'Pandora': TV Review

The CW's Pandora-Publicity Still-H 2019
The CW
More clever and less amateurish than 'The Outpost.'

The CW's commitment to filling its summer schedule with original programming that evidently costs nothing to make continues with this low-budget science-fiction offering.

As television networks and services endeavor to raise the bar on small-screen production values, there's something endearingly cute about The CW's summertime mission to give a venue to some of the cheapest and flattest-looking visuals and casting-pool-spread-too-thin ensembles this side of off-brand '80s syndicated action dreck.

The Outpost, a series so shoddy as to make Syfy Canadian imports chortle condescendingly, premiered last summer and was apparently successful enough to earn a second season on The CW, where it will be joined this week by the comparably unrefined science fiction drama Pandora.

That's not quite fair. Pandora almost looks like Avatar compared with The Outpost, in the sense that I'm pretty sure not all of the show's sets could be toppled by an aggressive sneeze. Pandora also has occasional bursts of anachronistic humor that seem intentional and verging on effective, rather than relying on accidental laughs to break the monotony.

Set in 2199, Pandora stars Priscilla Quintana as Jax, a young woman whose parents disappear from some distant planet under mysterious circumstances. Basically orphaned, Jax returns to Earth, where her ultra-affluent uncle (Noah Huntley's Donovan Osborn) is able to get her a coveted position in the Space Training Academy, which definitely shouldn't be confused with Star Fleet Academy.

Starting classes a couple weeks late, Jax has to hurry to make friends, including with Raechelle Banno's Atria, Ben Radcliffe's Ralen, Martin Bobb-Semple's Tom, John Harlan Kim's Greg and Oliver Dench's Xander Duvall, a TA whose very British manners obscure possibly several dark secrets. Actually, all of Jax's friends have secrets. Atria is a clone! Tom is telepathic! Ralen is the son of an alien ambassador! Greg is Australian! Etc. Fortunately, Jax has several secrets of her own, including at least one biggie that she doesn't know herself. Very little by way of rules, stakes or mythology are established in the pilot, so I'm not sure how much to care about any of these secrets other than "Not much."

Creator Mark A. Altman has imagined a distant future in which characters talk like they were raised watching WB dramas from 20 years ago and where their stable of pop culture references stalled out in the late '90s. Is that explained by anything in the text? Heck no, but it's at least acknowledged that some of these references are dated and absurd, like a toss-off "We're not in Kansas anymore" joke that confuses its intended audience or a space flight playlist of 1980s classics highlighted by "She Blinded Me With Science."

With its clear inspirations ranging from Star Wars — the musical cues in an opening scene on a two-sunned planet feel like somebody owes John Williams a commission — to a satirically challenged Starship Troopers, to a recent run of variably Hogwarts-esque special school dramas (like Legacies only worse on all levels), the show has an unexplored subtext involving a society that went creatively stagnant nearly 150 years ago. I'm not going to watch long enough to see if it's explained.

Whatever its inspirations are, Pandora doesn't stay concentrated on any single genre or plotline for long. My sense, watching only the first episode, is that the story being told here was steered generally by the availability of sets and locations and not by an intended narrative, and most of the sets give the impression of having been either taken directly from another show or borrowed, half-redressed and then shot in soft focus to avoid attracting attention to details or overall sturdiness. So you have the most generic classrooms and spaceship interiors I think I've seen on a show in decades and if you were to look up films and television shows produced in Bulgaria in recent years, I bet you could figure out where those stages originated. The distant planet Jax's parents were working on looks like the most remote piece of Bulgarian scenery within 10 minutes of the stars' dressing rooms and there's one scene in a "bar" where the students hang out that I don't think anybody even attempted to decorate other than dimming the lights.

There's one featured bit of creature makeup. It's silly. There are some computer-driven space effects. They're rudimentary. Banno's character has the show's most ambitious styling and she looks like she won fifth place in the Leeloo cosplay category at a regional Fifth Element fan convention. There's one action scene in which the primary sound effects are so close to the actors yelling "Pew! Pew!" that I wonder if they could have saved five or 10 bucks by just doing that. Although the pilot was accompanied by a warning that some of what was here was just in a rough cut form, I'm not holding my breath on big improvements.

By this standard, it makes total sense that the actors are all attractive and diverse and none of them are acting in the same show. There's no common accent, which I actually like. It's a future-as-melting-pot. Less good is that nobody has settled on a comma tone or common cadences. Quintana could be on Riverdale. Huntley thinks he's doing Shakespeare. Radcliffe has one scene in his alien race's native tongue and it's hard to explain what could make a fabricated language sound extra-fake, but that's what happens here. There's no character I particularly liked, no relationship that seems particularly interesting and no mystery embedded in the pilot to which I'd like to get any answers.

Maybe some people will tune in for Pandora and maybe they won't. It's better than The Outpost. As long as the programming strategy's goal is making Batwoman, Nancy Drew and Katy Keene look polished in comparison, Pandora is probably a total success.

Cast: Priscilla Quintana, Oliver Dench, Raechelle Banno, John Harlan Kim, Ben Radcliffe, Banita Sandhu, Martin Bobb-Semple and Noah Huntley

Creator: Mark A. Altman

Airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. ET/PT on The CW, premiering July 16.