A couple of months ago, NBC aired a two-part remake of “Rosemary's Baby” that was completely lacking in suspense, pacing, anything new to say with the material or any reason to exist save for the brand name and the excuse to give Zoe Saldana a pixie haircut. The original film is such a classic that, even if it should never be excused from being remade, at least requires some genuine thought before attempting, which no one involved with the NBC version bothered to try.
CBS' new summer sci-fi series “Extant” (it debuts tonight at 9) isn't another “Rosemary's Baby” remake, though it does involve Halle Berry (also sporting a short haircut, albeit one she's worn often before) becoming pregnant under mysterious, possibly horrifying circumstances. Nor does it feel wildly original as a whole; in addition to the pregnancy, which Berry's astronaut character develops while spending months alone on a space station, there's a story arc about Berry and husband Goran Visjnic raising a robotic little boy, in a manner very much invoking Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick's “A.I.”
But originality often matters less than how well you execute familiar material, and “Extant” – created by Mickey Fisher, with a pilot episode directed by “Sopranos” alum Allen Coulter – does a good enough job with its recycled parts that I was eager to see more, when I went in fearing that the show would be as lacking in urgency and interesting characters as CBS' other summer event show, “Under the Dome.”
Berry plays Molly Woods, an astronaut in a near-future world where the exploration of space has been privatized. Just back from a year-long solo mission, she's struggling to readjust physically – our first glimpse of Halle Berry, TV star, is her with vomit dangling from her lip – and emotionally, particularly as artificially intelligent son Ethan (Pierce Gagnon) seems to be responding very strangely to her since her return.
Then she goes for a follow-up physical and discovers, to her great surprise (but not to that of anyone who has watched CBS' all-out marketing blitz for the show) that she is somehow pregnant, despite all the time alone, and despite a long history of infertility that led to her having a robot son in the first place.
If there's a major flaw in the “Extant” pilot, it's that Molly doesn't seem particularly curious or alarmed about how this happened, which occasionally threatens to make the new show very much like “Under the Dome.” But flashbacks to Molly's mission suggest she knows much more than she's letting on, and that there's a very good reason she isn't freaking out at the thought of an immaculate zero-G conception.
As Molly jumps at shadows coming from her son, her husband and other mysterious characters, there's a genuine sense of tension to the first episode, and it feels like the characters live in a fully-realized science fiction world, where background details big and small give a sense that Fisher and the production team thought long and hard about what such a world would look like, and how the characters would interact with it. (Even a minor thing like the garbage cans look nifty and futuristic.) And if the material about the rights of and dangers posed by an artificial being like Ethan is recycled from “A.I.” and countless other stories about robots, it also is presented in an interesting, thoughtful manner. And Berry provides (pardon the pun) enough gravity to make “Extant” feel like a genuine work of science fiction, rather than a soap opera dressed up in sci-fi drag, which happens too often on the broadcast networks.
It's entirely possible that without Coulter around to direct, or once Fisher has to extend the storyline over multiple episodes, “Extant” could become loose and lacking in direction. But I watched this first episode in the midst of watching a few dozen fall network pilots, and this was a lot more intriguing than many of those. It's a good start, at least.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org