Former Battlestar Galactica star Katee Sackhoff returns to duty in space for Netflix’s new sci-fi drama Another Life. I wish she could have brought some of that prior show’s good writing with her.
The premise of the series is basically Arrival meets Lost in Space with a fair amount of Event Horizon and a lot of other familiar sci-fi and horror tropes thrown in. At some undetermined point in the future, a seemingly unmanned ship of alien origin lands on Earth and plants itself on the ground, unresponsive to any attempt to communicate with it. The American government assigns Niko Breckinridge (Sackhoff) to captain a vessel called the Salvare on a mission to the planet where the object is believed to have come from, in order to search for answers and determine whether these aliens are friendly or hostile. This doesn’t sit well with the Salvare’s former commander, Ian Yerxa (Tyler Hoechlin), a hothead who resents being demoted down to First Officer and wants to lead the mission himself.
The rest of the crew are a bunch of vapid twenty-somethings with varying degrees of unprofessional behavior, from mildly petulant to full-on psycho bitch, and the show makes every excuse to have them spend a lot of time running around the ship in their underwear. The most interesting of the supporting cast is an A.I. hologram named William (Samuel Anderson), who is essential to keep the ship running (better hope nobody shuts him off!) and is clearly in love with Niko even though that’s not supposed to be possible.
Over the course of the season, the Salvare crew will face a host of disasters that you’d expect to see in an episodic sci-fi drama, from mechanical and computer malfunctions to an alien virus that kills some of the characters in gruesome fashion. One episode in the middle is your standard “trapped in a nightmare” / “it’s all a dream” scenario that you’ve seen a thousand times before in a thousand different shows. Conveniently, the Salvare keeps an extensive backup crew in hypersleep for the journey, so any character who gets killed off can be quickly replaced.
While Niko is off in space, her scientist husband Erik (Justin Chatwin) stays on Earth with their young daughter and attempts to communicate with the alien artifact. His efforts are complicated by interference from both the military and the planet’s most popular social media “journalist” (a very generous use of that term) played by Selma Blair, who wants the scoop on the aliens and isn’t burdened by any sense of ethics getting in her way.
Season Verdict / Grade: B-
Since it premiered last week, the reaction to Another Life has been pretty toxic, with many reviews calling out the clichéd writing, the annoying characters, and the sometimes dodgy visual effects. Some of those complaints are warranted and some are overstated. The VFX are actually fine for the most part, especially the spaceship shots – but, yeah, the CGI is less convincing at times, the costumes look cheap (the show makes a point of stating that uniforms are obsolete and the crew get to stay in casual wear most of the time, but it’s a dumb conceit), and one episode has a subplot set in a cave that looks very soundstagey.
The bigger problem is that most of the characters are assholes and/or idiots. The idea that these are the people who would be sent on a mission to save humanity is absurd. An early episode lifts a scene straight out of Prometheus (never a good idea) and has a couple of dumbasses remove their space helmets in order to breathe the air on an unknown alien planet in complete defiance of common sense. Even when one of their teammates chastises them for the astounding stupidity of doing so, that teammate then does the same thing a couple episodes later. I understand that sci-fi shows like this require a certain amount of suspension of disbelief that every planet the characters land on will have the same atmosphere and gravity as Earth, but if the show is actually going to call attention to this and pretend to address real science by having the characters talk about it, then it needs some consistency on the issue. Otherwise, the characters just look like morons.
Far too much screen time is spent on a pointless storyline about a horny engineer (Blu Hunt from The CW’s The Originals) who wants to have a threesome with two of her male coworkers. Why is anyone supposed to care about that? Even Niko comes across as kind of an unreasonable bitch, and Sackhoff’s overacting and exaggerated facial expressions in the first few episodes really don’t help matters.
I fully understand why a lot of viewers would give up on Another Life early. The show gets off on a very bad foot with its first two or three episodes. However, if you can get past that point, and come to terms with some of my complaints above, the series fortunately does improve as it goes. Episodes in the second half of the season are a lot better and more interesting than those in the first, as the plot settles down to explore what the aliens are up to. Most of the worst characters get killed off, and Sackhoff seems to find her own character about halfway through and stops overacting so much.
For all of its flaws (and it has many), Netflix’s Another Life eventually pulls together into a modestly entertaining B-level sci-fi concoction. It’s not terribly original, but a ten episode binge doesn’t feel like a total waste of time. I’d probably watch again if it gets renewed for another season, which of course the cliffhanger begs for at the end.