Friday, December 14, 2018

"Origin": Season 1 review, partway in

I wrote before about the YouTube original series "Impulse," which is based on the Jumper series of novels about people with the ability to teleport by generating wormholes. I'm currently watching "Origin," another one-word-title YouTube series starring Harry Potter veterans Natalia Tena (who played Nymphadora Tonks) and Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy), along with a solid cast of regular, recurring characters. The premise is that the Origin is a spacefaring vessel somewhat similar to a generation ship* in concept: passengers are placed on board and hibernate as the ship makes a long voyage to a nearby star and its solar system—in this case, a system with an earth-like planet called Thea (Greek θεά for "goddess," possibly a nod to Gaia, one term for our world). On our future Earth, population pressure and other factors have forced people to consider the option of moving offworld; a company called Siren is advertising the Thea Project, which involves collecting volunteers to act as crew for the Origin, as well as other volunteers who will start a new life on this new world, helping to build the structures and infrastructure that will be used by future incoming humans.

But something has gone wrong, and that's how the first episode opens: one of our main point-of-view characters is Shun (Sen Mitsuji), a Yakuza who has left Earth after a life of crime that weighs heavily on his conscience. Shun is awakened inside his hibernaculum when the ship shudders and goes into emergency mode. Little does he know that most of the passengers and crew of the Origin have already launched away from the ship in lifepods while the Origin—a giant vessel composed of ten rotating rings held together by a central axle that also functions as an elevator shaft—continues to lumber blindly toward Thea along its programmed course. Shun is ejected from his hibernaculum along with Lana Pierce (Tena), a former bodyguard. The two tentatively explore the now-empty Origin, whose interior is reminiscent of the LV-426 Acheron base in "Aliens." More passengers get ejected from their capsules; no one knows anyone else, and part of the fun of the series is learning about each character's history, personality, and motives via omniscient third-person back-story narratives and through present-day dialogue.

As with "Game of Thrones," though, there's a menace from something radically Other: this would be the White Walkers in "Game of Thrones," but it's a strange, ill-defined alien presence in "Origin." The event that put the Origin in emergency mode was the impact of an asteroid on one of the ship's rings; the asteroid remained rammed into the impact point, but it may have brought along with it a type of parasitic alien life that, a bit like the Ceti eels in "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan," takes over a person's brain and causes that person to make murderous mischief (All this has happened before...). A victim of the alien will bleed from facial orifices, contort him- or herself as if demonically possessed, and cleverly lead people into traps in which the human/alien symbiote pair will grab a weapon, like a knife or a gun, and do the victim in. It's not always obvious whether the alien is doing this simply because it likes killing or because it needs a new host in order to reproduce. Thus far in the series (I'm up to about Episode 7 of ten episodes), the frightened passengers seem to be dealing with a single alien, not a spreading, contagious virus that could bring about a zombie apocalypse.

Along with Shun the Yakuza and Lana the ex-bodyguard, our main cast includes Lee the autistic ace hacker who hates to be touched (Adelayo Adedayo), Logan the stoner loser/delinquent who's nicer than he seems (Felton), Evelyn Rey the last remaining crew member (Nora Arnezeder), Dr. Henri Gasana the not-always-ethical geneticist (Fraser James), Baum Arndt the bisexual playboy/thief (Philipp Christopher), Abigail Garcia (Madalyn Horcher) the lost little teen, and Katie Devlin the winsome Irish lass (Siobhán Cullen). As the series moves forward, we find out everyone's back stories—their reasons for signing on to the Thea Project. In most cases, these people have deeply criminal histories, but in one or two instances, the passengers on the Origin have fairly uplifting and/or touching backgrounds.

"Origin" uses several techniques for maintaining suspense. Like one of my all-time favorite TV series, "24," it has no compunctions about killing off important characters, but also like "24," it imbues its top-tier main characters with enough plot armor for the viewer to know that those folks will survive to the next episode, and possibly to the very end of the series. A second technique is a combination of cinematography and set design: the Origin is portrayed as a massive, empty vessel. The blue lighting reminds one instantly of James Cameron's preferred color palette in most of his sci-fi/action movies, but there are also strong hints of the Nostromo from "Alien" and the dystopic cities of "Blade Runner." One suspense trope used far, far too often is the jump scare, which gets cheap by the second episode, but which continues shamelessly throughout the series. After a while, the viewer just rolls his eyes.

If I were to compare this show to "Impulse," I'd say it's (1) far less feminist in emphasis and (2) not nearly as well scripted. The dialogue and situations in "Impulse," their feminist slant notwithstanding, have a certain ring of authenticity and emotional power. For "Origin," the dialogue sometimes comes off as too stilted and comic-bookish. "Origin" also contains far too many predictable moments: I was almost always able to foresee, minutes ahead, which character was going to die or prove to be the baddie or fail in a certain way. True, the show has proven clever enough to throw in a few twists that I couldn't predict, but overall, the story hasn't been as suspenseful as the writers might have wanted it to be.

On a positive note, the characters are all well acted, and their interactions—which take on many permutations and combinations—create an inherent complexity that keeps the overall story interesting, if not exactly riveting. There's just enough unpredictability that I can't foresee how Season 1 is going to end: the passengers discover they are only nine days out from Thea, so... will they make planetfall in the final episode? Will the ship's AI go nuts and drive them all past the planet and into deep space? (I'm betting on planetfall, either this season or next.) Several love stories are evolving over the course of time, but given the odd number of people (and the oddness of some of the people), not everyone ends up with a squeeze. One of the best parts of the series is also one of its most formulaic elements: the relating of each main character's back story from his or her time on Earth. Once you see the first two flashbacks, you know you're in for more such reminiscences, but the memories themselves do much to flesh out the characters currently trapped aboard a damaged ship. Also likable is the way that many of the characters are multilingual; long swaths of dialogue are in fluent-sounding French, German, and Japanese. And some of the themes brought up in the series are of interest to me, such as the idea that AI is only a nudge away from the Singularity, and there are laws supposedly preventing people from enhancing their AI to the point of sentience.

The most frustrating aspect of the series, thus far, is the inconsistency of the portrayal of the alien life form. I'm seven episodes in, and I'm still not even sure whether we're dealing with just one form of alien life. Much is made, early on, of a black goo that appears soon after the asteroid impact. This goo reappears, or gets talked about, as the series goes on, but we're never told what its properties are. Is it mutagenic, i.e., should you not touch it at the risk of being transformed? Is it the vehicle for alien pathogens to enter a human host? When a dead victim of an alien undergoes a laser craniotomy, we see a vaguely insect-like structure hugging the victim's brain. Its blood seems to be that same black fluid, but this only causes more questions: is the goo circulatory fluid or an excretion? Or both? Is the alien infecting its hosts the way a virus might, or is that insect-like thing physically crawling into people's bodies and settling itself on top of the brain? Affected victims will attack another human and attempt to bleed on the victim; does this mean that human blood is a carrier of alien infection? If so, why is there almost no effort, at any time, to clean up any spilled blood? (Come to think of it, why does the lone "doc" only inconsistently exercise infection-control procedures, gloving up only at random, and even touching a living alien tendril bare-handed?) The alien is said to calcify a person's hippocampus, thus blocking deep-seated memories and causing people to forget who they are. An infected medic forgets he's a medic; an infected passenger forgets his own name but cunningly adopts another passenger's name as an alias. The alien's effect on memory causes its victims to lose time: the victims become murderous, then lapse back into their original selves. The freaky demon-possession aspect of the alien has been shown only once or twice in the first two episodes, and it hasn't been seen since. I want to see alien-possessed people galloping along on twisted limbs, torsos facing the ceiling because their spines have been bent so far backward that no other locomotion is possible!**

The series could be greatly improved by not telegraphing upcoming events, not including so many damn jump scares (which are less scary than they are silly; I expect to see mashup parodies on YouTube soon: "Every Jump Scare from Season 1 of 'Origin' Done in 90 Seconds"), and not relying on occasionally clunky dialogue. It should continue to give us decently fleshed-out characters with interesting backgrounds and conflicting motivations, and an increasingly grandiose story that will, I hope, take us to a new planet, where the setting will be much wider, with more potential for mayhem. Overall, "Origin" is watchable, but its screenwriting-related problems put it significantly below "Impulse" in terms of quality. That said, I'll watch to the end of Season 1, and I'll likely continue on with Season 2.

*A generation ship typically moves at sublight speed, whereas the Origin can, to use the "Star Wars" terminology, jump into hyperspace. In this series, passengers are placed in hibernacula, and not for a very long time. This is a major disanalogy with generation ships, in which generations of non-hibernating people are born and die as the ship makes its slow way to its destination. If I'm not mistaken, though, the Origin must move far away from any planets before it makes its jump, and that's what takes a lot of time. Same goes for arrival at Thea: the Origin drops out of hyperspace fairly far out from Thea, then uses sublight propulsion to arrive at the planet, enter orbit, and offload the passengers. At least... that's what was supposed to happen.

**I'm alluding, of course, to Regan's "spider-walk" scene from the novel The Exorcist; the scene was filmed for the movie, but it was left out of the final cut; see two versions of it here and here if you want; the scene is kind of lame, but the second version is a bit creepier and less faithful to the novel. In the novel, Regan is described as being bent so far backward that her buttocks and head are almost touching, and when she crawls down the stairs, it's on tiptoe and fingertips. Her tongue, inhumanly long, flicks out like a snake, tickling the ankles of the startled people at the bottom of the stairs. Regan's movements, during this scene, are completely, eerily silent.

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