They say every generation gets the science fiction it deserves, built around its biggest and most primal fears. Well, maybe they don’t say that — but they should. In the ‘50s, all those movies about mutated giant monsters going berserk were a way for us to channel our fears about the atomic bomb. In the same way, in that same decade, all those body-snatcher movies were about being unable to tell friend from foe, or trust even your closest loved ones – the perfect paranoid parable for the Communist witch-hunting era.
So what are we watching this decade, more than anything else? We’re watching television. And on television, we seem to fear things outside of our control, and dangers arriving seemingly out of the blue. In Stephen King’s Under the Dome, it’s a small town suddenly isolated by a mysterious force. In HBO’s The Leftovers, which began last month, it’s about a Rapture-like event in which two percent of the world’s population suddenly and mysteriously vanishes – leaving the survivors to wonder why… and, more important, to wonder what to do next. And one of television’s most popular series in this modern age is AMC’s The Walking Dead, which imagines a world in which it’s not the meek who inherit the earth. It’s the zombies.
And now, this week, we have two new entries in the threats-from-nowhere genre. Both of them are about outside forces that target us humans for a reason. In Extant, the new 13-part CBS miniseries that starts Wednesday, it’s about a female astronaut who returns from an extended, 13-month solo stint aboard a space station – and learns that she’s pregnant. But by whom, or by what? And in The Strain, a new series from FX that begins July 13, the threat is both viral and vampire. It’s about the sudden outbreak of a disease that kills most of its victims – then begins to mutate them into another species entirely.
Maybe all of these new TV shows have to do with our communal concerns about climate change, or destroying the environment, or spreading some unstoppable new disease. Whatever the reason, here they are – and these new ones come from very strong show-biz pedigrees.
Extant, the less impressive of the two, is created by first-time TV writer-producer Mickey Fisher, but is executive produced by Steven Spielberg, who’s also lent his name and expertise to Under the Dome and TNT’s alien-invasion Falling Skies. Extant has a premise that could go places, but based on the pilot, many of those places are awfully, unimpressively familiar. The moment when Halle Berry, as female astronaut Molly Watts, encounters an anomaly in space, it’s while talking to her family back home, and to her onboard computer, when she loses the video signal. The computer isn’t named HAL, as in 2001: A Space Odyssey – it’s named Ben. But still.
Much better, even though it treads on similarly familiar ground, is FX’s The Strain. This one stars Corey Stoll, who’s more than up to the demands of a leading role – in supporting parts, he played the out-of-control young congressman in Netflix’s House of Cards, and a memorably magnetic Ernest Hemingway in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. In The Strain, he plays a scientist named Ephraim Goodweather, who heads the Centers for Disease Control team called in to investigate a very bizarre airline disaster. The plane has landed safely in New York – but neither the crew nor the passengers have made a move, or a sound, since, and may not even be alive. When Ephraim arrives at the tarmac, a representative from another federal agency wants to board the plane first – but Ephraim talks him out of it, very quickly and efficiently.
I’ve seen the first four episodes of The Strain, and they’re lots of fun, and effectively creepy. They give proper service to the conventions of the genre – there’s even an elder Van Helsing type who knows how to hunt down and kill these nasty, no-longer-human bloodsuckers – but there’s also a lot of the inventive visual flair and strong characterization that made the movie Alien so frightening, and compelling, back in the ‘70s.
The secret weapon of The Strain is Guillermo del Toro, whose flashy, visceral genre movies include Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth and Pacific Rim. With series co-creator Chuck Hogan, del Toro wrote the original novels on which The Strain is based, and del Toro directed the first episode of the TV series. Del Toro’s love of special effects and genuine scares, and his delight in mixing humor and horror, runs throughout The Strain. And its show runner is Carlton Cuse, who was head writer, with Damon Lindelof, on the ABC series Lost. Both of them have wound up working on new novelistic genre TV mysteries this summer: Lindelof on The Leftovers, and Cuse on The Strain.
The Strain, by far, is the best of the new batch.
David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching, and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey.