simple household amenities like mirrors and garbage cans are technologically advanced. For the most part, everyday life is exactly like ours but with a bit more flair. The only significant difference is how AIs are a legitimate reality. Molly’s husband John spends the entirety of the episode trying to receive funding from a man named Hideki Yasumoto (Hiroyuki Sanada) to make AI’s like Ethan a normal part of life. You see, Molly is infertile, and John created Ethan so they can feel like a family again. His ultimate and generally noble goal is to make people who can’t have children feel what it means to be a family (apparently adoption isn’t a thing anymore). Rightfully so, a lot of people find this idea uncomfortable, believing that AI’s can end up being a danger to society.
It’s that potential threat that serves as the other major conflict on top of Molly’s random space pregnancy. When Extant opens up, Ethan looks completely normal. He gets aggressive in soccer matches, feels remorse for his actions, and tries to make amends. Once John takes out his energy pack though, your entire perspective of Ethan changes. He suddenly becomes infinitely more robotic and unsettling. John is adamant that Ethan is exactly like normal children, but it’s hammered home exponentially that Ethan is definitely not a normal child. This comes to a head when Ethan runs off in anger after Molly panics and accidentally drops his ice cream. While his anger is typical, his mother did leave him for over a year after all, what it leads to proves Ethan’s true lack of humanity. Molly finds him in front of a dead bird that Ethan most likely killed in anger. The boy doesn’t admit it though. He lies, poorly, and tries to act like nothing’s wrong. It’s beyond freaky, and kudos to the young Pierce Gagnon for owning it.
What I personally loved about this program outside of the acting and the tone was how it blends several elements from classic sci-fi and horror films. Molly on the space station reminded me a lot of Ellen Ripley from Alien minus the terrifying Xenomorph. Her conversation with the Seraphim’s computer based AI reminded me way too much of the HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey, though that was more in its robotic tone than action. I will, however, not entirely count out a rogue computer on this show, and that does technically include Ethan. Speaking of Ethan, he’s as close to Damien from The Omen as he can possibly be without actually being the son of Satan. Him being an AI brings on the Terminator comparisons too.
Unfortunately, all this blending hides what can easily be seen as the big drawback: the show’s not original. The futuristic and space setting are different, but everything else feels like deja vu. This does actually include the nods I mentioned prior. I personally enjoyed picking them out, and yet was acutely aware to how this program is literally based on things that have all happened before. The core mystery aside, it definitely does take away some suspense from the story. You just know how this show will already unravel. Ethan, despite John’s best efforts, will be creepy as shit and exceptionally dangerous. Molly’s pregnancy will come to pass and absolutely destroy her family. John will be torn between his dream of furthering AI and the obvious danger of computers going rouge. Really, this show is just rapt with predictability in more than one case.
It really is a testament to the program for being able to stay afloat despite the clearly borrowed elements. Without a strong lead, the unsettling tone, and a futuristic but still relatively modern setting, Extant would be horribly derivative. It would have simply faded into summer obscurity while everyone spends their already limited TV time elsewhere. Yet Extant works on many levels. This premiere alone gives enough solid reasons to tune in week after week for the remainder of the season. So if you’re home Wednesday nights at 9, I definitely recommend checking this one out.
Luke Kalamar is Pop-Break.com’s television and every Saturday afternoon you can read his retro video game column, Remembering the Classics. He covers Game of Thrones, Saturday Night Live and The Walking Dead (amongst others) every week. As for as his career and literary standing goes — take the best parts of Spider-man, Captain America and Luke Skywalker and you will fully understand his origin story.