Netflix’s Another Life starts as Arrival, then turns into Star Trek
Netflix’s science fiction series Another Life, which premieres on July 25th, opens with a promising premise, but it isn’t a particularly original one: it mashes up plot points from Denis Villeneuve’s Arrivaland Syfy’s Nightflyers, which was canceled after a single season. Another Life opens with an ouroboros-like alien spacecraft cruising above Earth, then crashing into a soybean field and turning into a crystalline communications tower. When terrestrial attempts to analyze it reveal little information beyond that it’s broadcasting information to Pi Canis Majoris, which is 96.5 light-years from Earth, the US sends its most sophisticated spaceship, the Salvare, to make first contact.
Unfortunately, that narrative is largely kicked to the back burner after the show’s first episode in favor of a series of even more derivative Star Trek-style episodic conflicts. Set in the relatively near future where humanity has developed spaceships that can travel faster than light, and technology that puts people in stasis for long journeys, the story of the 10-episode first season (four episodes were provided for previews) largely follows Niko Breckinridge (Katee Sackhoff), a veteran astronaut who was involved in a disastrous mission to Saturn nine years before that left half the crew dead. She’s taking control of the Salvare from her own protégé Ian Yerxa (Tyler Hoechlin of Teen Wolf and Supergirl), who the US military deems too hot-headed for such a sensitive mission but still leaves on the ship to question all of Niko’s decisions.
There’s something inherently funny about having Sackhoff, who played the notorious maverick Starbuck on Battlestar Galactica, serving as the voice of caution and reason on board the Salvare. But the series’s initial conflicts are so absurd that they blunt the impact of her role reversal. In the first episode, fiery communications expect Michelle Vargas (The Flash’s Jessica Camacho) rants about how anyone older than 27 is a coward and expresses admiration for the 27 Club. (Camacho is actually 36.) This leads into a weak explanation of why most of the crewmembers are hot 20-somethings: they’re healthy and capable of making bold decisions. That seems like it would be important for the members of a colony ship, but not necessarily the best crew for what characters are constantly saying is the most important space mission in human history.
Beyond the obvious conflict of leaving Ian on board to ensure the crew has divided loyalties, the Salvarealso inexplicably includes sitting congressman Sasha Harrison (Jake Abel), who has never left Earth or even met his fellow astronauts before they all emerge from stasis in deep space. He spends most of his time trying to convince everyone that he isn’t useless or that old. (He’s one of the youngest members of Congress ever!) One of the tells of his ignorance about space travel is that he questions why no one is in uniform; instead, they’re prancing around dressed like Abercrombie models or just wearing sports bras and booty shorts. Again, there’s no real reason given, though the engineers do occasionally wear uniforms just so they can create sexual tension by stripping them off while working in warm areas of the ship.
When the Salvare’s crew isn’t fighting or flirting with each other, they’re dealing with cliché crises like a deadly space virus or a malfunction that forces them to land on a dangerous, unexplored planet. The Salvare has an entire backup crew in stasis, which it uses in a way reminiscent of Star Trek’s redshirts. They can be taken out to provide some form of expertise, then die dramatically or replace other minor characters who need to die to prove a given situation is serious.
That dynamic of casual character-swapping largely just emphasizes how hollow most of the show’s characters feel. Sackhoff does her best to deliver emotional performances and bring gravitas to the clunky scripts. She does particularly excellent work in episode 4, “Guilt Trip,” where she’s stuck in a series of nightmares confronting her feelings about the Saturn mission and leaving her eight-year-old daughter to go to space. It’s a knock-off of Inception and the seminal Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Tapestry,”but it’s still effective character-building.
Creator Aaron Martin has borrowed plenty of episode ideas from Star Trek, but his show lacks any driving philosophy. Niko provides an avenue for some relevant conflicts about how women with authority are perceived and the guilt of working mothers. It’s nice to see a future where the fact that the ship’s medic, Zayn Petrossian (JayR Tinaco), is nonbinary isn’t worth commenting on. The sensitive AI William (Samuel Anderson), created like the assistants from Her to be a perfect interface for Niko, provides some opportunity for the study of human nature, though very little of that wasn’t done with Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Data.
There’s plenty of talk about how climate change has caused major cities to flood and made clean water expensive, though it’s hard to tell from the scenes on Earth, which are full of beautiful Vancouver landscapes and perfect suburban homes. If this were a weightless, episodic science fiction series, that could be refreshing, but dabbling in heavier issues and eschewing humor or self-awareness means Another Life can’t fill that niche, either.
While most of the action happens on the Salvare, the show periodically returns to Earth, where Niko’s husband, Erik Wallace (Justin Chatwin), is trying to communicate with the aliens in a manner cribbed straight from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. He does a fine job of playing a scientist alternating between long periods of failure and momentary triumphant success, but he doesn’t have much to do but deliver technobabble and worry about Niko. His plot also intersects too often with the intolerable Harper Glass (Hellboy’s Selma Blair), who reports on the alien artifact to her website’s 250 million followers, making her the world’s most popular journalist.
Another Life also lacks much visual identity. It’s relatively light on CGI, with the exception of some blue lightning effects used to demonstrate ship malfunctions, and a grotesque sequence in the virus episode. TheSalvare has a sort of near-future functionality reminiscent of the nicer ships on The Expanse. None of the other visuals of stars and planets really stand out as impressive or novel, adding to the Star Trek knock-off vibe.
By the end of the fourth episode of the 10-episode season, the crew of the Salvareis ready to finally do something that relates to the alien artifact. That could help get Another Life back on track, but the fact that the writers have wasted so much of their opening act revisiting such familiar science fiction clichés with so little personal flavor or variety makes a strong, startling turnaround feel unlikely. Despite its potential, Another Life just feels like a generic, humorless space adventure that’s likely to crash and burn long before it unravels its big mysteries.