Let me start with a confession: I am a spaceaholic. Which means that I’m a sucker for any yarn in any form – a novel, movie, TV series, documentary – that deals with “the final frontier… voyages… to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before,” to quote the voiceover at the beginning of “Star Trek,” the cult TV series that originated in 1966, when mankind was on its way to conquer space, but before the earthshaking landing on the moon.
As such, I’m the ideal audience for the sci-fi/space/horror TV series “Extant” (on HOT Zone, on Saturdays at 9 P.M., for the next 12 weeks; the first episode aired last week). And as befits a space story, where distance is measured by time units such as light-years, the time lines get jumbled: In the U.S., where the series originated on the CBS network, it premiered in July and aired its 11th episode last Wednesday, with two more to go until the finale, with an average rating of 6.4 million viewers (1.14 million in the 18-49 group, the one that matters). That means that from surfing the net I know more about the series than I can tell you without spoiling your viewing pleasure and exposing myself to your anger and scorn.
Time is of the essence in the plot of the series as well. Its heroine, the female astronaut Molly Woods, returns to earth (the first episode was titled “Re-entry”) after a 13th-month solitary mission in space. We see her, in the second shot of the opening sequence, in the bathroom throwing up, and it soon turns out that she is in the early stages of pregnancy. Was this a second coming of an immaculate conception?
Seraphim, the name of the space station in which Molly spent more than a year alone (although she experienced an unexplained power shortage there and had visions of a former lover, an astronaut who died in a car crash), seems to point viewers toward the mysteriously theological, if not supernatural. Seraphim is the Latin transliteration of a Hebrew word, taken to mean “the living creatures with six wings, hands and feet, and a (presumably) human voice, seen in Isaiah’s vision as hovering above the throne of God.” (OED).
The name of one of the producers of the series, however, points us in a different direction, that of the extraterrestrial. It is Steven Spielberg of “E.T.” (among many other films) fame. And in the first episode, the viewers, along with Molly, discover that unexpected and baffling events took place not only in space, but on earth as well. While Molly was otherwise occupied, her scientist husband, Dr. John Woods, a robotics engineer, created a humanoid robot boy named Ethan (please note the “e.t.” in his name), whom he treats as his – and Molly’s – son. And young Ethan soon enough – although he is clearly an artificial, not a human, construct, and is powered by batteries – demonstrates enough of a free will to create quite a few story lines and several moral dilemmas.
All that sounds intriguing enough to make one (especially one like me) watch the series with bated breath, even before becoming aware that the actress who plays Molly is a mega-movie star on her own right. She is Halle Berry, who has an Academy Award (the only African-American woman to win one for a leading role), plus an Emmy and a Golden Globe to her credit, on top of being one of the highest paid actresses in Hollywood in the 2000s. This is her first foray into TV series land. With her looks and charisma, in “Extant” she has to contend with a mysterious pregnancy, an estranged husband, a humanoid robot son, a deceased lover, an astronaut colleague who was thought to have committed suicide (but apparently actually did not), possible political, scientific and criminal conspiracies, as well as matters extraterrestrial.
In real life to date, 57 women have been to space and back since the Russian (then still Soviet) Valentina Tereshkova blazed the trail in June 1963. It took the first American woman, Sally Ride, 20 years more, almost to the day, to get there. Four American female astronauts perished in space or on the way there: Christa McAuliffe and Judith Resnik, the first Jewish-American woman astronaut, both of them in the Challenger disaster, January 1986; Laurel B. Clark and Kalpana Chawla (the first India-born American female astronaut), both in the Columbia disaster, February 2003. There were mothers in space, and children born to women following space travel. So far there have been no pregnant women in space, and/or sexual intercourse or conception (immaculate or otherwise) that we know of.
Halle Barry is far from being the first female in space on the screen, big or small. Sandra Bullock, ranked the 14th richest woman in the entertainment industry in 2007, had her share of weightlessness in the 2013 movie “Gravity,” where she encountered death (that of a fellow astronaut played by George Clooney) rather than a return to earth unexpectedly expecting. Jane Fonda shed her clothes in space in Roger Vadim’s 1968 movie “Barbarella,” leading to some viewers’ (mine) nights of passion.
Fictional space travel movies and TV series tend to deal with sci-fi (even in a period when science beats fantasy again and again), disasters real and fictional (the real Apollo 13 accident, the fictional “Armageddon”), and existential conundrums (“2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Solaris”).
In real life, quite a few astronauts, male and female, returned from space and experienced some difficulties in readjusting to more than zero gravity. Of the 12 American astronauts who walked on the moon, Buzz Aldrin took communion while there (it was kept secret), and suffered clinical depression upon his return; James B. Irwin suffered a heart attack when he came back to Earth and founded the High Flight Foundation to spread the Christian gospel during the last 20 years of his life. Notably, he took several groups on expeditions to Mt. Ararat to search for Noah’s Ark. Edgar D. Mitchell retired in 1972 and founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences, which explores psychic and paranormal events. Mitchell gained some notoriety for his views on UFOs: He has asserted that the government is covering up evidence about the crash of a U.S. surveillance balloon at Roswell, New Mexico in 1947.
But all of this is beside the point of “Extant” as a series. In the title sequence, the word extant morphs from “extinct,” a concept Ethan has to grapple with. So, as the countdown to liftoff has ended, fasten your seat belts and enjoy the fictional ride as long as it lasts. As of this writing, there is no news of a second season or the lack of one. Trust the producers to leave the finale open to allow for another orbit around the ratings.