The very best science fiction stories are almost always searing explorations of what it means to be human.
It doesn’t matter if they are set on a future Earth, out in the depths of interstellar space or on an alien planet, we bear witness to the very best and worst of humanity with people placed in situations often far beyond their initial understanding who are called upon to think and act in ways that test them to breaking point, and reveal, tellingly, the truth of the person within.
That is very much the case in The Silent Sea, a tautly constructed eight-part series from South Korea set on the moon where a team of scientists and soldiers have been sent to retrieve “important samples” from the decommissioned Balhae Station which sits perched and eerily dark and silent on the edge of a massive cliff in the harsh but romantically named “Mare Tranquillitatis” (or Sea of Tranquility)”.
Originally named “The Silent Sea” in its discoverer Galileo, this part of the Moon was deemed promising enough for the South Korean Government to set up the base and to keep it running long after many other governments left Earth’s orbiting body, more concerned with serious issues back home, including the perilously low supply of water which sees the world locked in what appears to be eternal drought.
Fish are dead, trees a memory and the idea of swimming in pool or taking showers are the stuff of nostalgia and legend, a dystopian future where the rich have more water than the poor and social inequity is rife.
Lured by the promise of increased water allocations, the team that sets forth for the moon in the opening episode of the show simply want to get in and get out, and reap the watery reward coming their way.
Everyone but Doctor Song Ji-an (Bae Doona), a withdrawn scientist whose onetime specialisation in astrobiology, which she dropped five years earlier for reasons which she refuses to divulge, will come in handy as the team, including Captain Han Yoon-jae (Gong Yoo), Doctor Dr. Hong Ga-Young (Kim Sun-young) and and head of security Chief Gong Soo-hyuk (Lee Moo-saeng), seek to grab the mysterious samples which are important enough for the government to mount a major mission for.
Naturally, of course, things go horribly, terribly wrong with the spaceship crashing, lives being lost and the truth slowly but brutally dawning that there are a great many secrets held in Balhae Station, many of which could prove to be quite deadly.
Quite how deadly mounts episode by intense edge-of-the-seat episode, which call upon sci-fi properties as diverse as Alien, Event Horizon and Solaris, to name a few, to create a haunting sense of impending danger, which begins manifesting in a way that suggests a heady mix of Agatha Christie whodunnit and political thrillers like Three Days of the Condor.
Driven by a tightly-woven screenplay which propels the action full sped ahead while allowing enough time for characters to undergo crises of confidence, sudden onset grief and to do the scientific research, rushed though it is, that will allow them to work out what the hell happened at Balhae and why everyone wants to get samples from there so very badly.
They also hope it will give them the answers they need to survive an increasingly deadly experience which appears to be claiming lives faster than anyone can understand who’s taking them and why.
In amongst all of the action and secrets and lies, Dr Song is one of her own, one which speaks to the heavy hand of grief that has weighed her down for five long years and which has its origins and possible resolution at Balhae.
The Silent Sea manages to seamlessly and affectingly balance some intimate moments of raw humanity with a gathering conspiracy-heavy narrative where nothing is at it seems and everyone lives are in danger in one way or another.
The show stands, it must be said, as yet another example, if you actually need one, and clearly the team going to Balhae Station very much needs it, that you should never go inside an empty space station or moon base.
It doesn’t matter if the lights come on and the systems whirr to life, sooner or later bodies will pop in ghostly profusion – the government says at Balhae everyone died of a radiation leak but levels are normal when the team gain admittance, suggesting a darker, far more troubling cause of the mass deaths – crew members will go the way of the corpses in the hallways and things will go south dramatically and with an eventual low survival count.
The brilliance of The Silent Sea, apart from finely-etched performances and a surprising cheeky sense of humour largely courtesy of clownish main pilot Kim Sun (Lee Sung-Wook), is that manages to build a charged sense of dread and blood-curdling mystery without once sacrificing even an iota of its rich, raw humanity.
This means that as the episodes progress and secrets are revealed and dangers come to the fore, some so rapidly fatal that preventing them is all but impossible, we never lose sight of the beautifully drawn characters at the centre of all the action, and our emotional investment in their welfare is maintained and never diminished.
This is sci-fi as it should be told – alive with action and adventure, otherworldliness and mystery but still replete with a richly vibrant sense of humanity, the kind that takes what could been epic, empty action and blockbustery worldbuilding without them and gives them purpose, meaning and immense emotional impact, all of which builds to a final act so moving and poetically expressed that you will ache as you watch it, all too aware that life is fleeting and we must do everything we can to safeguard, no matter what form it takes.