WARNING: HERE BE SPOILERS
I love science fiction, and I’m willing to give a lot of leeway for a lot of things, because sci-fi isn’t always about getting the science 100% right; sometimes it’s just about telling a good story or making observations about the human condition. But what I can’t give leeway for is creating characters who are completely irrational and driving the story with distractions instead of real obstacles.
On that note, Another Life on Netflix is almost unwatchable. It’s not even “so bad it’s entertaining.” It’s just bad. Here’s why:
1. The drama is driven by irrational decision-making. Saving the earth from unknown alien forces is not a new concept in sci-fi. It’s a tried-and-true vehicle for working out problems with human behavior, asking questions about dangerous technology, finding our capacity for selflessness, or just having a good time kicking some alien ass.
The one thing those stories usually have in common, though, is a cast of characters who possess sincerity, skill, and a degree of self-awareness. Even Galaxy Quest, a parody of Star Trek, imbues its characters with these traits — they’re actors, not astronauts, and they know it.
But the characters on Another Life are superficial, inept, and imprudent. The first episode presents us with an urgent-and-extremely-important-one-of-a-kind-mission staffed by an XO who thinks mutiny is a first resort, a communications officer who thinks “safety first” is a sign of weakness, and an AI who agrees to endanger the ship and crew because he’s intimidated by peer pressure (and again later because he’s mad at the captain).
Bad decisions are exacerbated by… well, I don’t know what. Some things are never explained. Like why Captain Breckinridge (Katee Sackhoff) kills another character who is coming at her with a knife, then doesn’t tell the rest of the crew that he was coming at her with a knife. She just tells them that she killed him because he was “endangering the mission.” Think that’s going to create some tension later? (It does.)
2. The crew are used as vehicles for political statements, not fully fleshed out people. Also, they are all a bunch of entitled, whiny babies. Aside from the bad logic exhibited by the crew, the worst thing about them is that they are insufferable 20-somethings. It’s like watching Big Brother or The Bachelor in space, with a dose of bad tumblr blogging.
Genuine interpersonal conflict is established by mutually exclusive worldviews, conflicting goals, or misunderstood motives. That’s expected and it’s relatable. But that’s not the case with Another Life. What we see instead is a lot of yelling, cursing, complaining, panicking, and blaming. Most of the characters are more concerned with their sex lives than the all-important mission they have been sent on. (There is a lot of sex, with no plot motivation behind it.) When they are concerned with the mission, they’re too preoccupied by their distrust of one another to deal with it objectively.
It doesn’t help that the show is front-loaded with avoidable catastrophes. There are no opportunities for the characters to grow or learn; they’re perpetually reacting to things, usually in a state of panic or anger.
3. Clichés are cliché for a reason.
“I’m not answering that.”
Smirk, “You just did.”
4. The science is really bad. My formal education was in Political Science, which is not real science. So if I know more about gravitational lensing and magnetohydrodynamics than astronauts from the future, you’re doing it wrong.
But the big problem is that the show misses the bar that it sets for itself. The degree to which any science fiction show takes itself seriously is the degree to which it has to take its subject matter seriously. Another Life takes itself very, very seriously, which sets the bar for scientific accuracy higher. But the writing doesn’t pay that off.
- The plausibility of faster-than-light travel aside, if you have FTL capability then there’s no point in slingshotting around a star to gain speed. It would be like adding a sparkler to a Saturn V because you just really need the extra oomph. This is the source of the main drama at the beginning of the show, but it should have never happened.
- Safety protocols are either ignored or don’t work. At least twice the “decontamination procedure” misses something that puts the ship in danger.
- Crew members don’t know things that are clearly within their realm of expertise, including the ship’s front-line microbiologist, the doctor/psychologist (which should not be a thing), and the engineer.
- Everyone, including the doctor, are shocked to find out that gamma radiation is dangerous.
- A gun with a laser sight always knows where it’s aiming; a gun with four laser sights is never really sure.
4. Dialog as exposition. In my opinion this is the cardinal sin of science fiction writing: clumsily explaining things in layman’s terms to characters who should already know it because you don’t think the audience will know it.
Captain: “What is it? A comet?”
Comms: “It’s too big for a comet.”
Ship AI: “No, no. I think it’s a planet.” (You’re a computer. Why are you guessing?)
Comms: “Um, well, planets usually have these little things called stars.” (Rogue planets are a thing. How did you become an astronaut?)
Captain: “Not if it’s rogue.” (I quit.)
There’s a part of me that wishes Another Life was schlockier, or more self-aware, or something — anything — that could give us an excuse to like it anyway. But there’s nothing. It’s just a parade of unlikable characters who don’t know what they’re supposed to be doing. The title also doesn’t know what it’s doing — there is nothing about the show that implies anything about another life of any kind.
In the words of Gwen DeMarco, the character played by Sigourney Weaver in the aforementioned Galaxy Quest, “This episode was badly written!” Except in the case of Another Life, all of the episodes were badly written, and there are no chompy, crushy things to blame for it.
Overall, it just feels like a bad drama set in outer space. It’s not interesting, it’s not inspiring, and it’s not good.