The Human Frontier

Launched in secret, The Human Frontier is a sleeper ship carrying over a thousand settlers. The world they’re heading for is uninhabited, light years away and the crew, fitted with neural AI assistants, are ready for whatever it throws at them.

They tell themselves they’re ready…

Written and directed by Big Finish’s Nicholas Briggs, The Human Frontier closes out their run of original drama shows on a cargo bay FULL of bangs. This is the sort of science fiction everyone likes to say they want when TV does it: massive ideas filtered through intimate human lenses.

The first of those lenses are crewmembers Anna Swift and Command Daisy Bailey. Bailey, played by Genevieve Gaunt, is an endlessly principled and ruthlessly determined officer whose desire to do the right thing outstrips her survival instinct. Anna, played with sincerity and charm by Pepter Lunkuse, would very much like to live AND spend way more time with Daisy, her almost-girlfriend thanks.

In the first twenty minutes, they find themselves on the opposing sides of a moral dilemma that would give Captain Pike pause. Inside an hour, Anna is alone on a new world and Daisy is MIA.

Our next pair of characters have some answers for them both. Clive Wood and Mark Elstob play Brett Triton and Malden Grey, respectively. Triton (and BRETT TRITON is a hell of a name) is the president of Triton, the latest in a long (very patriarchal, it’s implied) line. His job is straightforward: rule the industrialized world, make sure relationships with the ‘locals’ stay on an even keel, and keep his head.

None of that is going well as the show opens. So Elstob’s Gray — the sort of major domo Leo McGarry would both nod approvingly at from down the bar and make a point never to talk to — steps in. There’s a murder, or at least a death. A scandal too and, slowly, Triton starts to unravel. Both pairings clearly have immense fun in wildly different ways. Lunkuse and Gaunt have a sparky, relaxed manner around one another that makes a lot of the more dramatic scenes really pop. Wood and Elstob are playing Shakespearean monsters, massive in action and ruthless in deed. Magnificent bastards, in every sense of the phrase.

Together these four walk a stage across which Briggs paints vast science fiction concepts. The payoff as to how Triton is inhabited is one. Another is the struggle to rebuild society when you’ve brought society with you and its FTL drive is breaking down.

This is where Lucy Briggs-Owen, Briggs himself and Elstob, pulling double duty, come in. Briggs-Owen plays Nilly, the ship and crew AI, always whispering in Anna’s ear and ready with a plan. She’s instantly charming, very funny and never quite goes away in a manner the show explores to great effect in later episodes. Briggs too has some fun with his Hitchcockian cameo as Dendrick, the scientist behind the mission. Most of all, Elstob’s harried Bob, notional mission commander and a good egg in a boiling kettle, is worlds away from the feline scheming of Gray. One is a good man trying to be good enough. The other is a political chief of staff, and this week especially, we all know where that job leads, right?

Colonization. Interstellar ethics. Digital life. Free will. These are the concepts The Human Frontier with wit, intelligence and a raft of great characters — this is classic ideas-driven science fiction. The only weakness for some will be the last sci-fi rope it embraces: the season break.

The show answers enough questions to be a satisfying done-in-one, but dangles the obligatory loose ends. The end result is similar to the Battlestar Galactica pilot; a complete experience that could open the door to a return or something else. I hope it does. Because The Human Frontier is the sort of sci-fi we need more of. And with Strange New Worlds barreling towards us, it seems primed to find an enthusiastic audience.

The Human Frontier is available now from Big Finish.

This piece originally appeared as part of my weekly newsletter, The Full Lid . If you liked it, and want a weekly down of pop culture enthusiasm, occasional ketchup recipes and me enjoying things, then check out the archive and sign up here.