It’s probably a little unfair to criticize a show for its ambition — particularly during an era when television is regularly exceeding the traditional expectations of the medium.
But watching the premiere episode of CBS’ new sci-fi offering “Extant,” it feels like the astronaut drama might suffer from getting a little too close to the sun with its goals.
The series certainly boasts the personnel to warrant confidence: It’s executive produced by Steven Spielberg, who’s taken plenty of giant leaps into the sci-fi genre before. And its cast — including Halle Berry as astronaut Molly Woods, and “ER” alum Goran Visnjic as her scientist husband John — is impressive. Even so, in its first episode, there are so many balls tossed into the air that one wonders if they’ll all manage to stay in orbit.
The premiere episode, “Re-Entry,” sets up the outer-limits dilemma faced by Berry’s Woods. Newly returned from a 13-month solo space mission, she discovers that she’s pregnant — despite the fact that, obviously, a solo mission would suggest that she was alone all that time.
She’s also attempting to re-connect with her family, which includes a young son, Ethan, who’s actually an amazingly lifelike android created by John as both a professional endeavor and an attempt to give the couple, who’ve been unable to conceive a child, some semblance of an offspring.
Further complicating matters, Molly has encounters with two former acquaintances who supposedly died — but who appear to her to be very much alive. (It seems a possibility, in fact, that one of the undead might have impregnated her in space.)
Oh, and toward the end of the episode, hints of a corporate conspiracy surface.
Despite the kitchen-sink feel to it all, “Extant” has much going for it. Berry impressively handles the task of playing a woman who’s coming to grips with both a interstellar conception and a laboratory-built “son.”
And so far the series has done a good job of balancing the gee-whiz gadget fetishism of science fiction with the need for characters that the viewer will care about. The family dynamic presented is compelling and complex: Molly is far less convinced than John that Ethan, who oscillates between affectionate tot and robot on the verge of rebellion, can genuinely feel emotion for his parents.
To its credit, “Extant” manages to mesh family dynamics and android futurism without coming across like a cross between “The Brady Bunch” and “Westworld.”
But it will be interesting to see if “Extant” can pull all the strings into a cohesive ball, or if viewers will be left dangling by them. With 13 episodes this season, there’s certainly time to bring the myriad intrigues together. They could also devolve into a series of frustratingly unresolved teases.
Much like with whatever is gestating in Molly’s womb, time will tell whether “Extant” is a friendly visitor on this planet or an unwelcome invader to flee from.