Another Life. The Next Big Thing, or Another Hot Mess?

Katee Sackhoff - Choose Humanity Poster, Another Life

Writing science fiction isn’t easy, despite the fact it’s an enormous sandbox where your imagination can run free.  That freedom, however, can be disorienting.

In recent months, Netflix has been dipping its toe in the genre with very mixed results, proving just how perilous playing in outer space can be.  It’s remake of the cult classic, Lost in Space, went down extremely well with most critics and fans, but it’s attempt to launch Nighflyers as a series became a bit of a hot mess, failing to capture the imagination of genre fans and new viewers.

Then along came Another Life.  A mixed bag, to say the least.

I slowly fell in like, okay… love, with it though, despite my frustrations.

On my first viewing of the entire series it took a while, and to be honest, if it wasn’t for Katee Sackhoff (Starbuck, Battlestar Galactica) I wouldn’t have tried to get through it.

I’m happy to say that on my second viewing of the series as a whole, my opinion changed.  The show was better the second time around – so much better.  I think that’s because I’d left behind expectation and could watch the show for what it was and what it was trying to be, not for what I thought it should be.

If you haven’t seen Another Life yet, give it a go, but be warned, the creatives behind the series are trying to do something a little different, and that can be jarring and even a little infuriating at times, but underneath the unexpected choices (and the odd, seemingly careless decisions), is an excellent show struggling to get out – and get out it does.

Another Life 2

So, let’s focus on my first impressions, just in case your reaction is/was similar.  Maybe I’ll be able to encourage you to persevere like I did.

Episode one started with a bang. I was totally sucked in.  In the first few seconds of the show we saw a gorgeous alien vessel cruising across Earth’s skies.  I was instantly reminded of how I felt watching giant saucers hovering over cities in the original V, and that was a big tick.

So, beautiful space ship, evocative memories, excellent special effects, AND Selma Blair popped up on my screen, who I have loved since The Sweetest Thing (don’t click that link if you’re easily offended). Another Life was firing on all cylinders.

Until it wasn’t. The spaceship turned into a giant tower of crushed cellophane that looked like the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras had exploded over my screen, Selma disappeared, and the story sort of went pear-shaped.

I love Mardi Gras, it’s a great celebration that brings people together from every walk of life to celebrate equality, so that was okay. Selma disappearing?  I was pretty sure she’d be back because you don’t get a star like her and waste the opportunity. The story de-railing?  Not so good.  With that the show lost me.  Before I knew it a dog was sitting on my chest licking my face.

I had fallen asleep.

I’d really been looking forward to the show and it had bored me into unconsciousness after watching only 15 minutes of it.  The same thing had happened to me during my viewing of Nightflyers many months earlier, so I was worried.

I didn’t try to watch the rest of that first episode and went to bed.

Night two?  Ten minutes in… Zzzzzzzzz… and…

Drinking Drooling Dog

I woke up wet (dog drool), feeling annoyed.

Night three I finally made it through the pilot episode and watched the first ten or so minutes of the second, only to wish I hadn’t.

I know this all sounds harsh and like I hated the show, but stick with me.  I honestly did fall for this show, and if you stick with Another Life, you might too. It’s worth noting that during my second watch through of the entire season, I didn’t fall asleep once and stayed completely engaged in the narrative.  With Nightflyers, I couldn’t even bring myself to watch a second time, because by the end I was exhausted and just relieved to have gotten through it.

What irked me on that first watch of Another Life?  Stupid things.  Things I was annoyed at myself for being bothered by, and a few creative decisions that made the character dynamics and the first part of the story feel forced.  For example, in the pilot and the first bit of the second episode (and many episodes following), the word “fuck” was used a little too liberally because, you know, edgy.  Most of the characters on the ship, the Salvare, walked around dressed like they were at a night club instead of on a spaceship that was undertaking a vital mission for humanity (at least a couple wore active wear which sort of made sense), because uniforms had stopped being a thing ten years earlier… oh, and most of the crew were a bunch of moody, sullen assholes.  They were hardly professional and definitely did not act like leaders in their field.  I couldn’t understand why were they there?  Who would choose that group of people to do anything?!

Promotional Photo - Another Life

Most of the characters are meant to be quite young, but their behaviour was an embarrassing parody of an angsty teenager having a really bad day.  There was an attempt to justify it all, but that attempt was ridiculous and offensive:  apparently young people are bold and strong and stuff and everyone past 27 is an ancient coward, and being young and brash makes you perfect for attempting first contact with a vastly superior alien species.

Uh huh.  Okay then.  No.  You wouldn’t want experience and a calm head for that kind of thing.

Granted, the government did include Niko (the character played by Katee Sackhoff) in the crew for her experience, but come on!  Katee is far from old.

Two of the younger characters in particular were so hotheaded they would never pass a psyche evaluation, and they certainly would never be chosen for a mission focused on making contact with an extraterrestrial intelligence because they’d probably start an interstellar war.

The thing that irked me the most was the way Niko’s act of self defense was handled at the end of episode one and the beginning of episode two.  I won’t go into it because of spoilers, but it was the last straw.  It was fake drama for drama’s sake and it felt contrived.

Drama

The next night I watched the whole of episode two and only fell asleep once.  Episode three I stopped watching in frustration, and abandoned the series for two weeks before coming back to it.

Across those two weeks the show kept popping back into my head, so I gave myself a reality check.  There was obviously enough there to intrigue me so I debated continuing, reminding myself of old favourites that sometimes had less than stellar starts.

The original series of Star Trek was full of inconsistency in it’s first season, and it’s ‘universe’ was slowly built and enriched over decades.  Gene Roddenberry laid the foundation, but he and a whole team of amazing creatives built the framework across multiple series and films.  Maybe Another Life would, like the original Star Trek did in the last half of its first season, find it’s feet.

With that thought in mind I gave Another Life another shot, and I’m glad I did.  It still frustrated me at times (I’m looking at you, mop and bucket scene – we have robots who can do that for us these days, why is anyone swabbing the deck of a light speed capable spaceship?) but I got over that one reasonably quickly.

By episode six, the show had its space legs and, thankfully, the urge to bash my head against the coffee table had abated.  I started to like the characters, the mystery got interesting, and the special effects continued to amaze.

I found my perspective shifting, and I like it when that happens.

Even better, the crew started to pull together and the bratty behaviour started to disappear.

So, with growing enjoyment and excitement, I slowly, very slowly got on board the Salvare.

This show is worth watching for the story the writers are trying to tell, and for it’s characters (once they got over themselves).

Standouts?

Katee Sackhoff as Niko Breckinridge and Selma Blair as Harper Glass (best character name in ages).  These veteran actors chew scenery like nobody’s business, and drive the plot forward both on Earth and in space.  Niko and Harper are strong, powerful women, both very different and both completely captivating.  Both actors turn in wonderful performances and give the show everything they have.  Selma Blair deserves particular recognition.  She was diagnosed with MS (Multiple Sclerosis) just before filming started, and with the help of the production team and her fellow actors, fought the onset of the condition throughout the season.

There are three other major standouts.  Samuel Anderson is the Salvare‘s Artificial Intelligence, William.  Samuel takes a character that could have been little more than scene dressing and, with the help of some good writing, turns William into an entirely sympathetic living, breathing being.

Another Life - William

Justin Chatwin’s character, scientist Erik Wallace, didn’t do much for me in the first few episodes, but by the mid-point I was rooting for him.  He anchored the story-line on Earth and turned in an amazing performance toward the end.

Considering he spent most of his time acting against crushed cellophane, he hit it out of the ball park.

Crushed Cellophane

As the Salvare crew are pummeled by all sorts of craziness in space, Erik was likewise smacked about on Earth by the mysterious aliens responsible for the who-hah.

Some of the more emotionally resonant scenes are his, and he’s excellent in them.

Another Life 10

The last actor and character I want to shower some praise on is the real standout for me.  And, this character is probably one of the most important ones to come along in science fiction history in a long time, particularly when it comes to the issue of representation.

Relative newcomer and fellow Australian JayR Tinaco, plays the non-binary medic Zayn Petrossian.

Non-binary?

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you know that my day job is in the human services area.  I specialise in social inclusion, crime prevention, and mental health, and I do a lot of work with LGBTIQ+ young people.

Non-binary is a pretty broad term for gender identities that are not exclusively masculine or feminine, and includes gender identities such as gender queer, agender, bi-gender and gender fluid.  Many Non-binary individuals prefer the pronouns ‘they,’ ‘they’re’ or ‘them,’ though some use ‘ze,’ ‘hir,’ and others.

Choose Humanity - Another Life

Zayn is the heart and soul of Another Life.

Why do I believe that JayR’s character is so important?  Because representation matters.

Just like young African-American boys and girls (like Whoopi Goldberg) saw a place for themselves in the future because of Nichelle Nichols’ character Uhura, so too will young LGBTIQ+ young people feel like they have a place in our future when they see Zayn in Another Life.

The inclusion of that character is perfectly executed, and I applaud the series’ creator, Aaron Martin, for being so inclusive.  I also applaud Aaron Martin for casting a non-binary actor in the role.

I didn’t just love JayR’s character for what they represent, I loved them because the character is engaging and interesting.  Their budding relationship with character Bernie Martinez is a highlight, and they exude a gentle compassion and obvious intelligence that makes you wish they were on screen more.

So… I’m team Zayn all the way. #teamzayn.

For me, Another Life was a journey, but one that was worth it and, like I said at the beginning of this review, if you watch the series through again you’ll really enjoy it.

In brief, and without too many spoilers, the show is about first contact.  An alien vessel or probe of some kind lands on Earth, transforming into a shiny tower of crumpled cellophane and just sits there.  We don’t know what it’s up to, but we do know it is broadcasting a signal to a star 96.5 light years away, called Pi Canis Majoris.

Tired of not getting a response from the big shiny cellophane thing, the United States sends a spaceship, the Salvare, to Pi Canis Majoris to make first contact.

The series follows the exploits of the crew as they make their way toward that star, and follows Niko’s husband, Erik, and their daughter, Jana, as Erik tries to understand and communicate with the alien artifact on Earth.

Jenna and Eric - Another Life

Along the way, we discover brain-spiders that drill into other people’s eyes, that Sasha (one of the characters) is a nasty piece of work (not his fault, but you’ll see why), and that the aliens are called the Achaia, and they’re not very nice.

The big mystery of the Achaia is hinted at, in the final episode, and it’s chilling.  The season ends with enough questions left unanswered to give us plenty of fodder for another ten episodes.

Another Life 8

I am hoping Netflix commissions a second season, because the show is dripping with potential.  The one thing I hate about our modern television landscape are these condensed seasons.  While there are definite benefits to shorter seasons (less filler episodes), we are robbed of seeing a show hit its stride – which often happens around episode ten.  Once, we would have another twelve or sixteen more episodes to enjoy before a season wrapped, now, shows usually end their seasons at that point or an episode or five after, and we don’t get the same level of character or story exploration.

Another Life deserves a second season, because in a relative short time it gets good.  Really good.  Also, it does some important stuff.  It postulates a different take on the future to what we’re used to, and it prominently features a non-binary character in a major role.

Is it the next Star Trek?

Can any science fiction show ever be the next Star Trek? With a little tweaking it could become something just as special in it’s own wonderfully unique way, and I truly believe it wants to hit those allegorical and philosophical notes and do it in the right way but hasn’t had the time to just yet.  At the very least, the show has amassed a cast that is talented and delightfully diverse, it just has a lot of work to do on its story and its in-universe science and overall logic.

So, I do believe that Another Life has the potential to become more than the current sum of its parts. There are a lot of exciting stories that can be told about humanity’s first steps out into the galaxy in its first light speed capable vessel.  The show can be about more than a war with the Achaia and I hope it goes there if it gets a second season.  I mean… what an introduction to the wider galaxy?  Our first contact is with an horrific species that leads to war!  How would such an encounter shape the way humans boldly go?  There’s some fascinating potential there.

Is Another Life the next Battlestar Galactica or The Expanse?

You know, the show has started on the back foot, but I think it has a real chance at equaling those two behemoths in popularity.  It’s not there yet, but I could see it drifting that way and becoming a show people celebrate if it hired some more genre familiar writers and ironed out its inconsistencies, and forced its characters to grow up a bit.  If the immature and frankly irresponsible younger members of the Salvare were meant to appeal to a younger demographic, the producers went the wrong way about it.  Yes, science fiction appeals to young people, but it appeals to young people who are smart, and it appeals to young people who are often completely over the angsty nonsense of their peers.  The creatives behind Another Life should also never forget that science fiction appeals to adults too.  We don’t want a CW-like show rife with trumped up drama and conflict.  If we did, we’d go watch the CW.  Write cleverly and consistently and treat your audience (regardless of age) with respect, and you’ll be on an award-winning ride.  Give us more of season one if you’re awarded a season two, and you won’t get a season three.  That would be a waste.

Another Life was created by Aaron Martin, who also created the wonderful (though incredibly gory) Slasher TV Series (first season of Slasher was brilliant, watch it if you’ve haven’t – but be warned, it is FULL ON).

Another Life was filmed in British Columbia, Canada (far out I wish I’d moved to Canada while I was still acting), and stars Katee Sackhoff, Justin Chatwin, Samuel Anderson, Blu Hunt, JayR Tinaco, A.J. Rivera, Jake Abel, Alex Ozerov, Lina Renna, Elizabeth Ludlow, Alexander Eling, and Selma Blair.

Check it out.  I really hope you enjoy it and agree with me that it deserves a second season.  If you’ve watched it and didn’t think a lot of it, give the show a second chance.  You might surprise yourself and love it. If you feel so inclined, let Netflix know you enjoyed the show and want a season two so we can learn some more about this dynamic story and it’s characters.

Another Life was released on July 25, 2019 and consists of ten episodes.  The series is currently streaming on Netfix.

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