Goran Visnjic and Halle Berry star in Steven Spielberg's "Extant." (Jaimie Trueblood/CBS)
There’s a popular saying amongst writers, which is, “write what you know.” Though it’s not always the easiest or most enticing option, it’s when writers stick to those guidelines that their material tends to stand out the most. But when it comes to science fiction, no one can really know what they’re talking about; it’s all conjecture, hopes, ideas. So how do you write a good science-fiction story if you don’t know the future?
This very question has plagued the genre since its beginnings, a large reason why many people don’t identify with it, or view it as nerdy. Often the subject matter is too technical or the story is not interesting or, even simpler, there’s no reason for the story to be told other than to show off cool gizmos. It’s also the reason why, when a really good sci-fi comes along, it does really, really well.
Though I’m not a huge fan of the film myself, Christopher Nolan’s Inception played a large role in the recent resurgence of science fiction over the past five years. It’s movies like that, The Matrix, Blade Runner and other seminal films of the genre that invigorate and inspire generations of filmmakers to come. For all those classics and key films that make the genre what it is, few have contributed as much to it than Steven Spielberg. In terms of writing what you know, Spielberg may be the only one who can lay a claim to knowing science fiction.
I don’t have to boast his resumé, so I won’t. When I first heard of his new series, “Extant,” I was not at all surprised to learn that it was of the science-fiction variety. Though he has tried his hand at fitting the genre into television in the past (“Taken,” “Terra Nova”), they never really took off in a major way (His other current show, “Under the Dome,” also on CBS, started strong but has been steadily declining in ratings.). With “Extant,” I happened to watch it by chance, something I could use to kill an hour, not expecting much … I’m happy to say I was wrong.
Generally I don’t think science fiction can survive for an extended amount of time on network television, or television at all, for that matter, because of how expensive it is to make. Consider how much time, effort and money go into creating sets, animating and rendering CGI elements and everything else that may go into it. A sci-fi scene in which two people converse over dinner is considerably more expensive to shoot than a normal, earthly conversation of the same content.
Other genres, like fantasy, suffer the same fate on television – there’s just not enough money for doing it, and doing it right. HBO’s “Game of Thrones” is one of very few fantasy shows that have been commercially and critically successful; this is because HBO throws mountains of money at it. The pilot alone cost $5-10 million, while the first season cost a whopping $60 million. The fact is, not many networks have that kind of money to risk, and none of them want to, especially when they can get a significant return on their investment with something much cheaper and far less risky to make. That – combined with the fact that the modern TV viewer is sharp and versed, waiting for the creator to slip up, ready to pounce on any mistake – is why there is never good sci-fi TV.
Taking all the above into consideration; that sci-fi isn’t meant for TV, that it’s too expensive and tiring to make and, to make right, that Spielberg is one of the few alive who truly know science fiction … with all that in mind, I don’t hesitate when I say the pilot was a success. The visuals and attention to detail were so slick and impressive that I, at times, forgot it was television, mistaking it instead for a film. The storyline is enticing, and the mystery is fresh. It’s not over the top, yet, there’s enough to keep you wondering.
It’s the small touches that really create this vivid world. Instead of a high-tech car chase, Halle Berry instead shows us what a recycling bin would look like 100 years from now as she takes out her trash. It’s masterfully done in the way the world is created, though much of its success is due to the talent in front of the camera as well as behind. Berry and Goran Visnjic give noteworthy performances as the leads, which only lends more credibility to the proceedings.
The show is currently on its fifth episode, though I still have only seen the pilot. I’ll have to wait until the weekend to binge the rest and see whether or not they keep the standard of quality they’ve set for themselves. Being a huge science-fiction fan, I’m excited to experience a longer-form narrative that can keep the production value high. Though Spielberg hasn’t quite succeeded with sci-fi TV in the past, I sure as hell hope he does this time.
“Extant” airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on CBS.