There’s a risk involved with mystery storytelling, a risk that the mystery takes over everything else. That in the need to wrongfoot the audience and keep them guessing, character ends up being sacrificed for plot, we’re kept at a remove from those characters and what they know, and as such it’s difficult to form a connection and get emotionally invested. This does initially seem like it’s going to be the case with Constellation, but luckily it doesn’t last, and by the end it’s turned into a deeply compelling and extremely addictive TV show. It takes a little longer to get there than one would like, but it does get there.
Noomi Rapace stars as Jo, an astronaut working aboard the ISS. After a terrible accident in space, she returns to Earth to find that things are not as she remembers them and details of her life and memory are missing. In her attempts to figure out what’s going on, she discovers covered-up secrets of the space program that go all the way back to the Apollo missions.
The other issue with a show where the mystery is so much of the point is that reviewing it becomes quite challenging. To review something you need to talk about what happens in it, but here that would do a disservice to both show and audience because it’s the kind of story that you really do need to go into as cold as possible. It does such a great job of gradually doling out the clues, giving you just enough hints to think you know what’s happening before pulling the rug out from beneath you, that it would be a crying shame to reveal more about the plot than absolutely necessary.
Little off-hand mentions in early episodes give the attentive viewer enough information to form a decent theory about the mystery so that, when the solutions do finally arrive, they feel logical and earned instead of arbitrary. This is, as of yet at least, not a Westworld situation where planned plot points get changed for no other reason than because people figured them out ahead of time. Constellation sets up its conundrum and pays if off properly, and if you’re clued in beforehand then that just means it did its set-up properly.
It’s heady stuff, combining science-fiction, alternate history, psychological horror and a surprising dash of fairy-stories. It’s interested in quantum physics and all the complications that inevitably come with that, questions of observers and observed, and if it’s possible to ever truly know who you and the people around you are. The sense of atmosphere is second to none: space is inherently frightening, and this is a thoroughly eerie, unnerving show even before reality begins to bend and things that defy rational explanation start to happen.
The characters do get a little lost among the concepts, ideas and atmosphere, at least in the early goings. It’s not through any fault of the actors, who are working with thorny, challenging – and doubtless very rewarding – material and making the most of it. Rapace reminds us why she was Ridley Scott’s original choice for continuing the Alien legacy, bringing a Ripley-esque determination tempered by fear and brittleness, and Jonathan Banks does fascinating work in a role that’s much more complicated than it initially seems.
The emotional throughline, and much of our investment, rest on the shoulders of a child, however. Again, it’s tough to say much without giving the game away, but the actress playing Jo’s daughter Alice (who is deliberately unnamed in this review for reasons that will become clear upon watching) ultimately becomes the show’s cornerstone and arguable main character, and she really is remarkable. The later episodes in particular simply wouldn’t work if we didn’t believe in this child, and she carries us through the knotty, complex story with aplomb: once she takes centre stage, Constellation goes from being intriguing but remote to absolutely gripping TV. Here’s hoping we don’t have to wait too long for season two.
Streaming on Apple TV+ from 21st February / Noomi Rapace, Jonathan Banks, James D’Arcy / Dir: Michelle MacLaren & TBC / Apple Studios