Extant knocked me on my ass, and not just because it's got 1000 percent of your recommended daily dose of Spielberg space magic, a robo-moppet, and bang-up effects. On top of that, this show's got such a science fiction pedigree, the old boy must've come up out of the space ivy space league (space ivy is a space plant).
You can watch Extant with eyes fresh as space dew and dig it. The drama's lean, and the futuristic design sense on display is sleek to death. You know what else is sleek to death, is Halle Berry's space cheekbones. She's Molly Woods, an astronaut recently returned from a year-long solo research post on a space station. Her husband John, a roboticist, believes the future of human-robot interactions begins with their "son" Ethan, an android who's all but indistinguishable from a human child, down to his temper tantrums. He's a little space boy!
What gobsmacked me about Extant, though, is how adeptly and deliciously it bakes together the flavor, texture, and good rich space nutrients of some of science fiction's biggest poppas, without feeling like it's working from a space recipe book. Here's who Extant whisked up in its big ol' space bowl:
Isaac Asimov - Extant's clean, bright future smacks of Asimov, who'd have a field day puzzling out the particulars of the Woods' cool hexagonal waste disposal system. The most culturally enduring single nugget of Asimov is his three laws of robotics [link], the theoretical foundation for productively integrating robots into our world.Extant all but flips those the (dead) bird: in his presentation for grant funding, John waves away any need for contingencies or coercive measures to keep his space son in line beyond good old-fashioned space parenting.
Ironically, that's totally in the spirit of Asimov, whose high-minded but practical techno-idealists always see farther than the bureaucrats who doubt them (his "expert saves humanity from total societal collapse" series Foundation apparently inspired noted told-you-so-ist Paul Krugman to become an economist, which makes a hell of a lot of sense). His work always has a muscular faith in humanity's ability to program a better tomorrow; his enduring optimism about nuclear power tells you a lot of what you need to know. The possibility and promise in Ethan's big robo doe eyes, that's all Asimov.
Ray Bradbury - Asimov always seemed more comfortable parsing out a robotic logic puzzle than dealing with people's messiness. Ray Bradbury, on the other hand, was the space prince of space humanism, cooking up tales of faith, family, and human nature at its greatest and most terrible. Extant's dramatic and thematic focus rests on its central space family; that's distinctly Bradbury, who employed sci fi imagineering to plumb the depths of the people within his worlds, rather than the other way around.
This is harder to put a finger on, but Extant's visuals also give off a real Bradbury vibe. His sparse poetic prose soaks everything with sun and space wonder, and Extant is just beautiful, full of glowing skin and rich muted tones. It's a vibrant future, not a sterile one. Bradbury's work was also uniquely American, setting space exploration almost always as a private sector venture, an facetExtant gives a more explicitly sinister spin. Which brings us neatly to...
Philip K. Dick - If Asimov is sci fi's old world grandpa, all hard work and optimistic striving, and Bradbury is its Coach Taylor-y dad, Philip K. Dick is the uncle who smokes your first joint with you as he runs down the history and continued applications of MK-Ultra. Trust is a deadly rare commodity in Dick's fiction, with corporate superstructures propping up and breaking down individual realities pretty much at will. Dick pulls the rug out from under you to show you there's a nasty musty old rug under that rug, which he proceeds to pull out, too. Hallucinations, missing time, and deteriorating sanity are all tucked in his space toolbelt.
Extant's Yasumoto Corporation has a cyberpunk bent, but their surveillance of Molly's therapy sessions are real Dick, whose novel A Scanner Darkly predicted the schizophrenia of the omnipresent surveillance state three decades in advance. And that episode-closing stinger, "Trust nobody," is distilled Dick. He's also the author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the basis for Blade Runner, both of which put deep fissures in any absolute distinction between natural and artificial life, for which Ethan will be thankful when he's old enough to space lobby for his space right to space vote.
Stanislaw Lem - Turn Extant over and give it a shake and dollars to donuts a dogeared copy of Lem's best-known novel Solaris will fall out. Solaris chronicles the slow disintegration of a crew on a station over an alien ocean, as night after night they're visited by living manifestations of their greatest guilt and shame, driving some to suicide and straining others' sanity. It's not a breezy read; it's slow, gut-wrenching, and totally engrossing.
Solaris (and Lem, in his other work) puts humans right up against truly alien immensity, one trying to understand us as we fail to understand it. Extant may serve up some answers down the line, but in the pilot, we're up against some inscrutable immensity coming at us in human form. When Molly's dead astronaut lover manifests in a space cardigan and steps through the airlock, he's not chatting with her all wise like Jodie Foster's Contact dad, he's parroting her words, repeating "It's okay" when it's clearly not okay. He's literally haunting her; whatever else he's part of, she still has to deal with the grief and trauma of confronting "him." It's heady stuff for sci fi TV, but Lem paved the way.
Now, obviously, sci fi's a rich supergenre full of cross-pollination and tangled webs of influence (and I hope you'll lambast me in the comments for who I've glossed over here), but when it comes to picking its guiding lights, Extant's clearly got its head on straight. Thank Cosmic AC for that.
[Images via CBS]
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