In the UK: Available on Netflix
The first season of Altered Carbon was almost a classic example of both how to adapt a novel and how not to adapt a novel. Altered Carbon is a noted piece of militaristic cyberpunk that foresees a future in which people’s minds can be downloaded and uploaded onto little disks called ‘stacks’ that can be inserted into organic or synthetic bodies called ‘sleeves’. Coupled with the ability to ‘needlecast’ information faster than light, you can travel the universe simply by being uploaded from one body and downloaded into another. Or you can live forever. Improvements in genetic engineering et al also mean that bodies can be enhanced for various applications.
Cyberpunk being cyberpunk and Brits being Brits, needless to say, the future that author Richard Morgan envisioned would stem from this improved technology is profoundly pessimistic. The government oppress, the poor are abused, the rich murder and rape for fun in exchange for putting their victims in new bodies when they’re finished, and more.
The first season of Altered Carbon was a correspondingly and refreshingly adults-only affair, chock full of sex and full frontal nudity, sadistic violence and Grade A swearing. An obviously vast amount of money was spent on envisioning this quasi-Blade Runner world and it looked fantastic. The show practically shimmered with ideas.
And it was largely a faithful adaptation, too, following the book’s narrative of former super-soldier ‘Envoy’ Takeshi Kovacs – played by various actors, including Will Yun Lee (Witchblade) and Joel Kinnaman (Robocop), depending on which sleeve in which time period on which planet we were following him – being revived after 300 years to investigate the murder of one of the richest quasi-immortal ‘Meths’. It was an interesting, futuristic gumshoe tale with a mystery to be solved and an engaging enough anti-hero to follow.
So far, so very good.
Sad puppies and love
What really scuppered it, though, was the taking of this hard-core ‘sad puppies‘ ‘masculine’ cyberpunk and smashing it straight into an almost completely incompatible ‘feminine’ affair. Various changes were made to the plot, characters and background to ground it in family, romance and somewhat liberal-left ideas.
The least spoilery example is that the supersoldier Envoys became heroic resistance fighters led by the same person who not only invented the stacks but simultaneously turned out to be the best, most empathetic fighter in the galaxy, as well as Kovacs’ lover.
One or other genres could have worked, but not both together in the same series. The scars from the surgery necessary to combine them were clearly visible, even if you hadn’t read the book.
It was still enjoyable, even on a rewatch, for most of its run, bar the episode that filled in all the back story, but it was still a cautionary tale for future adaptations.
Altered Carbon: Unleash the furies
Now we have the second season, which has a new showrunner, at least one new leading man-sleeve (Anthony Mackie), a new sensibility and a new, clearly lower budget. However, against expectations, the show is continuing with Morgan’s work, albeit skipping his second Kovacs novel and heading straight into the final episode of the trilogy: Woken Furies.
Set 30 years after season one, it sees Kovacs continuing his quest to find his former lover – assumed to have died 300 years earlier – but lured back to his birthplace on Harlan’s World by Meth Michael Shanks (Stargate SG-1). The founders of Harlan’s World are being (permanently) killed by someone or something, and Shanks wants Kovacs’ protection. He’ll even give him a shiny new, weapons-grade sleeve (Mackie) if he’ll help.
But it’s not long before all manner of people from Kovacs’ past turn up – and Kovacs discovers that Shanks might not have been telling the whole truth.
And while it’s learned from season one, season two of Altered Carbon is a salutary lesson that unless you’re Doctor Who and can just ignore continuity at your whim, you need to be careful with the foundations of your adaptation, since it’s going to be hard to change them later on.
Not a carbon copy
As with most Netflix shows that start out confident, bold and 18-rated (cf Daredevil), Altered Carbon is a dialled back, more timid affair that doesn’t never goes too far and feels correspondingly tame, as a result. The usual blindness American TV has when it comes to ultraviolence means there’s still plenty of blood, even if the torture and sadism are more or less absent, but all that nudity and swearing have disappeared like so many former high-ups in Stalin’s government.
It’s also a much less interesting affair, with less to say on its important issues and when it does say it, it says it in clichés and the same bored tone of voice Harrison Ford used for the narration of Blade Runner.
But it does at least manage to meld its own inventions with the book’s plotting in a way that’s far less obvious than in the first season. Yes, there are elements that still don’t make sense, such as the decision by the big baddie to (spoiler alert) bring back an earlier version of Kovacs from a back-up to take the current version down , which doesn’t make sense given that the supersoldier superpowers are now supposed to come from Envoy training, not army training. But those elements are relatively small.
The show is also more woke. Women are apparently now treated very well by digitally enhanced, morality-free hypercapitalism, as long as they pay their taxes. Only took 30 years, but there you go.
And it’s also doubling down on the romances, of which there are now numerous. There’s the romance between Mackie and his ex-lover, there’s a lesbian romance, there’s a romance between artificial intelligences. There’s even love poetry.
That sits really well against a backdrop of advanced killers with wolf DNA, obviously.
Hero or villain?
The show’s plot does move along reasonably well at least, and everything seems to make sense, more or less, by the end. You’ll probably guess what’s going on fairly early on, but the details do at least make it a little harder than you might think and there’s a certain wisdom to its choice of big bad (spoiler alert) Kovacs’ former training officer , even if that change to the Envoys’ past makes it less plausible. The show also does a very good job at managing to bring back half the cast from season one, even when there’s no need to.
However, Altered Carbon‘s biggest problem is Kovacs. To a certain extent, it’s got its work cut out for it, trying to make a cynical, manipulative killer into a hero. It works very hard at it, right up until the very end of the very last episode, but world-weary and misanthropic frequently ends up as dull to watch, unless you’re very careful.
Joel Kinnaman just about managed it in season one, but Mackie doesn’t. He’s very good at light stuff in other genres, but there’s no real variety in his performance in Altered Carbon and he comes across as having not had his first three coffees of the day most of the time. Particularly as he loses his cynicism and becomes a proper hero towards the end.
Problematically, Will Yun Lee’s take on Kovacs is vastly more interesting and caffeinated. Whenever he’s on screen, you want him to be the lead instead of Mackie. We may get our wish if there’s a third season, but not this season.
All of which renders Altered Carbon a less remarkable, less engaging but more consistent show than its first season was. There are times you might even get bored, but mostly, it’s a workmanlike take on the novel that reengineers what it was bequeathed by its previous showrunner into a more viable foundation for future, original seasons.
I can’t imagine it ever recovering its cynicism and nastiness, or making Kovacs the drug-taking, whoring, murderous swine of the first season again. But that spaceship has long since sailed.