Long-awaited Halo live-action TV series gets a promising start

Review by C.J. Bunce

At $6.5 billion in sales, Halo, the 77th biggest media franchise, is nothing to sneeze at.  So what took the video game franchise so long to make it to a major live-action production?  It was just stuck in development stages.  But for both those who never played the games and those who have, Halo is now a live-action series joining sci-fi’s Star Trek franchise on Paramount+.  The series opener is full of all the pew-pew action you’d expect of a first-person shooter game.  Neither a continuation, adaptation, or prequel to the games, the show is meant to be a standalone world.  It’s Lost in Space meets Ender’s Game and Star Wars: The Clone Wars, with similar plotting to Dune and Gears of War, a non-human threat like Ender’s Game and Starship Troopers, a 26th century mad scientist’s super squad with Edge of Tomorrow armor and guys in them that talk and stomp around like Jayne in Firefly.

Fortunately the pilot comes together like the short mini-series that touched off the successful Battlestar Galactica reboot.  Yes, this is a military sci-fi genre series to check out, and one you’ll likely return for next week.

That Lost in Space family element is centered around the most interesting character emerging from the first episode, the United Nations Space Command’s ambitious young officer Dr. Miranda Keyes played by British TV actor Olive Gray.  Another character is her counterpart in the story, a survivor from the rebel side of the equation named Quan Ah played by Yerin Ha.  Both oppose the Way Things Are and are trying to survive in a world they did not create.  Keyes’ mother is Dr. Halsey aka Cortana, the mastermind behind super soldiers called Spartans.  She is played by Natascha McElhone, most familiar from sci-fi movies Solaris and The Truman Show.  Her ex-husband is Captain Jacob Keyes, played by Danny Sapani (Black Panther, Doctor Who, Star Wars: The Last Jedi).  Already that family in-fighting is starting to fester Battlestar Galactica-style.

The series begins with an attack on the planet Madrigal by aliens called the Covenant.  These are terrifically rendered giant CGI space marine-armored aliens, sporting slick weapons and a bad attitude toward the locals.  The locals are depicted as rebels against the UNSC, while also enemies of the Covenant, so when the Spartans of the UNSC come to defeat the Covenant, only one rebel is left behind: Yerin Ha’s Quan Ah.  Following the attack a Spartan named “Master Chief” John-117 played by Pablo Schreiber (The Wire, Medium, White Collar) finds an emerald-glowing relic, which seems to allow him to see his memories, hinting that they may have been wiped Men in Black, Dollhouse, Terminator Genisys, or Bloodshot-style.  This THX-1138 style awakening will no doubt be key to what happens in this first season.

With all the derivative elements from across the spectrum of science fiction’s past, it’s the writing and coordination of trope elements and character types that ring strong for the pilot episode.  Reportedly the show spent $10 million per episode.  Where did it all go?  Paramount seems to throw the bulk of the money at the costumes and video game-inspired battle games, complete with disintegrating targets, energy scimitars, and exploding heads.  That seems appropriate to get the franchise’s fan base reeled in.  It’s not visionary and visually layered like Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, but it’s a logical step forward in the evolution of Syfy Channel-type TV creations.  Probably most important for gaming fans, the (apparently brainwashed) armored Spartans look just right, even if the color-coded Silver Team feels a bit like the Power Rangers in its first outing.

The cast features no A-list talent, barely tapping a few recognizable character actors from past TV shows.  Shabana Azmi, one of India’s most acclaimed actresses, is promising as an admiral who directs the naval intelligence branch.  Charlie Murphy plays Makee, a young woman in the Covenant who also opposes the Way Things Are, completing a trinity of young leads with Olive Gray and Yerin Ha likely to come together in future episodes.  Burn Gorman (Torchwood, Forever, The Hour, The Expanse) is expected to have a bigger role going forward, and 2001: A Space Odyssey’s Keir Dullea is expected to make an appearance next week as Fleet Admiral Hood.

A mish-mash of showrunner leadership reflects a lack of vision could be coming ahead, but that doesn’t show in the first episode.  Steven Kane, who wrote for The Closer, and Kyle Killen, who wrote for Awake–neither known for major sci-fi projects–led the production efforts for the first season, with both declining to return for an already booked second season.  The biggest name on the creative slate is director Roel Reiné, responsible for episodes 3 and 4, known for directing episodes of Wu Assassins and its sequel Fistful of Vengeance, plus episodes of Knightfall, Inhumans, and Black Sails.

Look for some surprisingly good alien designs, especially Julian Bleach (who played Doctor Who’s Davros) as the Prophet of Mercy, with special effects set design and props nearly as futuristic and visionary as that found in Altered Carbon.  A nod to Giovanni Lipari (Penny Dreadful, The Borgias, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) is warranted for the layered worldbuilding that comes through in his costume designs.

Catch new episodes of Halo weekly Thursdays, streaming only on Paramount+.

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