The Silent Sea

Korean sc-fi, an abandoned lunar research base and a lurking secret in the dark… a recipe for success?

What’s The Show? The Silent Sea

What’s It All About, JG? In the near future the Earth is running out of water, turning into a desert for… reasons. On an abandoned research station on the moon that’s been untouched for five years there’s the possibility of a solution, lunar water, which can apparently self-replicate. That means a dangerous, secret mission to the deserted base to try and retrieve the samples of water for a Korean space exploration force. But on arriving, they discover things aren’t as straightforward as a near-lethal rescue mission might otherwise suggest! For there is also something lurking on the base, and the water itself might not turn out to be quite as benign as was hoped… Can the crew get a sample safely back to Earth and get rescued? How many will survive? And just who is Luna and what does she represent?

Why Did You Give It A Go? Bae Doona is in it. That ought, really, to be enough reason for anyone. With a career that spans both Korean-language (Bong Joon-ho’s brilliant The Host) and English-language work (a whole bunch of Wachowski stuff, but Sense-8 in particular) she is never less than brilliant and always a recommendation of the very highest calibre. It’s also a fairly interesting premise, and, by Korean TV standards, fairly short at a sprightly eight episodes.

Is It Any Good? Bae Doona is in it. Which is, of course, to say yes! Of course it bloody is! She’s playing Dr Song Ji-an, who has personal reasons for finding out what happened on the abandoned lunar research base (what with her dead sister having worked there), and of course she brings all the skill and detail you would expect from a Bae Doona performance. Putting her aside though, it’s a show with a particularly great cast, who really know how to milk the drama out of everything that’s going on – especially as that suspension-of-disbelief becomes ever more strained as the series goes on – without going too far over the top. Gong Yoo, as mission leader Captain Han Yoon-jae, brings enough nuance to the role of “leader who puts the mission before all else” to make what could otherwise be a fairly rote part really sing. Of course he’s got excellent pedigree – Squid Game, naturally, and he’s in Train To Busan too – but he really gives life to the part. The whole cast, in fact, give it their all, and roles which – again – may seem fairly standard, like the Inevitable Traitor or I Just Want To Go Home are given form and shape by strong performances throughout.

It’s a sumptuously designed show too. An occasional shortfall of more than a few Korean dramas is they can sometimes look rather like they were shot on an iPhone, but there’s none of that here. The Silent Sea is a Netflix production and you can tell how much cash they’ve thrown at this in order to make it look good. The research base design is incredible, the shots of characters traversing the lunar landscape are blockbuster-movie good, and every single part of the environment feels detailed, fleshed out, and connects with every other. That goes a long way to making the story really feel like it matters. Even shots of the lunar water blasting out of the base, then instantly freezing, feel convincing. It’s a terrific production, which lends real weight to the proceedings.

How Many Of These Did You Watch? Even a cursory glance at this blog will reveal that Korean dramas are very much A Thing I Like, so plenty, and of course all eight episodes of this.

Would You Recommend It? If you felt, at the end of the last Is It Any Good paragraph there was a “but…” hanging over proceedings then congratulations, you can read what passes for my mind. But (heh) it’s not that big of a but (heh). This isn’t quite flawless, and one of the issues here is pacing. At eight episodes – half the usual Korean drama count – you’d think there wouldn’t be that much time for things to slow down, but you would be wrong. There’s definitely a couple of middle-run episodes which shuffle rather too close to languorous for comfort. It’s not enough to cause any serious problems, but it also stands out because it would be pretty easy to avoid. The first couple of episodes – getting to the moon, the ship crashing, the exploration of the abandoned base – are incredibly compelling, and strike a perfect balance between taking their time and using that time to really build up tension and dread. And the final two episodes, when Secrets Are Revealed and we have a mad dash to the finish line, are all pulse racing stuff and absolutely cracking. And the middle couple of episodes… certainly some events occur. That’s a little bit of a shame (although, again to emphasise the point, only a little bit).

The other issue, if indeed one chooses to see it as an issue, is that there’s a lot of familiar material here. The premise, with the lunar water, is almost precisely the same as the Doctor Who story “The Waters Of Mars” (to say nothing of very large amounts of corridor running, which can hardly fail to feel Doctor Who), Luna’s character is straightforwardly Newt from Aliens, Earth-is-in-danger-from-ill-defined-catastrophe comes from a bajillion different dystopian sci-fi shows du jour… You get the point. The question is whether The Silent Sea can assemble it’s hodge-podge of ideas into something compelling… and it mostly does. It’s not – let’s be honest – going to win awards for originality, but there’s more than enough going on moment-to-moment to carry the viewer along. There’s also a light dusting of social satire – citizens in the Korean Republic are assigned a “water grade” which specifies how much water they are rationed, and part of Captain Han’s motivation to come on the mission is that his water grade will be upgra… erm, improved so he can get additional medical benefits to help his sick daughter. This isn’t leaned on too heavily – events on Earth are largely expository in nature rather than emotionally invested in – but it adds a frission of relevancy without over-egging the pudding. Sure, the social satire could have been leaned on a little harder, but not every Korean drama needs to shoot for that, and let’s be honest this is a sci-fi show about water zombies, betrayal and dark secrets – stopping to shoehorn in some clunky social satire really wouldn’t help things.

But what works about The Silent Sea far outweighs what doesn’t. This is a bold and confident production, prepared to allow the viewer time to invest in its characters and the situations, and without pandering or taking the easy path. The show sets up a huge raft of questions in the first couple of episodes, each mystery clear and understandable, and by the end every one has been answered. The writing has clarity about it, and points aren’t raised and simply forgotten about. There’s occasional moments when things might be slightly overplayed – one betrayal was quite enough, thankyouverymuch – but for the most part the script radiates a conviction about itself, and with some justification. And, yes, there’s a lot of familiar elements here, but combined in a way that remains both compelling and engaging. The Silent Sea may not quite be perfect, but it’s more than worth taking the time for. Thoroughly recommended.

Scores On The Doors? 8/10

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