by Irma Arkus
There is a new generation of science fiction on television and I can think of no better way of calling it than Lady SciFi.
What is Lady SciFi? Good question indeed. I’ve been breaking my head trying to understand what Extant is, or whether Outlander even qualifies as science fiction, and indeed, they both belong in the same sub-category of shows with an appeal to primarily female audience.
On the one hand, these shows are a welcome change from the recent stabs at hard sci-fi, both in film and tv, largely oriented toward men. And lest not forget comic book films, which this year proved to be largely exceptional in storytelling, but continue to be abysmally weak (as always) in the female character development department.
Outlander is a little bit of romance, little bit of time traveling, but mixed with a lush, period drama. This high quality production is based on a series of best selling books by Diana Gabaldon, and represents a new era of high-production value for Starz network.
My guess is that Outlander is an answer to the powerhouse that is GoT by Starz, and is going to be a relatively successful one.
The show, created and produced by Ronald D. Moore (of Battlestar Galactica), stars Caitriona Balfe as Claire Beauchamp, who while on post-war vacation in Scotland with her amateur historian husband, gets transported back in time to 1743, right in the midst of uprisings, political maneuvers and major conflicts between Scots and English.
In two blinks of an eye, savvy Claire becomes held by the “laird” whose illness forces her to show off her medicine woman skills, which the world of 1743 desperately needs.
The story itself is interesting, interspersed with lots of Scottish pride, pomp, and circumstance, tradition and incomprehensible Scottish dialects, peppered with numerous speeches that lack some much needed subtitles.
This is all very nice and dandy, but the production feels as if it is a brainchild borne of Scotland’s Ministry of Tourism, and that of Scottish nationalist party (whoever that may be). A lot of chest thumping and noble pomp, the show is a rudimentary propaganda piece with heavy separatist tones. To call them undertones would be a stretch.
These are not political messages of peace, love and understanding, but rather a call for war, honour, freedom, tradition and Scottish cultural integrity, and all that perfectly timed for the Scottish separatist referendum.
I cannot fault the show for it, but it feels somewhat burdensome to watch it. Despite the lush cinematography, and beautiful costumes, and some mighty handsome men who do what it is that Scottish men do, it feels like a beautified propaganda piece. Then again, perhaps it is time for some feistier political messaging on TV, subtlety be damned.
The other thing that bothers me is the acting. Claire is supposed to be this strong, smart, savvy, knowledgeable and even sexually provocative character, yet Caitriona Balfe appears to be incredibly waspy, cold and wooden actress who makes the likes of the queen of wasp, Andy MacDowell, look like a tropical heat pump with chortling laughter and a bubbly personality in comparison. And that is something of a concern.
Caitriona Balfe after all, is a model, considered beautiful by photographers and fashion designers alike, and she may have graced catwalks and magazine covers, but for the life of me, I fail to remember her in anything at all, despite her fair number of acting roles.
She feels wooden, she looks wooden, and while her body may represent the photographic ideal of the fashion world, I would have given my firstborn for someone more human and curvy, and with a bit more personality to have been cast for this role.
I thought it would become easier to connect with her character, that she would grow on me a bit, but as the show goes on, she is becoming mildly repellent, colder and less sympathetic.
Extant, on the other hand, is also Lady SciFi, but more of a Mommy SciFi. I’m not even sure that this is a television show, but the heavy marketing campaigns assure me that that is indeed the case.
Brought to us by Steven Spielberg, (which is strange, because the show has more in common with Ronald D. Moore’s Helix than anything else I can think of,) the show focuses on a mom, who is both a mother to an android and an alien newborn.
Halle Berry, an accomplished actress for whom I have the utmost respect, stars in the protagonist role. Berry, as Molly Woods, is an accomplished scientist who spends some odd 13 months in orbit on a solo mission, only to come back with some interesting cargo on board.
Woods returns home to her loving husband and their solution to her barren state, a little android child, that looks and acts just like the tyke from AI.
In fact, the entire storyline feels like it has been pasted out of random, trashed pages from AI, and has been progressively getting less coherent.
Characters that were entirely in the background, such as the case with Alan Sparks or Gordon Kern, become suddenly enriched with flimsy backgrounds, and are pushed to the forefront in a matter of minutes.
Berry is mostly seen flailing, sweating, doing her best to keep up appearances. I am not sure that any of the actors know what is going on, and they get to read the scripts before they shoot the show. As for the viewers, I can assure you that we can only surmise that this show has been written by monkeys.
Extant fails to connect in terms of narrative integrity, timing, action, and is generally drowning in what I can only call an abysmal failure.
At this point, the show has hit its 11th episode, and let me assure you, things have not been getting better. Quite the opposite, in fact. At this point, the alien man-child is on the loose, and the action surrounding the chase after him is incredibly poor.
That said, the lighting is good. The costumes are great, and the future looks like it has been constructed out of catalogue pages. It’s also making me cranky, because there is a missing piece of the story that pertains to their society, aka. our future. They are either living in an era of prosperity because of some cataclysmic event, or the show is simply suffering from the fact that the peeps working on this production are entirely divorced from reality of human existence, which constitutes the extra insult to viewers, as the show is called Extant.
Those blind monkeys working on this show will most likely never see the second season, so I recommend you soak up as much Berry as possible.
These two shows represent an interesting new breed of television. They are grappling with science fiction themes while trying to connect to a less explored audience. Similar science fiction developments aimed at teen audiences also premiered this year, namely The 100, and Star-Crossed.
All of this implies is that science fiction is currently the less explored genre with a huge potential, and that there are indeed less explored audiences, which may result in that one new show to reach unprecedented heights of popularity.
With HBO raising the bar with GoT, I am hoping some of it will soon translate into not only ill-conceived Lady Sci-Fi, but excellent, high-quality science fiction television that will garner fans for generations to come.