CBS Television has jumped into the sci-fi genre pool with another big splash. This summer CBS is debuting its new sci-fi series EXTANT starring Halle Berry. It starts off as a tale of a female astronaut returning from a 13-month solo mission in space and finding out she is pregnant. Just how is that possible? In addition, she is returning to her husband and son, though she has a hard time acclimating back into her family, especially with the unexpected news of an impossible pregnancy. To add a bit more a twist on the sci-fi angle, her son is a humanic — or rather a robot android that simulates human interaction.
EXTANT looks to explore what it means to be human, what else may be out there in the universe and whether entities alien or android can understand truly the human condition and forge genuine bonds and love.
In a recent press conference call creator and executive producer Mike Fisher and show runner and executive producer Greg Walker talked about the genesis of the show, what themes it seeks to explore and if there is life beyond this season.
How did the concept of EXTANT kind of come to be and grow into what we’re going to see on television?
MICKEY: The advice you always give to writers is “Write the thing that you want to watch.” So I really just set out to write the show that I would want to see and it’s kind of a reflection of a lot of things that I was watching at the time, or about things that I was really interested in. I’m a guy who’s first in line at midnight for all the big genre movies, anything with superheroes guys in capes or tights, or anything with aliens, monsters, giant lizards destroying cities I’m kind of there for all that stuff. But I’m also a guy who loves those great family dramas too. I am obsessed over FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS just as much as I did over DOCTOR WHO. And so the way my programming is, it just all came out in this story of this family that was this sort of strange new family for the future that was an astronaut wife, a robotics father and an android son.
How was the project born? What elements inspired the creation of EXTANT?
MICKEY: When I first started thinking about it, it was an idea that I carried around for a few years. It initially started as an idea for a play, a one-person play, about an astronaut aboard a space station who they’re kind of confronted by the ghost of their past. And then I got to that point where I eventually wanted to write more complex female characters to really challenge myself. And that idea just came back to my mind. It felt right as a way to explore that. And when I started writing it, I had the idea of her seeing this guys she loved in her past. And then once I had the idea of, “What happens if she doesn’t come home alone,” that was really sort of the spark that set me off writing for a month straight until I figured it out I cleared everything off the counter, cleared everything off the desk and I just focused on that until it was finished.
Do you think audiences are much more open now to futuristic scenarios? For example, the children being programmed like robots?
GREG: I sure hope. I think what Mickey has written about is really right on the edge of what is possible in the future. And so I think it’s in the air, it’s, I think a zeitgeist issue of this question of, “How we interact with machines, how human machines can be, and how our humanity compromised by machines.” So I think it’s right in, even if we don’t have robot children walking around, we allocate so much of our time and our interactions to technology now. I think we can imagine a world where technology becomes human.
EXTANT is not science fiction necessarily. It’s a story that happens to have those elements.
MICKEY: There are definitely science fiction elements. I mean I think we’re always looking at as that family story. And that’s and I think that that’s sort of what’s what Greg as the Captain of this ship is. I mean he’s always sort of great at steering us back towards at the heart of it: What’s the human story here? What’s the story about Molly Woods? Because the things that I sometimes the things that I get excited about are the the genre elements and it’s always about steering it back to the heart of it what’s happening with these characters and wat’s happening with this family. And I mean, I think that’s one of the great strengths that Greg has brought is as a leader to our team of storytellers.
Did you have like a scientific consultant on the show? How do you come up with that stuff? And do we ever actually know how far in the future the show is set?
MICKEY: Our scientific consultant is our writer, Peter Ocko, who comes up with a lot of that stuff. A lot of it we dream up in the writer’s room. We come up with these ideas ourselves. We try to imagine a future that is accessible and a lot of times what would be a logical evolution of the technology that we have. And then sometimes we invent these things for fun just to bring a little bit of that future life to our world. But that being said, we do have this sort of mandate, that we gave ourselves early on that we never wanted it to be just about the gadgets. We never want it to be just about the cool stuff, we want it to be about the characters. So it always had to be in service of the story. But we did do some research along the way. And we are always coming across articles and things that we send each other that help us sort of flesh it out and inspire things for the show.
GREG: And we scour the Internet for kind for cutting-edge technological advances since we don’t set the show in any specific time in the future, mostly because we didn’t want to get in the game of kind of going like, “This wouldn’t exist.” The drone scooter would exist. So we’ve tried to kind of avoid that time-stamping. And a lot of the stuff that takes place in space is kind of NASA-real and based on a lot of what will be potentially in the future for NASA.
How involved was Steven Spielberg?
GREG: Well very involved in the very beginning. I mean even before I was involved, read Mickey’s script and responded to it. And he was he kind of brought it under his roof there at Amblin Television and brought Mickey in. And then I joined up. And then we went and went out and pitched it. But every step of the way, from the creation of the world after the extension of the world post Mickey’s pilot, and through every character development and all the season long arcs, we consulted with Steven and had long conversations with him.
Obviously sci-fi is a hugely popular genre and it’s done a lot. How did you try and make your world unique?
MICKEY: I think the things to me that I sort of keyed in early on, whether like consciously or unconsciously was just grounding it in a family. And I was asked the question a lot earlier on that there were these two big stories; there’s a sort of an extraterrestrial story and then there’s a story about AI,”Why did I choose to put both of those in the same story when most people would focus on one or the other?” And I kind of just always saw it as that I was writing it about a family and kind of grounding it in a family. And it think that’s pretty rich territory. And I think as far as like the inspiration for it, I mean I said this a lot about our Executive Producer, Mr. Spielberg, because I was a kid who grew up on Amblin movies and I think in so much in so many ways that I was kind of like programmed by those movies. My my creativity in a way almost was programmed by those things. And guys like George Lucas. While I was writing the pilot, because I’m a big DOCTOR WHO fan, I had a post-it note on the corner of my monitor that said, “WWSMD; what would Steven Moffat do?” Because I think he is a great writer. And I would look at that every now and then when I got stuck and I would ask myself that question, “What would Steven Moffat do?” And the answer was always like, “That he would just write it better.” So I kind of just kept trying to do that.
Did you try and get any of the kind of spirit of DOCTOR WHO into the series?
MICKEY: It had such a great heart at the center of it. And I think that was really important to me, and important to Greg. It’s one of the things I think that I connected with Greg right away with because he’s got such a great spirit and he’s a family guy. And, when we first met we talked about his sons and baseball. And things like that, it’s like I feel like that’s just that kind of warmth in the heart is at the center of it. It’s not a dystopian world. We want it to be something that that people could relate to and this story about this family that people would appreciate.
I just wanted you to kind of describe a little bit about the show. It seems like there might be a bit of deconstruction of the characters. Is this supposed to be like a horror mystery or a search for humanity? What is your show ultimately about?
MICKEY: That’s a good question. For us the sort of underlying theme is this question of what it means to be human. And going back to those sort of two stories, they both speak to that question. Molly’s (Halle Berry) story in space, the story about Ethan, the way those two stories intersect it becomes a story about what is human and about how we’re connected to each other, and to the title of the show, EXTANT. It’s that we’re in existence, that we’re surviving. And how we ensure that what was human survives in the face of these challenges, these sort of pivot points in human history where we’re going to meet extraterrestrials or the rise of this really powerful artificial intelligence.
Are we supposed to take it as kind of a horror series, or is it again, like you were trying to describe a search for humanity?
GREG: It’s both at times. I think it’s a real mix of genres and what I love about Mickey’s pilot is it was this kind of at times a “Rosemary’s Baby” like page-turner, and then at other times it was this family drama that kind of brooded in like the Close Encounters family. So what I loved was that kind of dynamic interchange of, that shift of genres that sometimes can be really confusing. But this script and this show early on had a real sense of what it was and a sense of self. So we were able to kind of traffic in political conspiracy genre, into horror mystery, into X-FILES moments and these kind family moments. And to the extent the audience will play along is the extent they can enjoy it, but we’ve always tried to mix those.
There’s a lot of floating in space going on. How did you do that to make it seem as real as possible?
GREG: Movie magic. There are a couple of different ways you could do it, but we were inspired by Steven Spielberg’s mandate that we have Zero G what you call the floating in there. And so what we did is we do it through a series of wires and a very sophisticated wire floating rig in which the actors are suspended by wires and then we digitally remove the wires after.
Halle really practiced being an astronaut. Is that true, that she did a lot of research?
GREG: She did a lot of research. She spoke to a NASA consultant, Kady Coleman. And she also went up in the zero G plane, where you can experience weightlessness for short periods of time. So she was a true gamer, she was a die-hard. She went up and really felt what it was like to be in a zero G environment in a real way. And she’d had a lot of experience on the wire work just from her work in “X-Men.” I’d kind of forgotten about that by the time we were shooting the pilot. It was late one night while we were shooting all that stuff and I said, “Oh my God, are you okay? This must be exhausting.” And she was like, “I’ve been doing this for a while.” So I’d forgotten that she’d had some experience flying and floating.
Why did you want the head person to be female in this case?
MICKEY: I was kind of at a point where I just wanted to challenge myself to write a really complex, interesting female lead character. There seemed like there was an opening for it. Because when I wrote it, it was at the the height of a lot of these shows that I love. And there were a lot of these great, sort of male anti-heroes in all the shows that I was binging on. And it just seemed like there was a place for this. And not a female anti-hero but somebody who could be a hero but also be complex and interesting and at the top of her field. And the idea of just putting this extraordinary woman in this impossible situation.
How surprising will be this with Halle? And from what you’ve done so far, how is her performance?
GREG: I’ll tell you the surprising thing, and the thing I think that was the most exciting to me was like, when you go see her on screen it looks so effortless she’s so powerful and so emotionally compelling. And there’s this great sort of soulfulness and vulnerability to her. And then to get to watch her pull that off on the set and to watch her sort of fearlessness take after take, an to watch her process, and she’s very consciences, she digs into it with the writers and she has a point of view about the character and so I don’t know. To me it’s just like it’s thrilling to watch. And I think people are going to love it. I think again, it’s one of those things that in movies you go see her once or twice a year, and they’re going to have the opportunity to go on this great 13 hour journey with her with an actress that people just love.
Did you envision it always as a 13 hours or are you ready to go for several more seasons should it become a big success?
MICKEY: Well as far as like the first season, season by season, 13 hours certainly felt right. And Greg, so when he came in that was that was one of the first things he said. He was like, “This really feels like in order to protect the the sort of quieter things about the show too, I feel like it needs to be 13 hours so we don’t, just , turn through story at a breakneck pace.” And I agreed. I thought that was really smart. And then but I feel like we’ve done and what I kind of hoped to do early on is that, we’re going to tell this story that we’ve set up all these big questions and these big mysteries and we’re going to get answers to a lot of those. And there should be a huge satisfying conclusion to the first season and then open up the possibility of the mystery and where we could go in Season 2. And I believed from the beginning it was sort of a story world that was designed to grow and change with the world, with the things that we’re confronted with in technology and all the new discoveries that we’re making about space, that it could take its inspiration from that and live season to season.
To delve into the mysteries of life, love and humanity, be sure to tune in for the premiere of EXTANT on Wednesday, July 9th at 9:00 p.m. on CBS.