Some shows have a laser-like focus around which subplots can orbit, and subtexts can bubble through for extra tasty interpretations. And then you have shows like Another Life. It is a show that seems keen to simply snatch from a grab bag of sci-fi tropes. Then it does an FTL jump out of your life, cackling at the eight hours it has taken from you.
A big wibbly-wobbly alien ship lands smack bang on Earth, freaking everyone out. After warping into an ominous crystal tower structure, a bunch of astronauts and scientists are tasked with jumping in a space ship and flying out to the alien vessel’s origin to see if they are friendly or not. Leading the mission is Niko (Katee Sackhoff) who leaves behind scientist husband Erik (Justin Chatwin) studying the odd crystal column. Oh, and their daughter who then gets to complain that no-one is paying attention to her amidst the whole ‘first contact Alien crisis’ thing.
So we have two plot lines. A large crew that all get introduced at once so that their names and roles go flying over your head, and the Earth-based slowly-slowly science stuff. In terms of Niko and her crew, this is the ‘space travel is common’ level of technology with faster than light travel, etc… In the first few episodes, things go badly wrong and quickly. Don’t even bother trying to learn who is who because characters are popped off with almost sadistic frequency (some not lasting a whole episode).
This is made even more confusing due to the fact that a whole backup crew is being carried by stasis. So just when you think you’ve gotten a handle on who is who then wham bam another character is introduced! It’s exciting at first. The initial 3-4 episodes feature a mutiny, loss of oxygen, a mutating lethal contagion, and a locked-in nightmare dream state. You may also recognise these as ‘space sci-fi 101’ for plot lines.
Most of the cast do try hard to engage you with their scenes. Sackhoff has plenty of oomph as a strong determined woman who is carrying the burden of command and living with some bad decisions. The very personable and lovely ship AI hologram, William, (Samuel Anderson) is her confidant and their scenes together add warmth throughout.
Second in command Cas (Elizabeth Ludlow) has a massive chip on her shoulder, combined with an inferiority complex. And the rest cycle through ‘comic relief’, ‘sassy’ and ‘weakling’ accordingly. The show tries to set up some big emotional moments, but as it's hard to connect with any of the characters, no amount of slow-motion sad music combinations are going to kick start a tear.
Tonally, Another Life is all over the place. The first few episodes made me think ‘woah, calm down now!’. But then I got my wish and the action ground to a halt. Particularly when Niko and Cas get accidentally high whilst visiting a planet to look for food. It’s like the various scriptwriters and directors never actually talked to each other. And then all the characters rotate having sex with each other. The sex here is so plonked in you can almost feel a checklist for Netflix algorithms getting a nice fat tick.
Saying all that, Another Life masters the art of the end of episode cliffhanger. I was always left wanting more each episode, but I was often baffled with what I got. Why is the decontamination software not fit for purpose? Why do the aliens use their crystal tower for such elaborate mind games? Erik runs around decoding messages each episode but it just gives him the run around in a very ‘filling up screen time’ kind of way.
Another Life has its moments, and plenty of them. Enough to find some stuff to like, certainly. But it is so inconsistent and so blasé with its characters (they even defrost another one in episode 7 who we are then supposed to care about!) that ends up a popcorn show. You shovel it in your mouth as you go, never stopping. But then the taste is utterly forgotten the next day. That will be the Netflix binge model then!
Words by Michael Record