[This post originally appeared as part of Recommendation Machine, IndieWire’s daily TV picks feature.]
One way that “The Silent Sea” separates itself from its space story counterparts is that it almost never relies on claustrophobia. Even though much of the eight-episode series takes place at a research station on the moon, the interiors have high ceilings, the corridors are relatively wide, and the science labs are well-stocked with a decent amount of space. When this team travels around the lunar base, in search of an important artifact to bring to Earth, you usually get to hear some echoing footsteps in hallways with plenty of space.
So without that sense of feeling trapped hundreds of thousands of miles from home, “The Silent Sea” taps into one other distinct element over the course of its season. (I’m going to try to talk around some of the specifics, but here’s your unofficial warning if you want to go in completely cold.) Before the group, led by Captain Han (Gong Yoo) and featuring Dr. Song (Bae Doona), leaves on their mission, they’re told by those supposedly in the know that the previous crew at the moon’s Balhae Station was wiped out by a radiation leak. They accept that explanation at first, but it becomes abundantly clear pretty quickly that something else was to blame.
“The Silent Sea” is more a mysterious disease story than a pandemic one, but the rules and potency are largely the same. There’s terror in knowing that some of these characters are past the point of saving before they even realize something’s amiss. The cause of all this trouble is contained in a disguise perfect for blending in with surroundings. It’s an innocuous-enough cause that only really starts to reach those moments of full-blown terror once the arriving crew realizes what the fatal symptoms are.
You could spend thousands of words picking through what influences “The Silent Sea” borrows from. Some are more tangential, including the “Sunshine”-esque way that the group here is contending with a force that in smaller doses is essential for life to continue. There’s a pared-down remix of the Petri dish sequence from “The Thing,” proving that there are few things more disturbing than biological samples behaving way differently than you’d expect them to. The slow reveal of another secondary force hampering the mission continues a long line of space-story double crosses with similar motivations.
With all that, when “The Silent Sea” finally shows the effects of these samples when misused, there’s a visceral nature to it that doesn’t dilute that much even after the fourth or fifth time you see it happen. The reactions of the scientists, mortified by this inexplicable thing happening before their eyes, doesn’t lose any of its power even after they start to get a better idea of what’s causing this.
Director Choi Hang-yong doesn’t reinvent the moonbase wheel, but in addition to staging all of this in a more cavernous location, he also recognizes the power of color in a story like this. This isn’t the first time someone has played with with neutrals, reds, and greens in a space story. Still, when the crew walks into a storage space dotted with red lights, that lays the groundwork for the more bad news to come.
Hopping around in time gives “The Silent Sea” a shaggy feeling, especially when withholding the information the show does for as long as it does isn’t always in the story’s best interest. For all its trope-adjacentness, “This thing could have been shorter” is hardly a fresh insight either. Still, “The Silent Sea” does at least give Bae the room to play Song as someone almost completely defeated before the mission even starts. Where other sci-fi stories get their strength from watching eager adventurers get worn down by the job, “The Silent Sea” takes the opposite tack. Turning grief into hope somehow, maybe with the help of some locked-away lunar secret, is the possibility this show dangles. If watching the darkness isn’t enough to keep you going, the glimmer of light at the end might.