Halle Berry first appears on the Steven Spielberg-produced Extant haggard and puking, glistening lines of spittle hanging from her mouth. A movie star has descended to television – network television no less – and she is not putting on airs. Berry’s reasons for returning to TV are simple: She goes “where the work is”, as she told the (CBS) network.
And lately – especially amid the rise of streaming original series and creatively compelling cable dramas – an actress looking for strong material looks to television just as often as she looks to the silver screen.
In the past, an Oscar winner trading in a movie script for something airing on a broadcast network might have signalled a dwindling career. Now, “the lines are blurring”, Berry said. “I have never looked at TV as a negative. As I was doing well in my movie career, I always came back to do television movies. I go where the work is. I go where the characters are. And I’m happy that other people are starting to do the same thing.”
Extant, which airs Wednesdays on M-Net at 9.30pm, tosses sci-fi films from 2001: A Space Odyssey to A.I., and serves up a psychologically-minded speculative smoothie, complete with impregnating aliens, emotional robots, and vast conspiracies. Not one element of this show feels original, and yet I would totally watch more, even if just to peep at the sleek futuristic garbage cans again. (In the future, our trash is very compact.)
Berry’s certainly a welcome TV presence as the star of Extant, a 13-episode thriller where she plays Molly Woods, an unexpectedly expectant astronaut.
The premise of the show – that Molly was somehow impregnated while on a solo 13-month outer-space mission – seems on its face outrageously funny business. As in, unintentionally funny. But Extant turns out to be smart and engrossing, with a meditative, gently futuristic touch (check that hi-tech garbage can) that draws the viewer in.
And, of course, it boasts Berry, who is not only a delight for the eye but also a marvellous actress, with an Oscar for her 2001 film Monster’s Ball as solid evidence.
Molly has been alone in space, but for one multi-hour stretch when her ship’s computer – called Ben, and chattier than HAL – went offline, and something apparently inseminatory happened. This mysterious incident included the ghostly arrival of a man Molly believed to be quite dead. When she sees him scrawling “help me” in the frost on a window of her ship (which is called the Seraphim, but which I have rechristened the Tetanus, given how much Berry lets her locked, agape lower jaw and bared teeth do the acting for her), she overcomes her terror long enough to let him in.
Apparently, while the computer was rebooting, Molly and the space ghost had some sort of subconscious sexual encounter. She awakens thoroughly spooked and quickly erases the ship’s records of her missing hours – who among us hasn’t fudged a time sheet?
Molly’s pregnancy is made further mysterious by the fact of her infertility: She and her husband John (Goran Visnjic) couldn’t conceive, a disappointment that led John to build them a robot son or humanic rather, Ethan (Pierce Gagnon), who seems like a normal, sweet, emotionally connected boy, except when he is possibly murdering birds. The cleverest and creepiest aspects of Extant all orbit around Ethan: There are no guarantees about how children will turn out, whether they are real or mechanical. If Ethan’s programming went awry and he were to turn on his parents, would that really make him so different from a troubled boy of flesh and blood?
At the start we find Molly adjusting to life back on Earth with her scientist husband and adorable young son. John not only loves Ethan as if he is their own flesh and blood, but also sees him as the prototype of a new class of robot that can be raised from “childhood” and instilled with human values, “programmed by a day-to-day human experience,” as John tells a group of potential funders for his Humanics Project. “The humanic’s brain learns right from wrong, good from bad, the same way we did.”
Of course, the success of this venture could lead to disaster. Were millions of humanics loosed on the planet, they just might rise up against their human masters. But that’s a possibility John indignantly rejects. Maybe he shouldn’t. Molly soon finds that dear little Ethan is displaying flashes of psychopathic attitude – possible bird murdering, remember.
But she has other worries. She is hard-pressed to explain her pregnancy and what to expect now that she is expecting.
Extant has a moody, muted tone: I assume it’s the eerie calm before the computer goes haywire or the alien bursts out of the womb,|if you will.
Molly is haunted by not one but two dead (or are they?) astronaut colleagues.
And she is being investigated by her bosses at the private-sector International Space Exploration Agency for the suspicious 13-hour gap in her in-flight record-keeping.
She had secretly pulled a Rose Mary Woods and erased the onboard video as mentioned earlier, to hide the strange event.
Extant makes effective use of familiar storytelling tropes: the evil of big business and science gone awry in an atmosphere of growing danger.
“Don’t trust them,” Molly is admonished by a shadowy figure at the end of the hour.
“Who?” she asks.
Extant, in its pilot, includes hints of every possible conspiracy it can. Should the show go on many seasons, its creators will be protected from the charge they didn’t know what they were doing from the start: The start is overloaded. But then, starts count. “You find out but slowly,” Berry told CBS. “It’s very mysterious, it’s very suspenseful, and there are many twists and turns along the way getting to that resolve.”
The series was created, and the premiere written by, TV newcomer Mickey Fisher who, according to press materials, wrote the pilot in a Starbucks and won a script contest with it, which eventually led to this series. The show gets off to a serviceable start – coolly conceived and professionally directed, at least in the one episode we’ve viewed so far. Where it goes from here is anybody’s guess, but Extant’s creator and cast seem to be taking things seriously enough as a work of sci-fi origami, folded and layered with a certain precision.
Not knowing what’s gestating inside Molly (Extant will carefully mete out its best secrets over the course of 13 episodes), a viewer is instead drawn into yet another drab idea of what our future might look and feel like, delivering some truly dispiriting news about transportation: The self-driving Google car really does become a thing.
Fisher brings a fresh take on hi-tech paranoia, while addressing a timeless theme: the blessings and pitfalls of God-given free will, exercised here by an adorable machine.
All that, plus terrific Halle Berry, mysteriously carrying who-knows-whose child. – Washington Post
This article first appeared in the 27 July 2014 issue of the Sunday Tribune SMtv