Ah, the future. Tapping your bathroom mirror to turn it into a pulsing video news screen, before getting in your self-drive car to do some work on a paper-thin, transparent tablet as you zoom to the curvy, metallic office. Are you happy, though?
Two-time Razzie winner Halle Berry is an astronaut and Goran Visnjic her scientist husband in Extant, a sci-fi drama that’s on CBS in the States but exclusive to Amazon Prime Instant Video customers in the UK. The surprise isn’t that regular UK networks were outbid. It’s that a big US network, and exec producer Steven Spielberg, took the plunge. The gadgets are this freeze-dried space turkey’s best hope.
Berry plays Molly, a normally outstanding spacewoman (“Your work is incredibly thorough. It leaves very little left to the imagination”) who has something to hide about her most recent mission. So to her bosses she has to remain inscrutable, which is just as well since Berry, who must have used up all her lifetime Acting Points in Monsters’ Ball, consistently struggles with the sort of simple tasks drama-school auditions are made of. Her character’s confusion and tumult at being diagnosed as pregnant after 13 months alone in the cosmos plays more like someone who was sure her keys were in her handbag, not here on the hall table; the crucial incident on the spaceship, a Solaris-style nightmare/fantasy shown in flashback, is smothered dead by Berry’s inert staring.
It’s not just the expressionless Berry who makes Extant feel like floating in an airless void: the action’s punishingly flat throughout, with exposition snuffing out any warmth or wit, and the normally excellent director Allen Coulter (The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire) unrecognisable as he fails to drag the show out of a trough of genre clichés and uncertain pauses. Everyone looks tired and faintly annoyed, especially Visnjic as John, an artificial intelligence pioneer who narkily blows a funding pitch for his signature android-children project when the money men ask the one question they obviously would ask.
Creator Mickey Fisher, who got the gig by winning a scriptwriting competition, never manages to push scenes beyond slowly and carefully reciting the basic info needed to get to the next one. Perhaps that doesn’t matter so much if sci-fi nuts tune in for the perfectly fine spaceship effects, and the luminescent wheelie bins that suck your trash into thin air. And with the freaky alien baby set to change the course of humanity – just as Molly and John struggle with their infant “son”, a robot prototype who’s already shaping up as a digital Damien – there’s a story still to develop about what it truly means to be human.
But on the evidence of the opening episode, that’ll probably take the form of people frowning vaguely in smooth, strip-lit podules, asking each other: “What does it mean? To be… human?” We might never find out, since believable humans in Extant are already extinct.