Another Life

Loopy, lopsided yet weirdly… well not compelling, but certainly watchable sci-fi from Netflix.

What’s The Show? Another Life

What’s It All About, JG? In the near future an alien artefact appears on Earth, unexplained and uncommunicative. Yes, just like the movie Arrival! This time the alien ship looks like a sort of metallic mobius strip, except when the thing lands when it becomes a crystal tower. The narrative is split between following Niko, captain of the Salvere, which sets out to find the origins of the alien whatever-it-is, and her husband Erik back on Earth who’s investigating from a more terran perspective. The ship and it’s crew come across a variety of hurdles to strain credibility in all sorts of peculiar directions, while on Earth Erik fumbles around trying to work out what’s going on with the bloody great crystal until he’s essentially pushed into using a media “influencer” to help him break the story. Space shenanigans and faintly political/military thriller material ensues, until Niko gets an alien planet blown up and their daughter gets leukaemia. Sounds credible!

Why Did You Give It A Go? The idea of doing Arrival-but-a-TV-show really isn’t terrible, and though Arrival the movie is terrific, having more space and scope to stretch out and explore the implications of something like a mysterious artefact just arriving one day is a good idea. Certainly it’s fair to say that Netflix have the resources to be able to deliver on what would be a fairly ambitious undertaking. And Niko is played by Katee Sackhoff, who not only was Starbuck in the peerless Battlestar Galactica, but is an actor with a long history of being able to deliver perfectly on strong material and lift substandard material when it’s found to be lacking somewhat. Finally, the premise is also faintly reminiscent of long, long forgotten but rather excellent late 90’s sci-fi series Invasion: Earth. From the title you can probably guess how that went…

Is It Any Good? It’s… well, it’s… um. Of the adjectives I could reach for I am not sure that “good” is top of the list, though it’s deeply peculiar in a way that makes you both think, “what the hell is this?” and “fine, I’ll watch another one” but without ever really approaching the word “compelling”. A lot of the problems that the Salvere encounter feel fairly mechanical, obstacles to overcome because the ship can’t arrive at the alien planet until near the end of the season because otherwise the show will end too quickly so they need to keep vamping up till that point. A crew member does something stupid! Some arbitrary space thing! Um, I guess there’s an alien bug on the ship now? One of the crew have been taken over! And so forth. It’s all stuff you’ve probably seen before arranged in a way you probably haven’t seen before (or at least adjacent to things you haven’t seen before). Some of it is engaging (mostly Niko’s struggle to remain in control and command) and some of it isn’t, though none of it is really bad – the cast and direction go a long way to making up for a bunch of scripts that appear to be put together by simply shuffling pages at random. The Earth-based stuff is considerably more rote, with Erik’s struggles to understand the alien artefact eliciting groans as much as fascination, and the entirely unnecessary inclusion of their young daughter completely fails to inject any “drama” into “family drama”. It’s not an easy show to elucidate the good points from the bad points – quite possibly because they’re often the same thing – but there’s no denying that it maintains a curious fascination, even if it’s just to see whether they pull any of this off or if it car-crashes at the end of the season.

How Many Episodes Did You Watch? All of them, which is to say the ten episodes that comprise the first season. Again, it’s never a show that come close to compelling, but the sheer oddness of it makes it strangely difficult to put down. I was certainly interested enough to find out how they were planning on ending the season to stick with it, and I most assuredly did not have “strange aliens blow up some rando planet” on my scorecard as how it would all conclude.

Would You Recommend It? Anyone who is even faintly sci-fi literate will know all the core elements here. The “blow up the planet” is what the Borg do at the end of the Star Trek: Voyager episode “Scorpion, Pt 1”. The mysterious artefact is, as mentioned, basically the same as Arrival. The attempts at realism on-board the Salvare are very Battlestar Galactica. The “all alien environments are hostile” could come from anything from “Lost In Space” to, well, Lost In Space. William, the hologram that controls the ship, suggests both Star Trek: Voyager, Star Trek: The Next Generation (Data’s struggle to becomes human) and Red Dwarf. Yet the cast are so good here they do make this familiar-yet-strangely-arranged melange of stuff worth watching. Sackhoff is straightforwardly brilliant, even when the material she’s given very much isn’t, but special praise also goes to Samuel Anderson (Doctor Who‘s Danny Pink) as William who manages to invest his Pinocchio riff with real heart, and Selma Blair, who’s rather great as the manipulative Harper Glass, out to get her story no matter what.

The show is bracingly unsentimental in disposing of characters who have served their purpose and no longer have any function, so there’s a long list of he/she-was-good-oh-they’re-dead characters too, but everyone gives it their all (sole exception: Justin Chatwin as Erik – he’s Ok, but it’s not a very inspired character and he doesn’t bring a lot). This is also an exceedingly socially conscious show, which is to its strength as well – it’s female-led, there’s a trans character (who doesn’t just die!), strong female representation throughout the cast, representations of polyamory, a properly international cast so everyone isn’t just blandly Caucasian, and so on. These details don’t greatly impact the plot but go a long way towards helping the world-building, making this seems like a plausible extension of social trends as they are now without simply battering the audience over the head trying to be performatively woke. It’s one of the best handled aspects of the whole show.

Scores On The Doors? Uh. 6 seems harsh, but 7 seems a touch generous. Let’s go for 6.5/10. It’s not always a great show but the “what the fuck?” elements and the cast did keep me coming back for more.

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