The series premier of CBS’s science fiction series Extant brought together the fields of artificial intelligence and intelligent alien life. It also gave us a mystery pregnancy, a powerful but sketchy corporation headed by an eerily calm rich guy, a faked suicide, nature vs. nurture in child rearing, and the tease of possible extinction. It was a lot, but it was promising.
The series takes place in a future that looks much like the present, with a few notable differences in everyday items like photo albums and the trash. The photos in photo albums move, and the trash disposal is fancy. Halle Berry stars as astronaut Molly Woods, who has just returned from a thirteen month solo space mission for Yasumoto Corp. She’s married to a successful tech inventor named John. They have an android child named Ethan.
The Yasumoto Corporation engages in private sector space exploration, among other scientific things. The organization is headed by the billionaire Hideki Yasumoto. Mr. Yasumoto is introduced as he is awakened by scientists from suspension in a tank of gelatenous fluids. It looks the way one would imagine a 4th generation cryogenic youth chamber would look, but the purpose of the tank wasn’t expounded upon.
The Strange Encounter
We’re shown that during Molly’s mission, she engaged in horticultural studies within an artificially intelligent space ship. One day the ship detected a solar flare, and it went offline shortly after. It was offline for hours, during which time Molly had an encounter with a being that looked like her deceased ex, who had also been an astronaut.
Now, a lot of people have rules about never taking back an ex. Might I propose a rule to never open the door for your deceased ex when he appears on your space ship during a solo mission and writes “Help Me” on the glass? Fake ex-boyfriend’s iris and pupil were one large black disc in each eye, and his ocular muscles did not seem to function. Despite being able to write in English, his speech was limited to stiffly repeating a few words that Molly said to him. He was wearing plain clothes, not astronaut gear.
Being in space for extended periods of time can be very lonely, though, so Molly let fake ex-boyfriend in. Importantly, when he appeared to her he was already within the space ship. She did not let him in through an external door, but an internal one. They touched one another’s faces, and he ran a finger down the zipper on her jumpsuit. Molly wept a single tear and she fainted. When she awoke, the ship was still on back-up power. Molly panicked. She reviewed the footage of her encounter and saw that she was the only person visible on the camera. She appeared to be miming physical contact. Rather than watching further than what we were shown, she quickly deleted the recorded video at two sources. Maybe she remembers what happened during the deleted hours, but we certainly don’t know.
You In Danger, Girl
When Molly returns to earth, she has to undergo protocol post-trip procedures at Yasumoto Corp. Her medical exam reveals that she became pregnant sometime while she was in space. We learn that Molly has always been unable to conceive children, so it’s a miracle among miracles. She takes the news much more casually than I would. Molly asks the doctor – a friend of hers – to keep a lid on the pregnancy while she “figures it out.” I don’t know how she’s planning to do that. It’s not like she can roll back that beautiful bean footage from the spaceship or conduct her own tests on the fetus.
Molly’s superiors at Yasumoto Corp. want to know about the missing video footage. She lies, saying that she accidentally deleted it. Her supervisors don’t believe her. They tell Mr. Yasumoto that something sketch is going on. We learn that a male astronaut recently committed suicide after returning from a solo mission that also encountered a “solar flare.” They decide to keep an eye on Molly. This includes watching her sessions with the company-provided therapist through a hidden camera. That’s highly unethical, but these are only half the troubles in Molly’s life.
The Other Half
Molly’s other half, her husband John Woods, is a tech wizard and a really nice guy. He’s created an android that he and Molly are raising as a son. The child, Ethan, is about 10 years old. Ethan looks, talks, moves and interacts like a regular child. He’s been programmed to exercise free will, which he does by spying on Molly in the bathroom, getting into a fight with another child, throwing a tantrum over ice cream, and possibly killing a bird in the woods. He always wears a blank but eerie expression, but as long as it spares me child actor emoting, I’m fine with him giving me middle school Rosemary’s Baby.
John needs funding to take his project beyond the one android. We see him give a proposal to the board of Yasumoto Corp. His goal is to develop androids that can exercise free will, just like humans. He believes that if the androids are raised from childhood like human children, they will think and behave like humans.
John presents Ethan to the board, and they proceed to ask a lot of questions that would hurt any child’s feelings. The board wants to know if there are any safeguards in place to shut down or terminate Ethan in case he behaves dangerously. John doesn’t believe these safeguards are necessary. He doesn’t do well in his presentation, but they don’t reject it because he’s a poor presenter. They reject it because they think it’s too dangerous for androids to have free will. Later, Mr. Yasumoto funds the venture as a private citizen, but he only does this to keep a closer eye on Molly.
The Trash Man
Molly’s also being stalked in this episode whenever she goes to take out the trash. It’s the astronaut with the Captain America chin. Turns out he didn’t commit suicide. He tells Molly to be careful and not to trust anyone. Then he disappears back into the bushes. Why are people who fake their suicides always so stingy with their words?
Creeping on the Downlow
We’re meant to believe that young Ethan is an oddball with anger issues, but I’m not certain that he is. It’s not uncommon for a fight to break out during a sports game when one boy wants the ball and another won’t give it to him. It’s not the appropriate way to respond, but it’s a teachable moment that happens with real boys too. We saw that John tried to teach Ethan a better approach, while Molly kept her distance. In fact she’s distant from the child in general. She views him as just a machine programmed to act like a child. She tugged on him quite rudely when she got the eerie note at the park, which said, “I know what happened to you.” Made the child drop his ice cream. On top of that, he had to sit in front of a panel of people who said he’s dangerous and could one day grow up to kill everybody. I’d have a chip on my shoulder too if this was my life. We’ll see if more dead birds are found in his presence, but for now I’ll cut him some slack. He wasn’t the creepiest thing in this episode.
Dueling Human Fears
Alien invasion, in the form of large ships arriving in the sky to decimate the Western world, has always been a narrative about the fear of colonization. It’s a fear of ships showing up in our lands to take them over, and do to our population what was done to Native Americans and the people of [insert 3rd world country] – to decimate, enslave, or otherwise egregiously harm us in a way that will have permanent effects.
Artificial intelligence, on the other hand, is a parallel to mankind’s fall from the grace of God through the exercise of free will. To act in ways other than those in which your creator wants you to is the historical record of many religions as well as the largest theoretical fear of advancements in AI. An uprising by intelligent beings that were created by humans would be a repetition of humans acting against the commandments, rules or wishes of their creator(s).
So in a sense, alien invasions and the uprising of artificial intelligence are both a fear of Others doing to humans what humans have done to others. I’m interested to see whether, in this show, the two types of Others will cancel one another out. One important thing Ethan said during this episode is that Molly was “not the same since she came back.” Her husband noticed that she’s been distant, but could Ethan be aware that she’s pregnant? Perhaps rather than being a threat, the artificial intelligence will be the saving force in this narrative. Or vice versa. Note that the strange encounter on the spaceship happened while its artificial intelligence was down.
I’m not yet certain that Molly encountered an alien on the ship. It’s also possible that Yasumoto is conducting mental and physical experiments on its astronauts. But assuming we’re dealing directly with both humanoid aliens and androids with free will in one show, there’s some good possibilities. I’m interested to see how combining these two threats will serve this show.
Extant airs Wednesdays on CBS, and is available on demand the next day through Amazon Instant Video. Steven Speilberg is one of the show’s executive producers, and Halle Berry is a co-executive producer.