Streaming TV

Boxset Monday: Altered Carbon (season 2) (Netflix)

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.

Altered Carbon

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.

Poe and Kovacs in season 2 of Altered Carbon

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.

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