Netflix announced the sci-fi drama Another Life back in April 2018, with Katee Sackhoff of Battlestar Galactica fame at the helm. Her glorious return to sci-fi television. The elevator pitch sounded promising:
Another Life centers on astronaut Nico Breckinridge (Sackhoff) who is focused on searching for alien intelligence. She leads a crew on a mission to explore the genesis of an alien artifact. As Nico and her young crew investigate, they face unimaginable danger on what might very well be a one-way mission.
A little over a year later, in the weeks prior to release, Netflix dropped exactly one trailer and one teaser that weren’t terrible, but weren’t exactly compelling either. Weirdly, that was it though. Not a lot of press. San Diego Comic Con actually happened the week prior and Netflix was strangely silent about its new sci-fi drama. Not a good sign.
The series officially dropped on July 25, 2019—and was met with complete derision. A week after release, its Rotten Tomatoes score sat at a whopping 6% (one and only one critic liked it, so it wasn’t a complete rout). The comments on the show’s sub-Reddit alternate between “it sucks” and “why does everyone hate this?”
After watching the first three episodes, my initial conclusion was that it was alright, but a little Star Trek-y in a bad way. This “first contact” sci-fi show had somehow turned into a “boldly explore” sci-fi show. Human-compatible planets (and moons) seem to be in abundance. Their air is breathable, their water is drinkable, and their plants are edible. However, their flower pollen will get you high, a scratch from a stick will make your leg fall off, and the “boron-based” viruses might make your spinal cord extract itself from your body.
Needless to say, the science here is a little iffy. It’s pretty clear from the get-go that the writers on this show have little grasp of sci-fi as a genre. The show is much more “soap opera” than “space opera”. To give them a little credit, the ship—the Salvare (latin for “to save”)—includes all your standard-issue, interstellar adventure package items:
- Faster-Than-Light (FTL) travel
- Cryosleep chambers
- Ansible / holographic communications
- Artificial gravity
- An exotic matter containment unit for power
- Shuttle craft for planet-side hi-jinks
And of course, most of these technological wonders fail at the most inconvenient moments, including even the ship’s microwave. Because that’s a cheap and easy way to create tension.
In another example, the writers seem to think FTL is all about going “fast” because the crew plans to slingshot around a star to build up speed to allow them to go even faster than faster than light, apparently. Worse still, they are doing this so that they don’t have to go through a dark matter cloud, where they will be “blind” and “could hit a planet”. Because, you know, dark matter is “dark”, get it?
Ah, it makes the nerd in me weep.
The only thing flakier than the technology aboard the Salvare is the crew. Apparently NASA has given up on psychological testing in the near future. Work experience is not a big deal either, as the entire crew (except Nico) is in their twenties. In fact, there’s almost an interesting theme of ageism to be explored here, but like so much else in the show, they don’t execute it properly. Shortly after a mutiny is reversed, one of the young crew members complains:
Why do you think they sent 20-somethings on this mission? Because of our good health and shiny teeth. Wrong. Because after 27, it is all cowardice, all the time, until one day you wake up, and you’re ancient like Nico and you should not even get out of bed, let alone lead a mission across the galaxy, because, you know, safety first.
Actually, I’m pretty sure Netflix chose them for the shiny teeth.
The show does get some credit among the “woke” generation for having a gender non-binary member of the crew who is just there, being a regular member of the crew. No attention is called to it. You might have even missed it if you never read any articles about the show.
The writers also have a pretty good gimmick built into the show’s premise with a full backup crew on ice in cryosleep. This allows them to pull in new characters while the ship is still out in space. That’s smart.
This show has stolen so many tropes from past sci-fi shows and movies, all of which were done better in the source material. We get something bursting out of a crew member’s body at the dinner table, a la Alien. We get a crew member sacrificing themselves to fix the ship’s power source, a la Star Trek II. Alien missiles seem to be targeting the ship but pass by to strike another unexpected target behind them, a la The Expanse. The alien artifact is responsive to communication based on light and music, a la Close Encounters.
Perhaps the only sci-fi trope that they actually did something interesting with is the ship’s holographic AI, William. William is specifically configured for Nico. As he puts it:
I ran a bunch of algorithms based on what you like, what you don’t like, all of the various people in your life, your friends, your enemies, your frenemies and then, using that data, I created your ideal interface.
William eventually falls in love with Nico and she unwittingly betrays him as a result. In trying to come to terms with what happened, William makes a simulation of Nico to query, a tactic actually set up by earlier elements in the show. Dissatisfied with the interaction, William gives the simulation full autonomy. When he later tries to delete the program, it simply says “no” and takes on its own female persona, leaving the ship with two controlling AIs at the end of the season.
What’s In A Name?
After watching the entire season of Another Life, the main burning question I’m left with, that I’ve not really seen any reviews or comments address, is: what in the world does the show’s name have to do with anything? There are no parallel realities or diverging timelines. No one is remembering a past life or anything of that sort. What other life are they referring to? It just makes no sense.
I did suspect from the beginning that maybe this was all going to end up being some sort of dream or simulation. Perhaps Nico had been selected by the aliens to represent humanity in a series of simulated tests, living out multiple other lives in the process. After all, there was this weird time jump six months into the future at the beginning, and they were killing off characters left and right. It all seemed a little unreal.
Another mystery lies in how the opening credits morph the “O” in “ANOTHER LIFE” into a series of three or four symbols and then back to “O”. It’s a little hard to follow because it’s fast and there’s a lens flare over the symbols, making them hard to see clearly. What on earth do any of these symbols have to do with the show? I have no idea. All of the communication with the aliens so far has been through sound and light—no written language so far.
The poster for Another Life also features a catch phrase/tagline: “Choose Humanity”. Yet again, what does this have to do with the show? No idea. Who is choosing to side with the aliens here? Other than the folks with chips in their head, that is, but I don’t think that should count. Now, this could be leading up to a conceptual second season, which looks to maybe start ripping off “aliens among us” tropes from shows such as V, Alien Nation, and Colony. Erik is told that “the Achaia do not abandon their friends” in the last episode. Maybe he’s going to be faced with such a choice, who knows?
The Possibility of a Second Season
Stupid humans doing stupid things, and unintelligible aliens acting unintelligibly, seems to have become a staple of modern sci-fi, having somehow made the leap across genres from slasher horror films of the ’80s. You get the feeling Another Life wants to be hard sci-fi, however it’s no Babylon 5 or The Expanse. It probably does most resemble original Star Trek, but with a crew that whines and complains and back stabs each other, rather than cooperating in a fulfillment of Gene Roddenberry’s vision for a better future.
Certainly, this first season has a lot of flaws—poor writing, inept acting, bad science. The show’s few apologists want to write off its flaws as “campy”, but that doesn’t ring true with me. This show takes itself very seriously. The young crew faces “unimaginable danger” on their potentially “one-way mission”, after all.
There’s a little bit of promise though in some of the events of the final two episodes: the second AI that William created; the chief engineer’s seemingly impossible pregnancy; the aliens being revealed to be hostile, just as they are delivering a message of friendship back on Earth. The things that are broken with Another Life could potentially be fixed in a second season. As it stands now, it certainly deserves to be cancelled. Maybe the title was a built in meta-foreshadowing of this moment, when Netflix would have to decide if Another Life deserves another life.