Most science-fiction is an attempt to talk about the present. Stories that genuinely try to predict what the future will be like are far harder and inevitably of their time – we mock 50s sci-fi for imagining we’ll all have flying cars and rocket packs, but was 80s sci-fi any less fuelled by the nuclear concerns of its period?
So spare a thought for Altered Carbon, which does its level best to imagine a future in which bodies are completely replaceable, making death an optional rather than mandatory part of human existence. There’s some heavy thinking gone into it and it’s a show that really does make you philosophise.
Death becomes him
It’s the year 2384 and thanks to some fortuitous discoveries on an alien planet, human beings now have ‘stack technology’. Bodies are now ‘sleeves’ that you wear, while consciousness resides in a crystal disc or ‘stack’ that slots into the back of your neck. Take the disc out, put it in another sleeve and hey presto, you’re reincarnated. With cloning, cybernetics and other technologies, you can become fat or thin, black or white, man or woman, child, snake, robot or even someone completely different – it’s your choice, provided you have the cash for it, of course, otherwise you get nothing or maybe someone’s old hand-me-downs.
But if you do, you can become as old as Methuselah himself. When someone tries to kill one of these rich, all-powerful ‘Meths’ (James Purefoy), seemingly unaware he backs up his consciousness regularly, the reincarnated Purefoy decides he needs someone who can investigate his murder who is both exceptional and immune to all the norm societal pressures of the time.
So he ‘spins up’ Takeshi Kovacs (former Robocop Joel Kinnaman) in a new body, 250 years after he last died. Kovacs was an Envoy, a former space soldier capable of doing all manner of superhuman things, and now it’s up to him to solve Purefoy’s murder – assuming he wants to, given that he was once part of a rebellion that tried to stop the Meths getting the power that they now have.
Will Kovacs care enough to help in this new time and place? And if he does, what will he discover and who will try to stop him?
Sounds good, doesn’t it? And for a long time it is. Trouble is, there’s a moment where the whole show slams into a brick wall at 70mph, from which no one walks away alive. So much for stacks, hey?
Still, let’s talk about it after this shiny trailer and the jump. Spoilers ahoy, but hopefully nothing too serious.
Martha Higareda and Joel Kinnaman in Altered Carbon
For the first six or seven episodes of Altered Carbon‘s 10-episode first season, the show is a really fascinating watch. Incredible brutal, violent, misogynistic and sexually explicit, but fascinatingly cerebral and imaginative at the same time.
Comparisons with Blade Runner are obvious – although if you really want to watch Blade Runner: The TV Series, you’re much better off despite its name watching :
Nevertheless, those comparisons are valid. Kinnaman and his Envoy skills make for an excellent hard-boiled private investigator who goes through the same quest for clues as Harrison Ford and all his Dashiel Hammet-esque predecessors did before him, just more explicitly and with more ultraviolence. He does that all against a backdrop of multi-lingual, multi-racial partners (Martha Higareda, Hiro Kanagawa, Waleed Zuaiter) working for a police force otherwise rather similar to those of 1930s pulp fiction.
However, this is far further advanced than the Replicant-laden future of Blade Runner. Apart from the immortality technology, ‘sleeves’ can be engineered as their wearers desire. They can be 3D printed on the sly and made to secrete narcotics. Virtual reality can be indistinguishable from the real thing and directly beamed into the brain. Anyone you meet, even if they look the same as before, could be someone else, might be a copy of that original person, and the original person could now look completely different. Or they might not even have existed in the first place.
Here the show errs towards the dystopian, imagining people’s worst possible uses of such technology. It’s a world where the rich pay to be able to mutilate and murder real people, who can then return in new sleeves. Husbands and wives are paid to fight to the death, with the promise of getting better bodies and a fine pay cheque when they wake up. If you torture someone, either in reality or VR, you can do far, far worse things than before and simply bring them back to life to start again if you want. And if you rape someone, what’s the effect if they weren’t in their own body or if you can go to a pre-rape back-up of that person who remembers nothing of what happened?
Misogynistic? Loads. But it’s founded on the belief that men are dicks and always will be dicks, technology just enabling them to treat even women even more badly than they do now.
In the beginning…
For its first few episodes, Altered Carbon does an excellent job of playing with that set-up, providing a compelling, detailed ‘crimes of the future’ story in a world of 99.9999% v .0001%, genetic engineering, neo-Catholics who refuse to be reincarnated because it’s against God’s will and those who believe that the Meths are true gods, because they cannot die and are all-powerful.
It’s all genuinely bold and imaginative stuff that really goes to town on imagining the ramifications of interchangeable bodies, with lavish production values that make everything look as a good as a movie. There are also some amazing fight scenes that worrying for Netflix put both Iron Fist and Daredevil‘s to shame.
True, these scenes sometimes verge on the sadistic, there are some almost unwatchably violent scenes of torture and there’s so much (predominantly but not exclusively female) full-frontal nudity that the producers of Games of Thrones must be feeling like they’ve been making High School Musical for the part seven years. But Altered Carbon is actually quite fun at times. For example, Kinnaman moves into an artificially intelligent hotel themed after Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven, ‘Poe’ becoming something of a collaborator and confidant.
He also acquires a co-investigator in the form of Ato Essandoh, an ex-Marine who’s looking for justice for his murdered daughter, who’s psychically damaged and only lives on in VR. Sure, his would-be partner/love-interest Higareda is mostly tedious and easier to understand when she’s speaking Spanish than English, but at least she ends up with a fun new arm, which livens her scenes up considerably.
The whole show then goes to pot with episode seven (Nora Inu). Up until then, we’ve learnt in flashback a little about Kinnaman’s past lives as an Envoy, both as Will Yun Lee and as Byron Mann. These have shown us how he’s able to do the things he can do, while still giving us a man out of time but who’s increasingly at home in his new time.
But Nora Inu is a flashback episode that transmutes the show from being Blade Runner into Avatar. This by itself would be a disaster that killed the pace of the show stone dead, thanks to the numerous platitudes filling what had been a powerfully cynical drama. But what’s worse is that we’ve already seen half the flashbacks in previous episodes – unbelievably, it’s an episode that’s also a re-run.
The show then reveals who the murderer is and it’s literally the stupidest possible answer imaginable. You will sit there and go “Surely not!” when it’s revealed because to make it work, the show has to go through a hugely long series of hoops, including a lengthy confession scene, that makes the explanation in Down with Love seem plausible.
I’ve not read Altered Carbon, but summaries seem to suggest none of this is the source material’s fault – it’s all been added for the TV series. I can well believe it, since it feels like the whole thing has scar tissue running through it. The whole background to the Envoys doesn’t seem to fit together correctly in the show – were they government-employed supersoldiers or were they terrorist-rebels? – and the ending heads towards a ‘quest for love’ totally at variance with the rest of the show’s content.
(Feel free to correct me if you have read the book).
Indeed, even though the book returns to its original material for at least its final revelation of what the crime was truly all about, the rest of the story following those Avatar/Down With Love moments struggles to re-inject enthusiasm and pace into the piece. It just about gets up to speed, but it’s like trying to accelerate in fourth gear from a complete stop.
It’s a real shame that Altered Carbon makes that double-mistake, as it could have been a genuine classic of modern science-fiction TV. As it is, it’s a beautiful, hard-to-watch, ambitious failure, let down by its final act. But watch it on a big TV with the subtitles on, have a stiff drink with you and be braced for some disappointments, and you’ll still find plenty to enjoy here. Particularly if you stop at episode six.