Why Extant Was Such An Insult To Our Intelligence

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Well, it's over. The first (and hopefully only) season of Extant has come to an end. And yes, the idea that Halle Berry's character became pregnant on a solo mission in space wasn't the most promising premise, but did the show have to turn out to be such a turkey?

It Was a Checklist of Scifi Tropes

The non-consensual supernatural/alien pregnancy is already a well-worn (and rather irritating) trope, but it's not the only one that Extant employs. I mean, our major plotlines included a misunderstood boy robot learning to be human and an eccentric billionaire made of Japanese stereotypes. The tropes themselves aren't the problem; it's that Extant hits them so hard. In the finale, we realize how much of the season has been devoted to clumsily finagling Ethan into a heroic sacrifice, one that's paired with a ticking time bomb and a space shuttle flying away from an explosion.


It's especially frustrating, because Extant would occasionally show flashes of something more interesting, of actually trying to build its own world instead of ticking off boxes on some scifi storytelling list. The alien phantoms who repeat back what is sent to them? Wonderfully creepy. The way Ethan would sometimes try to understand his place in the world by interacting with less advanced machines? Full of promise. Last week's episode actually had characters (Fake Katie and Sean) interacting in a human way—even if one of those characters wasn't truly human. At one point, John actually behaved like a person admitted that he was bothered by Molly seeing Marcus again, even as a phantom. But those moments were unfortunately the exception rather than the rule.


Information Was Revealed in the Wrong Order

All season, it has felt like Extant has been trying to wedge square pegs into round plot holes, forcing the story to go in a certain direction—logic and characterization be damned. The more I reflect on the past several weeks of TV, the more I get the sense that Extant was a rough draft of a story that somehow got filmed. For one thing, Ethan's personality got a major overhaul after the pilot, and it seems like some of the pieces from Ethan's revamped storyline never quite fell into place. One moment he's a super-intuitive child, the next he's an advance AI transcending his programming. These changes can work in a more episodic television show, but not so much when you're trying to tell a discrete story. I suspect there's an earlier version of Extant where Ethan's personality ties more closely to Odin's goals.


What's much more problematic than these changes, however, is how poorly Extant was structured as a thriller. We as the audience were given far too much information too early on—about Sparks' complicity in Molly's pregnancy, about Yasumoto's terminal illness, about Odin's luddite allegiances. This meant that we spent a lot of time yelling at the characters for being such idiots (although, they were idiots anyway) and that the show didn't have a lot of mysteries to unfold—instead holding tight to the few remaining puzzles.

For example, in one episode, after the alien fetus had been removed from Molly's uterus, John is made to question whether Molly's apparent pregnancy was part of a hallucination. The episode would be far more interesting if the viewer was left to wonder the same thing. Could it be possible that Molly wasn't really pregnant? That something simply invaded her mind in an utterly cruel way? But we as the viewers know that Molly really was pregnant. We've spent time with Sparks and Yasumoto talking about Molly's pregnancy. We know that Sam was blackmailed into pretending the pregnancy never existed. So watching John and Molly fret over whether the pregnancy was real feels like wasted screen time.


The early reveals may have worked if Extant had been a shorter series, one with fewer episodes that spent less time with the characters chasing each other down.

The Characters Made Utterly Baffling Choices

First, every character who works in any sort of security role on Extant should be fired and never trusted with classified information ever again. Didn't stop a legally dead astronaut from waltzing into the building and stealing intel? Fired. Let some dude you just met babysit your one-of-kind android child? Fired. Run a spacefaring conspiracy but can keep your astronauts from deleting vital data? Fired.


But let's put professional incompetence aside for a moment. Before the events of the show, Katie Sparks jettisoned herself into space to prevent an alien contaminant from reaching Earth. If only the other adult characters had an ounce of Katie's sense of decency and selflessness. Alan Sparks turned into a selfish monster when faced with a very poor copy of his dead daughter. Julie acts like a lioness when it comes to Ethan—until a ruggedly handsome face comes along. But Molly, Molly might be the worst of them.

Despite everything that happens to Molly, despite the fact that something invaded her womb and impregnated her, she's never particularly suspicious or particularly smart. She tends to believe whomever it's convenient for the writers to have her believe. And where Katie Sparks was willing to sacrifice her life to prevent alien contamination on Earth, Molly is willing to risk alien contamination on Earth to save her life. In the finale, when AI Ben stops Molly's shuttle from undocking from the Seraphim, I was rooting for Ben. Incidentally, someone should probably tell that French astronaut who recovered Fake Katie from the escape pod that he needs a xenocidal shower.


And Wait, What Was the Point of This Show Anyway?

It's easier to forgive a show for being ambitious and then failing, but Extant abandoned a lot of its thematic ambitions early on in the series. Initially, this seemed to be a story about what form the future of humanity would take. Ethan and Molly's offspring should have been a sort of Cain and Abel. Would humanity's legacy take the form of an advanced AI, a deliberate child carefully nurtured who then surpassed humanity? Or would it be this hybrid foisted on humanity by a foreign race? Would humanity go extinct, or survive in a new form?


But the show called Extant dropped much of its musings on the future of humanity in favor of explosions and warm, fuzzy Ethan moments. It's a shame, because there might have been room for both in the story if Extant had allowed itself to be a little smarter.