Over the last few years, Netflix has continued down the path of focusing on more original programming. With massively popular shows like Friends and The Office scheduled to exit the platform, that concentration on Netflix originals has doubled. Another Life, a 10-episode series about humanity’s first contact with an alien race, is another attempt by the streaming giant to strengthen their original content profile and increase the subscriber base. While the premise itself is promising, “Across the Universe” takes several missteps often seen in series premieres that, while not deflating the show’s momentum, gives it a bumpy start out of the block.
In an as yet untold future year, humanity gets a major surprise when an Infinity-shaped ship—later dubbed the Artifact—lands on earth and morphs into a crystalline tower that begins sending signals out into space. It takes six months for scientists to discover the destination of those signals: Pi Cantis Majoris. Niko Breckinridge (Katee Sackoff, Battlestar Galactica, Longmire) is tasked to lead an expedition to the star system to determine the intentions of these alien creatures. The news doesn’t sit well with her husband Erik (Justin Chatwin, Shameless, War of the Worlds), a scientist working to determine the alien signal. Though the conflict is supposed to give viewers something to work with between the couple (as well as hint at Niko’s last foray into space), it’s not until their later subspace conversations that their bond reaches any sort of depth.
Wasting no time, the episode jumps forward one month as the Niko-led Salvare comes across its first hurdle: a massive expanse of dark matter directly between their course and Pi Cantis Majoris. The ship’s systems AI, William (Samuel Anderson, Trollied, Doctor Who) wakes Niko to apprise her of the situation. She then wakes Team One, led by her former protégé, original captain of the ship, and second-in-command of this mission, Ian Yerxa (Tyler Hoechlin, Teen Wolf, 7th Heaven, Supergirl) to brainstorm potential solutions. Unfortunately, this is where “Across the Universe” stumbles. The crew is primarily composed of 20-somethings whose space-faring acumen appears to be non-existent. Instead, they come across as entitled brats more at home on a pleasure cruise than a mission of this importance. Even though this is only one episode, the suspension of disbelief necessary to buy these people as a capable crew strains the bounds of credulity.
By far, the greatest asset in this first episode is Sackhoff as the protagonist Niko. Though there is a bit of uncertainty in her character early on, when the crap hits the fan, including a nonsensical mutiny (more on that later), Niko’s strength of character shines and has a potency to right the ship—and my hopes for the series—back on course. She’s helped immensely by Anderson’s portrayal of William. Though he is nothing more than programming, his behavior embodies that of a living, breathing entity. Not as strong in his performance is Chatwin’s Erik. Though the chemistry between him and Niko (as well as a few good scenes with their daughter, Jana) is respectable, accepting him as a top scientist is not. While not something that can derail the show on its own, coupled with the Salvare’s implausible crew, it puts a weighty dent in the world the show is trying to create.
Which leaves the biggest flaw in “Across the Universe” thus far: just too damn much happens in the sixty minute runtime. Again, this is not something unique to Another Life. In fact, a large number of series premieres, in an attempt to capture viewers and paint the world and its rules, have this same problem. Though nothing out of the ordinary happens on Earth, the insanity aboard the Salvare is the primary culprit. When Niko overrules Ian’s decision to use the Sirius A’s gravitational well to slingshot around the dark matter expanse and back on course towards Pi Cantis Majoris, he gathers his two most loyal sycophants and puts Niko back in soma (the show’s term for hyper-sleep). His decision nearly tears the ship apart and they’re only saved when the chief engineer August (Blu Hunt, The Originals) wakes Niko and she works with William to save everyone. From there, the disloyal crew reluctantly goes about the significant repairs to the ship. Not learning from his previous actions that would have killed everyone, Yerxa tries catching Niko off guard and gets crispified for his troubles. This unseemly end to only highlights the premiere’s inability to create significant buildup to justify characters’ actions.
Overall, “Across the Universe”, while middling in its overall execution, has created enough paths of interest for viewers to tune-in and discover where the show is heading. There is a distinct Arrival-vibe on Earth where Erik looks to decode the aliens message (and intent) while Niko’s story line, unfortunately, shares traits with the hugely disappointing Night Flyers and the typical teen drama with her being the older, more experienced character disdained by her younger comrades. This tepid mix is something not even Sackhoff’s charisma can single-handedly overcome. Another Life’s path to success lies in more Sackhoff, less of the immature crew attitudes, and a fascinating alien mystery in the coming episodes. Get two of those three right and this really could be a fun ride. If not, it’ll be another ho-hum sci-fi drama lost in space.
- One of the more interesting aspects of Another Life is how the show doesn’t waste time trying to explain the technical capabilities of the world to viewers. When ‘soma’ is first mentioned, there’s no real explanation to the term. That comes later in a way that feels completely organic. The same goes for more well-known science fiction terms like faster-than-light (FTL) or artificial gravity; in that, the show assumes viewers will be able to stay up to speed. Though some of these technologies seems far-fetched (nearly instant communications despite 8+ light years away) it works for the show. More questionable that that would be the giant tablet Erik carries to speak to Niko, instead of sleeker and less cumbersome gear.
- Unless something WORD is revealed about Yerxa’s character, his portrayal and subsequent demise was handled about as poorly as can be. Other than Niko’s remark that he’s a “hot-head”, nothing suggests Yerxa would resort to murder his mentor. It’s an example of a show trying to create unnecessary “shock” drama when crafting authentic character motivations would be much more effective.