A group of strangers wake up in an unfamiliar environment, not sure how they got there or who the other people are. Before they can get their bearings, they’re thrown into unexplained danger, and must fight to survive even as they’re discovering what led them to this predicament. It’s a pretty familiar sci-fi set-up, and the new YouTube Premium series Origin (premiering November 14) doesn’t reinvent the formula. But the first two episodes are still pretty entertaining, with a pulpy tone and a relentless pace that moves the story forward significantly just by the end of the second episode.
That pace lags only when the show shifts gears to explore the characters’ back stories via individual flashbacks, focusing on a different character in each episode. Set on a spaceship headed from Earth to an off-world colony, Origin brings together a disparate range of people aboard the titular vessel, who are abruptly awakened from their cryogenic sleep before the ship has reached its destination, a supposedly idyllic new world where they’re all going to be given a fresh start. They wander the seemingly abandoned ship, trying to figure out where everyone else has gone and how they can make sure to reach their destination. Meanwhile, some kind of dangerous entity is lurking in the shadows – or maybe inside some of their fellow stragglers.
Produced by Paul W.S. Anderson (who also directed the two opening episodes), Origin borrows from a lot of sources, from Lost in Space to Lost … in space. The horrific elements recall Anderson’s cult classic 1997 sci-fi/horror movie Event Horizon, which similarly trapped a bunch of people on a cavernous ship in deep space and forced them to face unimaginable terrors. There’s a gruesome scene in the first episode, when some of the passengers come across dead and/or dying crew members in a locked compartment, that’s as nasty as anything in Event Horizon, and it clearly establishes the seriousness of the threat that the characters are facing.
Low-budget sci-fi movies from Cube to Circle have pitted short-tempered, distrustful people against each other while trapped in unfamiliar, deadly spacecraft, and Origin works by playing off of expectations for movies like that, following some while subverting others. While the characters bicker and scheme, they also manage to make substantial progress in figuring out their dilemma, and creator Mika Watkins resists the slow, deliberate pacing of most prestige cable and streaming dramas. While there are no doubt plenty of shocking twists yet to come over the rest of the 10-episode season, the early episodes establish important building blocks for future development.
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Or at least they do in the main storyline. The Lost-style flashbacks are less illuminating, although they flesh out some of the details of the show’s future Earth. The first episode showcases de facto leader Shun (Sen Mitsuji), a former Yakuza enforcer from Tokyo looking to start over, away from his criminal past. The second episode explores Lana (Natalia Tena), who is likewise hoping to escape past trauma from her work as a personal bodyguard for a U.S. senator. In both cases, the flashback stories lean too heavily on manipulative melodrama, burdening the characters with too much emotional baggage.
Maybe that’s more important for an open-ended series than it would be for a feature film, but as the creators of Lost learned, relying on this kind of structure can quickly become limiting. Both Shun and Lena’s flashbacks end with overwrought tragedies (most egregiously in Lena’s case) that do more to distract from the main narrative than add to it. Watkins and Anderson also manage to reveal important character details via present-day interactions, making the flashbacks feel even more superfluous. The other characters are still thinly sketched, but their impending flashbacks aren’t nearly as enticing as whatever might be stalking them from around the next corner.
The performances (especially from Harry Potter’s Tom Felton as an angry, impatient know-it-all) are a bit broad, and the dialogue is not exactly sophisticated, but that’s mostly what the material calls for. This isn’t complex, cerebral science fiction; it’s the kind of thing Syfy would air to fill the spaces in between its more critically acclaimed dramas with higher budgets. And aside from some swearing and a few moments of excessive gore, Origin could easily be a Syfy series, sitting comfortably alongside the channel’s various Canadian imports. The sets are mostly the kind of monotonous empty corridors recognizable from dozens of low-budget B-movies, although the special effects for the occasional exterior shots are surprisingly convincing.
As the characters uncover more about their situation, Origin could lose its sense of intrigue and mystery, and the insular setting and circumstances may be hard to maintain over the long term, if the show continues for multiple seasons. But for fans of Anderson’s meat-and-potatoes sci-fi and action, Origin has enough to offer that it’s worth exploring.