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Pandora Is a Stilted Sci-Fi Disaster

Last summer, The CW debuted The Outpost, a cheap-looking, horribly written, horribly acted fantasy drama that served as space-filler on the network's schedule and gave the dedicated genre audience something to watch while waiting for higher-profile shows to return. As bad as that show was, the strategy must have worked, because not only is The Outpost back for a second season this summer, but The CW is also debuting another bargain-bin genre show in the same vein with Pandora.

While The Outpost resembled an off-brand Game of Thrones, Pandora is more like an off-brand Star Trek, right down to its ersatz versions of familiar Trek concepts and institutions. The first episode -- the only one made available for review -- opens on what we learn is the colony planet of New Portland, where Jax (Priscilla Quintana) witnesses an attack from above that kills her parents (and presumably other inhabitants, but this entire planet looks like it's been colonized via a single building). Three months later, Jax is headed to Earth to attend Starfleet Academy, er, the Fleet Training Academy.

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It's the year 2199, and humans have banded together with a number of alien races to form, let's say, a united federation of planets, although here it's rather arrogantly called the Earth Confederacy, or EarthCon. At the Academy, Jax falls in with a group of fellow students that includes a telepath, a clone (who's liberated herself from the masters who would have used her for spare parts), a woman with cybernetic implants and an alien who says things like, "Human behavior remains a bit of an enigma to me." They're all training to join EarthCon in various positions, from pilot to medical officer, although the actual structure of the organization is not particularly clear in the opening episode.

Jax is there thanks to her uncle, Prof. Donovan Osborn (Noah Huntley), a senior faculty member at the Academy and also some sort of secret agent for EarthCon's Intelligence Services. He has vague, ominous conversations with colleagues ("She doesn't know, does she?" a fellow professor asks him about Jax). Imperious and condescending, Osborn is one of several characters whose primary function is to deliver reams of stilted exposition that nevertheless fails to explain basic facts about the show's setting and relationships. Which of Jax's parents is Osborn's sibling? What are even her parents' names? Creator Mark A. Altman glosses over many rudimentary establishing details like this, but gives Jax's half-telepath friend Thomas James Ross (Martin Bobb-Semple) a long explanatory speech about his own origins, and constantly has characters telling each other things that they clearly already know. Throughout the first episode, references to two different alien races (the Adari and the Zatarians) sound so similar that many viewers may not realize they're meant to be separate groups.

Altman's script is full of sci-fi cliches, from the space-battle simulator fake-out to the casual prejudice against alien races to the use of paper books as a signifier for wisdom and sophistication. He lifts so many themes and concepts from Star Trek that Pandora comes off like a fan film made by someone who's desperate to get noticed by the producers of the real thing. Altman has worked on Trek-related projects his entire career, though, starting with the 1999 geek comedy Free Enterprise, about a pair of Trek nerds who end up meeting William Shatner. He wrote a number of Trek comic books in the '90s, and in 2016 he co-wrote The Fifty-Year Mission: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Trek: The First 25 Years. So he's certainly well-aware of what he's doing when he has a professor at the Fleet Training Academy talk about "first contact" or mention a "pleasure planet" that sounds a whole lot like Trek's Risa.

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Unlike The Orville creator Seth MacFarlane (who wrote the foreword to The Fifty-Year Mission), though, Altman isn't making a cheeky pastiche or playing with parody. Pandora is delivered with a completely straight face, chintzy production values and all. The spaceport where Jax returns to Earth looks like a suburban shopping mall, and the Black Hole, the bar where the Academy cadets all hang out, looks like a cross between Quark's Bar and The Max from Saved by the Bell. There's not a single element in Pandora that's remotely convincing, and the shoddy world-building is a serious barrier to getting viewers to return for even one more episode.

Plenty of syndicated sci-fi series in the '90s (including, in some cases, Star Trek itself) looked a bit threadbare, but with strong writing and performances, it wasn't too difficult to overlook the minimal "alien" makeup or the curiously underpopulated starships and training facilities. Like The Outpost, Pandora very much recalls those Saturday-afternoon time-passers of decades ago, but it lacks the charm and creativity to make up for its limited resources. As Jax, Quintana is whiny and irritating, and both Huntley and Oliver Dench (as Academy teaching assistant and not-so-secret intelligence agent Xander Duvall) use their haughty British accents as substitutes for any genuine character traits.  There's no suspense or intrigue to the mystery of Jax's true origins. She's also the title character, a code name given to her by the EarthCon Intelligence Services. Altman doesn't introduce any original or promising sci-fi ideas. Even Star Trek fan films can usually do better than this.

Starring Priscilla Quintana, Oliver Dench, Raechelle Banno, John Harlan Kim, Ben Radcliffe, Banita Sandhu, Martin Bobb-Semple and Noah Huntley, Pandora premieres Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET/PT on The CW.

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