If you guide your hopes to a slightly lower orbit, CBS’ futuristic summer series “Extant,” starring Oscar-winner Halle Berry and premiering Wednesday night, isn’t the space disaster one might have feared — especially if you supply your own oxygen in the form of harmless mockery.
As with nearly every piece of sci-fi television programming that lands on my desk, “Extant” quickly runs up its credit cards when it comes to borrowing imagery and ideas from other classics. Some scenes are heavily aped (including more than one nod to “Extant” executive producer Steven Spielberg’s own “A.I.,” as well as Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”), while some are just glancingly cribbed (“Moon,” “Solaris,” “Gravity”).
Still, other moments amount to the TV equivalent of song sampling, as when a distressed Berry splashes a sinkful of water on her face precisely in the manner of Sigourney Weaver in “Aliens.” (The “Alien” franchise should also get a footnote or shout-out or something for “Extant’s” central crisis — an inexplicable space pregnancy — but for that matter, so should “Rosemary’s Baby.”)
In sci-fi, copying is more akin to homage, maybe to a greater degree than in any other genre — except, of course, noir crime thrillers. I can’t remember the last time I watched a sci-fi show that didn’t use (“steal” isn’t a kosher description) some aspect of a movie or TV show that came before. Watching “Extant” is like following commonly recognizable road signs through a plot.
In a far-off but quite stylish future, Berry is Molly Watts, a well-regarded astronaut who has recently returned from a solo mission on an outer-space lab, where, with only an amiably voiced computer to keep her company (a la “2001’s” HAL), her work was interrupted for 13 hours by a mysterious incident that included the ghostly arrival of a man Molly believed to be quite dead.
When she sees him scrawling “help me” in the frost on a window of her ship (which is called the Seraphim, but which I have rechristened the Tetanus, given how much Berry lets her locked, agape lower jaw and bared teeth do the acting for her), she overcomes her terror long enough to let him in.
Apparently, while the computer was rebooting, Molly and the space ghost had some sort of subconscious sexual encounter. She awakens thoroughly spooked and quickly erases the ship’s records of her missing hours. (Who among us hasn’t fudged a time sheet?)
She’s glad to be back home with her engineer husband John (Goran Visnjic) and his prized invention, Ethan (Pierce Gagnon), who is a masterwork of artificial intelligence and the couple’s adopted son. Prescient and creepy in the way that only children in sci-fi and horror movies can be, Ethan is the child that John and Molly were unable to naturally conceive — so John built one and is trying to get funding to build and market more.
It is therefore quite a surprise when Molly’s post-mission medical exam, performed by her doctor pal Sam (Camryn Manheim), shows her to be pregnant. Molly begs Sam to leave that out of the report and not breathe a word of it to anyone, at least until she figures out what happened while she was supposedly alone in space.
Soon enough, she has to face her bosses at the international space agency, which is connected to a corporation that oversees space missions, funding for robot children and everything else — inviting more echoes of the “Alien” universe’s dreaded Weyland-Yutani Corp., replete with a mastermind chief executive (Hiroyuki Sanada) who authorizes clandestine science experiments and space flights.
“Extant” was created by Mickey Fisher, who, according to press materials, wrote the pilot in a Starbucks and won a script contest with it, which eventually led to this series. The show gets off to a serviceable start — coolly conceived and professionally directed, at least in the one episode shared with critics. Where it goes from here is anybody’s guess at this point, but “Extant’s” creator and cast seem to be taking things seriously enough as a work of sci-fi origami, folded and layered with a certain precision.
Not knowing what’s gestating inside Molly (“Extant” will carefully mete out its best secrets over the course of 13 episodes), a viewer is instead drawn into yet another drab idea of what our future might look and feel like. It’s clear that Hollywood no longer envisions humans in matching onesies, but, in lieu of making tomorrow’s egregious fashion mistakes, one notices in today’s sci-fi shows (the CW’s “The 100″ comes to mind) a resolute commitment to another century or more of earth tones and low-rise jeans. Also, “Extant” delivers some truly dispiriting news about transportation: The self-driving Google car really does become a thing.
“Extant” (one hour) premieres 9 p.m. Wednesday on CBS.