Editor’s note: The below contains spoilers for Episodes 1-3 of Constellation.



The Big Picture

  • A compelling narrative and entrancing mystery are crafted in the first 3 episodes of
    Constellation
    .
  • The show encourages viewers to create their theories from the get-go.
  • The direction creates claustrophobic and terrifying ISS scenes.


Little by little, as its competitors looked elsewhere for a niche audience, Apple TV+ established itself as the go-to platform for lovers of science fiction. First laying down the Foundation, then building everything up to Silo and beyond, the streamer fashioned itself as a home for sci-fi shows, particularly those with a more cerebral approach. Its latest venture into the genre, Peter HarnessConstellation, is yet another addition to the ever-growing list of ongoing and limited series that use our anxieties about outer space and/or the future to craft a complex story about what we truly know about the reality that surrounds us. Premiering on Apple TV+ with its first three 50-minute episodes, the show stars Noomi Rapace as a Swedish astronaut returning from a catastrophic mission only to find a world hostile to the stories she has to tell. What’s more, her life doesn’t seem to be exactly the way she left it when she departed for the International Space Station (ISS). A crisis seems to have emerged in her marriage and her daughter shows signs of unease whenever she is around. Could something have happened aboard the space station that changed Jo Ericsson’s perception of the world around her? Or is it the world itself that has changed?


Split into two different narrative timelines, one of which is much more mysterious than the other, the first three episodes of Constellation are a worthy introduction for a show that seems more interested in asking questions than it is in answering them, at least for the time being. Creepiness and chills are all over the place as “The Wounded Angel,” “Live and Let Die,” and “Somewhere in Space Hangs My Heart” paint a complicated picture that we, for now, can only hope will be completed by the end of the first season — or, at least, completed enough to avoid a kind of Lost debacle. Because, in the end, that’s the shadow that looms over every mystery series: what if we create a puzzle so big that we lose pieces along the way? What if we promise a resolution so amazing that we can’t help but disappoint?


So far, though, Constellation doesn’t have to worry about these things. Its only concern is creating a nice set-up, a trampoline from which its story can jump. And, despite failing in some respects, particularly when it comes to human connections, Harness manages to build a pretty sturdy trampoline. The three initial episodes of Constellation form a fascinating whole that leaves us wondering what will come next and even what exactly is happening right now. Sure, some of them wouldn’t stand as proudly on their own (Episode 1 is somewhat weak as a starting point), but the choice of releasing them together does wonders for the story they are trying to tell. What is this story, though? Well, that remains to be seen.

Constellation

Jo returns to Earth after a disaster in space and discovers that there are missing pieces in her life, so she sets out to expose the truth about the hidden secrets of space travel and recover what she has lost.

Release Date
February 21, 2024

Seasons
1


‘Constellation’ Kicks Off with a Puzzling Premise


It’s hard to know precisely what the plot of Constellation is, so far, apart from the broad strokes. According to what we’ve seen thus far, the show is about an astronaut who returns to Earth after a disaster in space to find out that key parts of her reality are missing. And, indeed, “The Wounded Angel” gives us just that: a disaster in space and a fraught reality. The episode starts with Jo running away from a nondescript something with her young daughter, Alice (Rosie and Davina Coleman), in tow. Questions asked by the little girl make it clear that there is a father in the picture but said patriarch seems to have disappeared. A transmission in Russian speaks of something bizarre happening far off in space, but this is something that we do not see. Over the course of the first three episodes, Jo will also be torn between two versions of Alice, one of which is trapped in a cabin much like their own, but frightened and alone instead of cared-for and sound asleep.


These scenes of Jo and Alice in hiding are interspersed with long stints of events set five weeks before whatever incident has got them on the run. Jo is aboard the ISS as part of a mission born from a partnership between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Russian Roscosmos corporation. An accident caused by something hitting the truss of the station throws the astronauts into a state of chaos: fires break out, escape capsules become inoperable, and researcher Paul Lancaster (William Catlett) is killed after being crushed under a piece of equipment. In this scenario, astronauts Audrey Brostin (Carole Weyers), Sergei Vassiliev (Lenn Kudrjawizki), and Yazmina Suri (Sandra Teles) are ordered to leave the station, while Jo is left behind with Paul’s body to fix the remaining pod and retrieve an important piece of research: a machine that has just registered the existence of a so far unknown state of matter that can only exist in zero gravity.


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This is where the story starts to get interesting. Though unnerving and a little bit scary, the initial scenes of Jo and Alice running away in the snow aren’t enough to create an all-encompassing atmosphere of unease. Even the existence of a second Alice doesn’t do much for viewers, as we are left completely in the dark about what is going on, to a point where we can’t tell whether the double-daughter scenario is to be expected or not. In the ISS, however, things are very different. We know very well what is going on there. Years of sci-fi stories have taught us what is the normal thing to be expected of such a situation, and the realism with which the show approaches the space station makes us accept that nothing too extraordinary can happen there. And yet, it does: trapped in the ISS, eventually without contact with mission control, Jo starts to hear and see things, including a version of Paul Lancaster that seems to be very much alive. Director Michelle MacLaren infuses these scenes with frightening claustrophobia, and Rapace’s performance sells her character’s fear and growing despair with almost no effort.


We are led to believe that Jo is losing her mind. However, Paul’s, for lack of a better word, ghost is not the first strange thing that the astronaut sees. Before being left alone in the space station, while investigating what has hit the truss, Jo is the only one to see the corpse of a female Soviet cosmonaut floating aimlessly in space. It is a vision that her Earthly supervisors will do everything in their power to deny, particularly Russian commander Irena Lysenko (Barbara Sukowa). Meanwhile, American Apollo astronaut-turned-quantum physicist Bud Caldera (Jonathan Banks) obsesses over the data collected by Paul and his CAL machine. Only possible in outer space, at least theoretically, the state of matter registered by the equipment seems to be manifesting itself on Earth. Has it always been there? Or has Jo brought something along with her when she made her way into the Earth’s atmosphere?


The Heart of ‘Constellation’ Lies in Its Human Stories

In a more obvious sci-fi sense, this is the basic gist of the three initial episodes of Constellation: astronaut sees something that she shouldn’t have seen in space and maybe allows something else to hitch a ride on her escape pod. However, the true heart of the show is not in these aspects of the story, but in the human element of returning home to find things in disarray. Jo is rejected by her daughter, who says she looks dead, and treated as a mental case by her superiors and even her colleagues. She seems to have forgotten the color of her family’s car and her husband, Magnus (James D’Arcy), is wary of her signs of affection. There even appears to be an extramarital affair that Jo has forgotten all about.


She’s not the only one who suffers from these strange lapses of memory: at a sci-fi convention, a moon landing denialist accuses Bud Caldera of misremembering info such as his own dog’s name in his book. Caldera himself also seems uncertain of his own name, which may or may not be Henry. With a professional and romantic history with Irena, he seems to be opposed to her. While she wants to cover up the mystery of the dead cosmonaut at all costs, he looks like he’s trying to unearth something. More specifically, as his conversation with Alice in the playground indicates, he seems to be looking for a point of connection between two universes, a point in which something — or someone — can be dead and alive at the same time.


From the looks of it, Constellation will be a story about parallel realities. At least as far as these first three episodes are concerned, everything points to Jo and Bud not being exactly who they were supposed to be, and that’s actually a good thing. For an intricate story such as Constellation to work, some things have to be laid out in its foundation, otherwise the plot will feel as if the writers are just winging it. We cannot be certain, of course, of whether that is indeed the path that Harness will follow, but it’s good to have something we can cling to right from the get-go. It’s good to be able to concoct theories about what is going on in such a complex and compelling scenario.

Furthermore, while parallel universe stories aren’t exactly new, Constellation offers a refreshing approach to this kind of plot, trapping its characters in ordinary lives that they cannot help but doubt and run away from. Even the stilted dialogues in some of the scenes, particularly the ones involving the child performers, whose characters act as if they were anything between 7 and 12 years old, look as if they have a purpose. They highlight the detachment that Jo feels towards the strange world around her, in which her car is blue instead of red and in which her colleague’s wife is named Frida (Rebecca Scroggs) instead of Erica.


“Somewhere in Space Hangs My Heart,” the third and final of Constellation’s first batch of episodes, ends with Bud throwing his arch-nemesis, the conspiracy theorist, off a boat. Or maybe it ends with Bud holding Irena in his arms and then seeing the decomposed corpse of a dead woman in her place. Maybe it’s both at the same time. In the not-so-distant future, Jo tries to explain to Alice that she might not be her mother and that there might be another Alice hanging around somewhere. It’s all very cryptic, and there’s no knowing where all of this is going yet. We do, however, have our theories that color us more than just a little intrigued about what’s to come.

Constellation Film Promo Image

Constellation

With not without faults in its more dialogue-driven personal scenes, Apple TV+’s newest sci-fi series starts off strong with an enthralling premise.

Release Date
February 21, 2024

Seasons
1

Pros

  • The first three episodes of the show craft a compelling narrative and an enthralling mystery.
  • From the get-go, the show allows its viewers to come up with their own theories.
  • Director Michelle MacLaren gives the scenes at the ISS a claustrophobic, terrifying look.
Cons

  • Some of the more personal scenes feel strangely stilted and detached, as if it’s only by accident that they fit into the story.

The first three episodes of Constellation are available to stream on Apple TV+ in the U.S.


Watch on Apple TV+

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