Premise: A group of astronauts fights for survival aboard their ship while an alien menace hunts them one by one. Premise: In a cyberpunk future, the landscape is dominated by endless rain and towering, neon-drenched skyscrapers. Premise: A small group of travelers are tasked with colonizing a new world, assuming their damaged craft can get them there in one piece. Premise: As humanity faces political, economic and ecological collapse, more and more people are retreating into the virtual reality realm. Premise: a group of strangers are trapped in a strange place as they slowly unravel a giant conspiracy perpetrated by a mysterious group of "others."
Does all of that sound familiar? It should at this point. Those concepts are the basis of some of the most iconic sci-fi movies and TV shows of the past several decades. And they also all describe the plot of Origin, a new YouTube Originals series from creator Mika Watkins. It goes without saying that no series that borrows so much from so many different sources can truly stand on its own. Origin is a series that, at best, recycles a lot of greatest hits without ever bringing much new to the table.
The gist of Origin is that it's a series about a group of colonists chosen by the monolithic Siren Corporation to populate a planet called Thea. Unfortunately, eight passengers are awoken mid-flight to discover the crew is missing, the ship is severely damaged and a sinister alien parasite is wandering the empty corridors. Making matters worse is that not every one of these passengers may be who they claim.
More than almost any series in recent memory, Origin wears its influences proudly on its sleeve. That summary alone immediately calls to mind the Alien movies and other sci-fi films like 1982's The Thing, 1997's Event Horizon, and 2016's Passengers. The design of the ship, the deep space survival angle and even certain camera shots strongly recall 2007's Sunshine. Then you have the frequent flashbacks to life on a near-future Earth, which are basically a mish-mash of Blade Runner and Ready Player One. At no point in the course of its ten episodes does Origin attempt to establish its own sense of identity.
That in itself isn't enough to doom the series. Originality and quality don't have to go hand in hand. I didn't find myself bristling at the sense of familiarity so much as the fact that Origin tries to do way too much at once. The plot tries to veer in too many directions simultaneously, and in general, the series never seems quite sure if it's trying to be a survival horror story, a tale of humanity's perseverance against overwhelming odds, a Lost-style mystery box, or a character drama about lonely, damaged people finding connections with each other. Perhaps if Watkins (who writes or co-writes all but one episode) had opted for a more focused, streamlined approach, the series could have done more to bring a new flavor to well-worn tropes.
Nowhere does Origin frustrate more than its reliance on extensive flashback scenes. I mentioned the Lost-influenced approach to the show's many mysteries and the way answers are slowly doled out piece by piece. But that series seems equally influential when it comes to the flashbacks. Nearly every episode singles out one character and devotes ample time to exploring their life on Earth and the series of events that compelled them to leave it all behind and venture into space.
In his nonfiction book On Writing, Stephen King said, "The most important things to remember about backstory are that (a) everyone has a history and (b) most of it isn't very interesting. Stick to the parts that are, and don't get carried away with the rest." That's a lesson that really should have been applied here. The flashback storylines are generally executed well enough. They even serve to break up the monotonous ship environment and add context for why Earth is in such sorry shape and why colonizing other worlds is such a critical goal. But ultimately, these scenes don't add enough to their respective characters to justify the amount of time devoted to them. They bring the show's already sluggish momentum to a screeching halt and don't provide nearly enough storytelling benefit to offset that problem.
And even with the flashbacks exploring the various characters' respective backstories in excruciating detail, some are far more nuanced and compelling than others. Game of Thrones' Natalia Tena is definitely the strongest gun in this show's lineup. Her character Lana is the most complex and fully realized of the bunch, a fact which really pays off in the final episode as Lana faces an intense psychological ordeal. In general, that final episode is the closest the show comes to moving past its numerous influences and becoming its own beast. That's as much due to Tena's emotionally charged performance as the frenetic tone and nonlinear narrative.
Apart from Tena, former Harry Potter mainstay Tom Felton is probably the most recognizable face in the cast. Unfortunately, between Harry Potter's Draco Malfoy, The Flash's Julian Albert, and now Origin's Logan Maine, Felton has been pretty well typecast as the arrogant antagonist with a secret heart of gold. It's a role he continues to play well, but I wish Felton had been given more opportunity to break out of that mold in this series.
The other two main standouts in Season 1 are Fraser James and Sen Mitsuji. James plays Dr. Henri Gasana, the sort of sage professor of the group and the only passenger remotely capable of dealing with the threat either emotionally or mentally. James is a much-needed calming presence amid a series full of dramatic tension. Mitsuji's Shun Kenzaki is a former Yakuza enforcer who, perhaps better than anyone, understands the appeal of traveling to a new world and starting over. He doesn't initially stand out that much (even with Shun being the first character to receive an extended flashback storyline), but over time the character develops more nuance.
For the most part, the rest of the main characters fall into the same interchangeable mold. They're either ruminating on the tragedies of their past or cowering in terror at the enemy hounding them millions of miles from home.
As much as Origin is guilty of recycling familiar sci-fi tropes, at least it uses those tropes to its visual advantage. The special effects are impressive, varying between Syfy quality to almost feature film-worthy. The ship itself is depicted as a cold, haunting place full of brightly lit yet sinister corridors, while the flashbacks tend to paint a convincing portrait of a world rapidly circling the drain even as it reaches new heights of technological excess. This series at least proves that YouTube is willing to throw around the money necessary to compete with the Netflixes and Amazons of the streaming world.
Also worth noting for Event Horizon fans is that Paul W.S. Anderson directs the first two episodes and co-directs the third. The series draws on a similar sense of foreboding and unease as our heroes slowly make sense of their hostile, isolated environment. And while the payoff is never nearly as memorable as it was in that film, the Event Horizon connection alone may be enough for fans to give this series a try.
Sci-fi fanatics who already have a YouTube premium or YouTube TV subscription might as well give Origin a look. It's a gorgeous show with a handful of strong performances, and one that draws from numerous sci-fi classics. The problem is that the show never rises above its blatant influences. It plays out like a fusion of Blade Runner, Alien, Lost, Sunshine and Event Horizon. It attempts to cover too much ground and be all things for all viewers rather than focusing on telling a good, streamlined story.