Wednesday 25 January 2023

Halo: Season 1

In the year 2552, the planet Madrigal is in open rebellion against the United Nations Space Command, discounting reports that other human worlds are fighting again alien invaders. However, the aliens, the Covenant, attack the planet and butcher the inhabitants of a small town. An elite unit of Spartan super-soldiers, Silver Team, arrives but uncovers a bigger mystery related to alien obelisks and the single survivor of the colony, Kwan Ha. A battle of wits and wills begins between the Covenant and the UNSC, with the commander of Silver Team, Master Chief Petty Officer John-117, proving to be unexpectedly important to what is to come.

It's been over twenty years since the Halo franchise first appeared and, even being charitable, it's fair to say that the series is long since past its peak. Naturally, this is the moment that a Halo TV show chooses to arrive, just as WarCraft and Assassin's Creed both received adaptations long after their moments of cultural dominance had passed, and as a result were met with indifferent shrugs.

The Halo TV show takes the route of being a prequel to the events of the video games, set even before the events of Halo: Reach, but it is also explicitly set in an alternate timeline to the games. Characters, ideas and factions are present who do not exist in the games, and most of the game characters, races and stories have been tweaked for their presentation on screen. Just about the only thing that hasn't been significantly redesigned is the hardware. Weapons, armour, aliens and spacecraft all arrive with very solid approximations of their appearances in the video games.

As with the games, the story focus on John-117 (The Wire's Pablo Schreiber), better known as Master Chief, a Spartan super-soldier who is one of Earth's best hopes in the war against the Covenant, an alliance of several alien races united by religion. Unlike the games, Master Chief is just one of an ensemble cast and we spend a lot of time with other characters: Dr. Halsey (Natascha McElhone), John's effective mentor and mother figure; Cortana (Jen Taylor), a newly-created artificial intelligence with loyalty issues; Soren-066 (Bokeem Woodbine), a former Spartan turned insurrectionist leader; Commander Keyes (Olive Gray), a UNSC officer and scientist; Kwan Ha (Yerin Ha), a rebel on the planet Madrigal; and Makee (Charlie Murphy), a human captured by the Covenant as a child and indoctrinated in their religion. We also spend a fair amount of time with the other members of Master Chief's Silver Team, particularly Kai-125 (Kate Kennedy).

The first season divides its story into several strands. In one, we learn more about the creation of the Spartan programme, particularly the way it inhibits the emotional development of the soldiers, and how Master Chief (and, later, Kai) deal with that revelation. There is some redundancy here - having two characters undergoing the same emotional journey is odd - but the actors handle the story well. Master Chief also learns more about his childhood and how he joined the Spartan programme. Dr. Halsey's dubious morality and willingness to overstep certain bounds to achieve her goals is present and correct from the video games, although this version of the character is a bit more obviously a bad 'un from the start, and her arc lacks nuance.

In a second strand we follow Kwan Ha's story as the last survivor of a massacre into becoming a potential rebel leader under Soren's tutelage. This story is competently executed, and both Woodbine and Burn Gorman as the villainous Vinsher Grath are having more fun than anyone else in the cast, but it's connection to the rest of the story and the setting feels thin. It's almost worthwhile for the final showdown with Grath, where Burn Gorman chews scenery with delicious aplomb.

In a third strand we follow the journey of Makee from Covenant stooge to discovering life among other humans. This story feels fairly random: the Covenant of the early games would never recruit or use a human to work for them (it would go against their entire religious ethos) and the feeling emerges that they had to give the Covenant a human representative to save on the CGI budget (the Covenant CGI is both excellent and fleeting) more than because there was a good story purpose for her existence. This is frustrating as Charlie Murphy gives a good performance (a lot of it in an nonexistent alien language), and deserves better material.

The season's pacing is uneven, dedicating entire episodes to some stories so entire sub-casts of characters don't appear, with even Master Chief sitting an episode out. To be fair, the games have also shown the Halo universe can survive without the big MC (the two Halo Wars games, Halo: Reach and Halo: ODST do without Master Chief as well), but given the main story focus here is on Master Chief's activities prior to the war for Reach, him sitting out a fair bit of the story is a bit of an odd choice. Having him spend most of the time he does appear without a helmet, even in extended action sequences, is an even odder one.

The thing is, all these choices could be borne if the end result was great, but instead it has to settle for being...kinda okay, I guess? The actors are all very solid, many of the ideas are fine (apart from the human Covenant member) and the show does have an ace up its sleeve with its action sequences, which are extremely well-handled. The battle sequences in the first and last episode genuinely feel like movie setpieces, and smaller action scenes throughout the rest of the series are decent. A bone-crunching internal conflict between Spartans genuinely sells the idea of these guys being human+ and you don't want to get in their way. These moments give us glimpses of a considerably better show that could have been created from the same ideas.

The show could have also tightened up its pacing a bit. There isn't really enough story to fill nine episodes and six to seven would have probably been better. There's also a lot of faffing around with ideas and elements that aren't very well handled, and for every change to the backstory and premise to make things more practical and affordable, there's another two or three that feel like change for change's sake. Even for a casual appreciator of the video games like myself rather than a deeply-invested megafan, a lot of these changes feel pointless.

The first season of the Halo TV show (***) ends up being okay. It's watchable, with some good performances and some outstanding action sequences. But the show is a bit flabby, the changes to the source material are mostly unnecessary and the show has that sheen of base-level, dull competence that a lot of modern TV shows have acquired. A second season could be a lot better, assuming they focus on the war for Reach and the search for the Halo itself. Right now, the show is okay but could do a lot better. The show is available to watch on Paramount+ worldwide.

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