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REVIEW: Netflix's Another Life Is Half-Baked Space Opera

A decade after the finale of Battlestar Galactica, Katee Sackhoff returns to space in the overwrought Netflix's Another Life, a low-budget sci-fi drama with threadbare production values and a cast to match (Sackhoff aside). She brings a bit of her old Starbuck grit to the role of Niko Breckinridge, captain of a deep-space mission to make contact with an alien civilization, but her character is inconsistent, veering from volatile taskmaster to capable leader, and her crew is similarly unstable. It's difficult to imagine why anyone thought these irritable, arrogant jerks would make for a competent starship crew.

The catalyst for the mission is the arrival of a mysterious alien ship on Earth, an event that kicks off the first episode and offers the show's only moment of real promise. The special effects are crude, but the design of the alien ship, which looks like a constantly rotating infinity symbol, is impressively otherworldly and intimidating. Instead of sending an emissary or mounting an attack, the aliens (who never emerge from the vessel) erect a giant crystalline transmitter, which sits silent and unmoving in the middle of a field, like the monoliths of Warren Ellis and Jason Howard's Image Comics series Trees.

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While scientists (including Niko's husband Erik Wallace, played by Justin Chatwin) attempt to communicate with the transmitter, the government organizes a mission to connect with the aliens on their home turf, recruiting astronauts to travel to the star system where the UFO originated. The show treats this mission like a life-or-death prospect for all of humanity, but there's nothing in the four episodes available for review that indicates the aliens are hostile or threatening, and life on Earth appears to be in no danger from the shiny, inert alien structure. Yet everyone on Niko's ship the Salvare seems eager to recklessly sacrifice everything for the chance to reach the alien homeworld, constantly reminding each other that the fate of humanity is at stake.

Other than Niko, the crew members are almost all in their 20s, and an early throwaway line about space missions no longer requiring uniforms justifies their suspiciously fashionable style. They look and act more like the cast of a slick, youth-focused soap opera than the crew of a serious space mission, and their technical acumen mostly amounts to yelling at each other. It's practically a running joke that the crew's medical officer (JayR Tinaco) is unequipped to handle any of the many medical emergencies that arise, whether they're caused by extraterrestrial contagions or malfunctions of the ship's own cryo-sleep systems (known as "soma"). Jessica Camacho's communications officer is so petty and short-tempered that she might as well be on The Real Housewives of Deep Space.

 

"This mission is an unending fucking shit show," one of the crew members complains in the second episode, and it's never a good sign when the characters are whining about the plot. It's a correct assessment, though, as the supposedly straightforward mission goes off-track early and often, and Niko has to deal with individual crises in every episode, from a mutiny to various system failures to the aforementioned alien contagion.

The crew members are quick to make rash decisions that radically alter the course of the mission, including landing on mysterious alien planets that have never been mapped or studied. It feels like creator Aaron Martin and his writing team have no idea how to stretch this limited premise out over 10 episodes, and so they need constant detours to justify the characters' inability to achieve their simple goal (to get from one place to another).

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It's somewhat refreshing to see a modern streaming series pay attention to episodic stories, but the plot elements are poorly realized knock-offs of various sci-fi standards. A crew member jokes about "mining magic rocks on Planet X" when the ship has to make an unscheduled stop to replenish resources after one of numerous system malfunctions, and that description is about as carefully considered as the show's plotting.

There are two instances of the show copying the famous Alien meal scene, with the crew laughing and bonding around a table before a sudden unexplained seizure takes hold of one previously healthy team member. Niko spends an entire episode attempting to escape a cycle of nightmares about her past while she's trapped in soma sleep, a sci-fi device nearly as old as sci-fi itself.

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Meanwhile, back on Earth, Erik is playing out a sort of Arrival for Dummies as he attempts to reach the alien communication device, eventually going the Close Encounters of the Third Kind route courtesy of an exchange of musical notes. He's constantly being pestered by social -media star and news reporter Harper Glass (Selma Blair), who has 250 million followers but still hangs out in random bars on trivia nights. The show's version of Earth appears to be limited to three or four locations and populated by about 10 people, and the scenes that attempt to convey the scope of the alien discovery on global society just highlight the production's meager resources.

The ship's apparently endless supply of crew members in stasis means that new characters can be woken up whenever the plot requires it, which takes even more urgency out of the mission. It's hard to care whether any of these people live or die when they're barely distinguishable from each other and can be replaced at a moment's notice. The acting is so terrible that it's usually a welcome development when a character ends up dead (and it's a little disappointing that Niko's irritating tween daughter back on Earth, whose acting is easily the worst on the show, will never be killed off). As the doomed mission hurtles toward oblivion, the only positive outcome would involve something that shuts these characters up for good.

Starring Katee Sackhoff, Justin Chatwin, Samuel Anderson, Elizabeth Ludlow, Blu Hunt, A.J. Rivera, Lin Renna, Jake Abel, JayR Tinaco and Selma Blair, the 10-episode first season of Another Life premieres Thursday on Netflix.

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