Going Back to Sci-Fi Roots with The OA
When The OA debuted this past December, it was heavily measured against fellow Netflix original show Stranger Things (which premiered only five months earlier). The comparison between the two programs is not unjustified; both are science fiction shows that deal with the concept of alternate dimensions and feature doctors experimenting on unwilling test subjects. Stripped of all that makes these shows unique–characters, plot, and tone–the two television series do sound similar by their synopses. But they could not be any more different when it comes to executing similar topics. Stranger Things is an overt and purposeful homage to ’80s sci-fi that is meant to make their audience reminisce about their favourite classic childhood movie. It’s meant to be nostalgic, and the storytelling meant different things to different people. The OA is also a tribute to early sci-fi, but a type that’s a lot older than the throwback-fest of Stranger Things.
Spoiler Warning: For the series The OA.
When the show opens, through the lens of a phone recording traffic on a bridge, we see the character Prairie Johnson/OA, played by series co-creator Brit Marling, run in front of cars and then jump of the bridge. From there the first episode is Prairie/OA getting reacquainted with her old life with her adoptive parents after having been missing for seven years. She comes back home with scars on her back and has regained her sight. She won’t talk about her years away with her parents, which is very common for people suffering from a past traumatic experience, but will record herself on the family camcorder, like a video diary.
Prairie/OA seeks out teenage rebel Steve to help her get internet access without her parents finding out so she can search for her fellow “test subjects” and upload her videos online. It’s through a YouTube video she posts that OA recruits five people: Steve the wildcard, Jesse the stoner, Alfonso/”French” the grade-A jock, Buck the quiet outsider with the angelic voice, and Betty Broderick-Allen the four boys’ teacher. All of them are lost in their own way, and OA notices that and hopes to give all of them purpose with her story. When then the group first meets in an abandoned development and OA begins to tell her life story, the opening credits start to roll.
The first hour of The OA is separate from the rest of the story, and the focus and obsession of technology is a remark on, not only society’s current reliance on staying plugged in, but how the genre of sci-fi depends on technology as a tool to move the story. It’s when OA (which we find out stands for the “Original Angel”) tells her tale of growing up as Nina Azarova in Russia, having a near death experience (NDE), losing her sight, and moving to America, that the show actually starts. And there’s a serious lack of technology and computers from that point on.
This isn’t to say that there’s a total absence of technology from the story OA is telling about her years of captivity. The man imprisoning Prairie and the other NDE survivors, Dr. Hunter Aloysius “Hap” Percy (portrayed by everyone’s favourite Slytherin dad, Jason Isaacs), relies heavily on technology to observe and monitor his test subjects. His fascination with near death experiences pushes him to find answers to his questions, but the technology keeps him looking through a pinhole at an arm’s length distance.
Prairie and her fellow test subjects are forced to die and be brought back to life by Hap and his computers as he monitors their brain waves. He’s obsessed with where the brain, the physical representation of who a person is, goes when they die. Hap’s naturalist approach–that something must exist in the material (natural) world, and can be tested and experimented on–is very similar to a famous fictional scientist who also practised on the dead–Dr. Frankenstein.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is considered to be the first science fiction story, but is still a Gothic novel of its time because of its use of motifs of mystery and the supernatural. The Monster represents the theme of the supernatural while Dr. Frankenstein sees his creation as a miracle of science and a testament to his work rather than something spiritual that cannot be explained. To the doctor, life is a conscious person and not their inner identity, which the Monster is always at war with. Through her most well-known novel, you can tell Shelley was a believer that not everything in this universe can be explained by human perception and that diverting from the path nature intends could have drastic consequences.
Hap is exactly like Dr. Frankenstein, who is only able to interpret what they see, and therefore, rationalize their own work with minimal understanding. Both are fascinated by life and death, alienate themselves, and were relieved from lies in their person life to focus on their science and test the limits of nature.
In one of his later tests with Prairie/OA, Hap says that he believes that during her NDEs, her mind goes to the rings of Saturn. The OA has a lot of Easter eggs, and with Prairie/OA’s vision of the afterlife during her NDEs, which have a very astral design, the connection to space feel obvious. However, this could also be a red herring and an example of Hap’s dependence on scientific reasoning clouding the truth.
The visuals are so much more vivid and captivating when OA is with the other NDE survivors and in her after-death realm than in real life because it’s during those times she’s closest to the supernatural. When Hap takes her and the other test subjects in the lab, it’s a bleak, sterile environment that is so dull compared to the more divine settings. The same can be said for the present timeline, which is bland and set mostly in an abandoned housing development, which gives the hollow, eerie feeling to the locale. All of this opposition elevates the romanticized worlds that OA describes when she is most connected to the spiritual.
The OA is as much a mystery as it is a science fiction story. The whole time Prairie/OA is telling her tale in the present, both the chosen five and audience is questioning the legitimacy of everything. There are obvious holes in OA’s story that are meant to cause suspicion. There are just too many convenient connections to the present with the chosen five (French’s face cut matching Homer’s, the red backpack, etc.). And in the last episode when French sneaks into Prairie/OA’s room and finds books hidden under bed that conveniently connect to her fable, The Usual Suspects style, the five decide then to believe her tale as fiction.
Throughout many of Brit Marling’s previous films, you can see the same topics that are also explored in The OA, including alternative planes/wolds in Another Earth (2011) and being a part of a anarchist collective of people who strive for a cohesion with nature in The East (2013). But it’s the parallels between the topics and themes The OA shares with Sound of My Voice (2011) that are the most explicit. The blend of mystery in a science fiction drama of a young woman recruiting people for a seemingly otherworldly task.
In Marling’s first feature work with The OA co-creator Zal Batmanglij, the SXSW indie hit Sound of My Voice, a cult leader named Maggie (Marling), claims to be from the future and amasses a small following through vague threats of a crumbling future. Maggie is kind and open, but acknowledges she’s not perfect, and says she only wants to protect people from what’s to come. It’s a crazy idea that still attracted believers, which we’re introduced through a skeptic who is trying to make a documentary on cults.
It’s also interesting to note the similar look between Brit Marling’s two characters in both projects after you know that Sound of My Voice was supposed to be the first in a trilogy. Maybe The OA is in a way a continuation of what could have been?
Science fiction can feel homogenized when it depends on technology to be the driving force of the narrative. There has been a lot of sci-fi that uses the genre as a tool for the story well, like District 9 did with an analogy of institutionalized racial segregation through an apartheid. The OA came so out of left field. Batmanglij and Marling didn’t let contemporary standards of what science fiction should look like hold them back from what they wanted from their story.
This isn’t to say that The OA is without its faults; the juxtaposition between OA’s history of being held captive for several years and the current plot of the teenagers doesn’t always gel. The need to rescue the other NDE survivors from their imprisonment with Hap feels more important than the day-to-day struggles of high school, and it is never met with the level of urgency that the situation would dictate. Once OA has finished her story and told the chosen five how to help her, it almost seem like they were all in an after school club rather than a group of heroes. The biggest problem with the series is how the first season closed with a school shooting, very similar to the one at Columbine, that didn’t seem to have any purpose in the overall story but for OA to be shot.
Some people were disappointed with the turn from NDEs to angels midpoint in the season, but the idea of the show was to add Gothic elements back into the science fiction narrative. Supernatural details can be as much a part of sci-fi as technology, but for some reason they’ve been isolated in separate genres. The OA didn’t meet everyone’s measure of a typical sci-fi show, but without pushing the envelope, we’re stuck with formulaic and boring shows. With the promise of a Part 2 for the series, Batmanglij and Marling will surly tie up all the lose ends and teasers they gave their audience. Or leave them hanging again for a Part 3.