Extant’s dubious technological mix

Halle Berry in Extant

Halle Berry in Extant (CBS)

American audiences are presently being treated to a miniseries on CBS: Extant, the story of an astronaut (Halle Berry as Molly) who discovers that she somehow became pregnant while on a 13-month solo mission in space.

Naturally, I’m all for science fiction series, including mini-series (and I have no problem whatsoever with watching Halle Berry for an hour each week), so I was ready for a ride when the series started.

I was also hoping to see some interesting science and technology depicted in a story about an astronaut.  But there are some things about Extant that I didn’t expect, because… well, let me say that I’m not sure they’re well thought out.

To begin with., there’s the mission during which Molly gets pregnant, which is apparently a 13-month solo mission in space, presumably far enough out to preclude easy communications with Earth.  So it’s just the astronaut and the Hal-like computer.  And the astronaut’s primary job seems to be experimenting on plants.

Here’s the primary driver of this series, and I have to call BS right off.  To begin with, I can’t imagine any space organization that would send a single astronaut on a year-plus-long space mission—that, alone, seems ludicrous.  Suppose the single astronaut gets sick or injured… who’s to help them?  Ben, the disembodied computer voice?  If she knocks herself out accidentally smacking her head into a bulkhead, what’s Ben supposed to do about it… yell at her to wake up?

Secondly, unless she’s out past Jupiter, she should be able to communicate with Earth, with no more than about an hour’s delay.  That’s not exactly stranded at the South Pole.  Yet Extant makes the mission seem like it’s Vegas: What happens here, stays here.  And it apparently gives the astronauts the ability to erase all records of what they do there, with no access to backup by NASA.

And finally: She’s tending plants.  Whatever experiments she’s doing with plants could be done in orbit.  No reason to be solo and isolated for that.

So: Setup, blown.  A little more work might have fixed these inconsistencies—a more believable mission (exploring the Kuiper Belt or the Oort Cloud beyond Neptune, perhaps) would have greatly helped.  Yet the solo part is simply unreasonable… there must be someone up there with her, at which case, you come up with another explanation for how she could become pregnant (if both astronauts were women, at least that would solve the obvious question), and how the other astronaut didn’t know what happened (asleep, off on an EVA, playing on the holodeck, etc).

Look at how much I’ve said, and I haven’t even gotten back to Earth, yet!  This is an Earth with flying rocket toys, electric cars (BMW prototypes, and don’t they look cute!), and health monitors you wear in your mouth.  Oh, and did I mention the robot child, Ethan?  Yes, Molly and her husband John have been unable to have kids (making Molly’s situation doubly strange), but John happens to be a roboticist, so he brings home a prototype robot child for them to act like parents to, A.I.-style.

So, if robots are that sophisticated, why aren’t there robotic servants and maids all over the place?  Even simpler robots than Ethan would be infinitely useful around the house, keeping buildings clean and secure, etc.  I’d expect to see much more automation around in this future world if Ethan was even remotely possible.

And apparently, the denizens of this future agree.  When Molly and John take Ethan to a normal school to interact with real children, a bunch of parents oppose it.  One of them, being played like a total redneck (including the obligatory pushed-back baseball cap!), complains that there are robots at his plant, and they have to be kept separate from people because they are so dangerous.  Yes, I can see how this guy would equate a robot boy with a 1-ton welder bolted to a factory floor.  Molly steps in and supplies some wise words (“He’s just different.  You don’t have to be afraid of different.”), and in a moment that is wholly unlike real life, the parents grudgingly accept it and walk away.  No calls put in to someone’s lawyer, no baseball bats yanked out of the back seat of a pickup truck to take to Ethan’s head.  Suddenly I’m not even sure this show takes place in the U.S.

So, okay, we have very sophisticated automation, in the form of space station computers and equally sophisticated robot children.  So why aren’t these advanced automation systems driving everyone’s cars by now?  Those who know me know that I not only support and look forward to the day all cars in the U.S. drive themselves independently of human actions, but I believe the highways will never be safe until that day.  Seeing people driving themselves about just seemed unrealistic to me.  Of course, there is the aforementioned doubt that this series takes place in the U.S.; maybe they only have a few dozen cars in this mysterious country (the Duchy of Grand Fenwick, perhaps), in which case, automated cars may not be needed.

We have an ex-astronaut, Harmon, who has apparently faked his own death (or someone faked it for him), and now he slinks in and out of alleys to warn Molly, when he’s not living in a 1950’s style trailer on a hill.  No authorities know he’s there, despite the fact that any surveillance satellite could find that trailer on the hill.  For that matter, there are probably drones being used for surveillance in this day and age; there was probably one assigned to Molly when she returned (if this whole mystery was, as the show suggests, somehow engineered or encouraged by someone in NASA), and that drone would’ve been able to pick out Harmon in the bushes and follow him home.  So Harmon should be about as hidden and anonymous as a shirtless Justin Beiber at a Hollywood nightclub.

And… and okay, I’m going to stop there, because we’ve only had three episodes so far.  At least the performances are very good, I can’t fault the acting at all (not even that of Pierce Gagnon, who has the toughest role of all, being a convincing robot boy).  But the world-building of Extant leaves a lot to be desired.  It depends on some questionable-to-highly-dubious thoughts and applications of science and technology; and even if the performances of Berry et al become Emmy-worthy, the application of science on this show is already leaving a sour taste in my mouth.

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