Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Ten Episodes Of Cyberpunk Mystery Mediocrity: Altered Carbon Season 1

The Good: Rich sense of setting, Good performances, Decent directions/effects
The Bad: Most of the characters are hard to empathize with, Surprisingly standard plot, Loaded with cyberpunk tropes
The Basics: Altered Carbon is a pretty standard murder mystery wrapped up in an incredible setting that is, at its best, entertaining.

I've been thinking a lot about Altered Carbon since I finished watching the first season. Back when I was in high school, I had a friend who wanted me to broaden my science fiction appreciation beyond the Star Trek I was obsessed with at the time. She gave me the William Gibson cyberpunk novel Neuromancer (reviewed here!) and while it did not initially grab me, it is a book I have returned to a couple of times over the years. While I might not love the book, I can appreciate the statements and intents of it. In a similar fashion, I can appreciate the complexity of Altered Carbon, the ambitious new television show on Netflix.

But, ultimately, I did not much enjoy Altered Carbon's first season. At its core, the first season of Altered Carbon is a murder mystery. The show is set in the distant future when human memories are stored on (essentially) embedded flash drives placed in the body at birth. This sets up the show's main conceits - that people can swap bodies and there is very little real death. It also makes the idea of a murder mystery in the setting incredibly complex.

Unfortunately, it also makes humanity almost entirely unrecognizable in some ways and entirely basic and predictable in others. The rich are powerful and (literally) above the ground-dwellers, the police are corrupt, and many people have the ambition to want to do better. But, the surface is dark, polluted, filthy, and most people have given into their darker impulses. Drugs, violence and every possible sexual kink are commonplace . . . and that gets surprisingly boring to watch, much less to consider. Altered Carbon Season 1 is packed with characters who live under the implied assumption that given immortality, most human adults would stay lodged in an immature state where they would be obsessed with more obvious physical pleasures, as opposed to self-improvement and societal progression.

And that makes the setting of Altered Carbon far more overwhelming than the story. Indeed, as I considered the characters early in the show, I made a guess about the murderer - which was, admittedly, wrong - and came up with a scenario more complex, but humanly-motivated than the ultimate solution. The problem with the setting of Altered Carbon for a murder mystery is that with the presence of body swapping, clones, Artificial Intelligences, reusable bodies, hallucinations, virtual reality and immortal characters is that there's pretty much no reasonable way to trust the available evidence, characters, and narrators because the sense of identity for so many characters is skewed.

In other words, the setting is vastly more complicated than the characters who populate that world.

As well, Altered Carbon tipped its hand with its casting. Genre fans have come to recognize Dichen Lachman; she has taken on increasingly bigger roles in recent years and proven herself capable of making incredibly memorable characters. So, the idea that Altered Carbon is only going to use Lachman for flashback scenes is as ridiculous as the idea that Henry Cavill's presence in Justice League (reviewed here!) was only going to be for Lois Lane dream sequences. The moment Cavill's name appeared second-billed in Justice League every viewer with any sense of intelligence knew Superman would be resurrected (despite him being carefully kept out of the advertising campaigns before the film was released). In a similar fashion, Altered Carbon's "big surprise" is entirely undone by featuring Dichen Lachman in early episodes exclusively in flashback scenes.

Following a shootout on a distant planet, Takeshi Kovacs wakes up 250 years later in Alcatraz on Earth. Kovacs's memories (from his "stack," the embedded hard drive) have been installed in a new body ("sleeve") and he is leased by Bancroft Industries. Laurens Bancroft resurrected Kovacs to solve his own murder; his last body was killed, but he had cloned backup sleeves and every 48 hours he creates a remote upload of his memories. Less than eight hours after being reanimated, an assassination attempt is made on Kovacs's life, which convinces him that the Bancroft case is real and powerful people want to keep him from the truth. As he begins the investigation in earnest, Kovacs finds Vernon Elliot, a man who threatened Bancroft while intoxicated, because he believes that Bancroft left his daughter, Lizzy, an insane mess before attempting to kill her. In exchange for his help as back-up, Kovacs sets Lizzy up in a virtual scenario where his a.i. innkeeper, Poe, starts to put her back together.

Kovacs is followed and harassed by Bay City Detective Kristin Ortega. Ortega has no love of the Bancroft family and she distrusts Kovacs. She also has a keen interest in Kovacs's sleeve, as Kovacs is soon abducted and interrogated by people who believe he is "Riker." Riker was Ortega's partner, who was obsessed with a conspiracy he could not prove. As Takeshi Kovacs interrogates everyone related to the Bancrofts to try to murder of Laurens, the Elliot matter, Riker's conspiracy, and Kovacs's own history as a freedom fighter on a distant world interweave to put Kovacs at the center of the case he is investigating!

The essential characters in the first season of Altered Carbon are:

Takeshi Kovacs - The last Envoy, an enhanced soldier for the Protectorate who acted as a brutal enforcer on the outer planets, before he was convicted of treason and stripped of his title and body. Returned to action by Bancroft, he is an able detective who is offered a fortune and a pardon for finding the murderer of Laurens Bancroft. He frequently hallucinates and/or recalls his dead sister and his lover/rebel leader Falconer. He uses his rebel training to survive torture and his Envoy training to combat others with military-grade skills. He slowly develops relationships with Poe, Ortega, and Elliot to aid him on his quest to find the killer and gain his freedom,

Kristin Ortega - A Bay City police detective, she was romantically-involved with her partner, Riker, whose body Kovacs is now using. She has a very religious mother and is an ethical detective who has no love of the Bancroft family or those who live the rich life in the clouds. She witnesses a person at Bancroft's fancy party who has an ability to erase themselves from digital footage, which causes her to turn to her partner Abboud and the police tech, Mickey, for aid. In seeing Kovacs in action, she begins to care for the man inside her partner's body,

Poe - An artificial intelligence who runs the motel at which Kovacs stays, he is upgraded to include amazing fighting abilities and medical skills. As a result, he begins an unconventional therapy on Lizzie Elliot within a virtual world to bring her back to life, more mentally intact - much to her father's distress. He interacts with a network of a.i.s to get Kovacs information and help the humans that he has begun to love and appreciate more than most artificial intelligences are capable of,

Vernon Elliot - A desperate father and impressive hacker, he blames Bancroft for the near-death and insanity of his daughter, Lizzie. He sent a death threat to Bancroft, which put him on Kovacs's radar. He had military training and acts as back-up for Kovacs, though he often pursues his own agenda when granted access to areas he could not otherwise gain entrance to,

Oumou Prescott - The Bancroft lawyer, she was a ground-dweller who is determined to social climb. She got a massive commission off getting Kovacs and works to keep Kovacs active and on the case. Her ethics are murky, but her goals are clear; she wants to get off the ground for good and become a part of the upper class that used to be out of reach,

Quellcrist Falconer - A rebel leader on an outlying colony, she trained Kovacs and his sister. She is an expert in manipulating the virtual constructs. She appears to Kovacs in memories and hallucinations, which gives him an emotional tether and reminders of his training at key moments,

Miriam Bancroft - Laurens's oft-neglected wife, she enjoys the lifestyle he provides her. She has her own secret clones and floating island that she longs to escape to. She suspects her husband's debauchery, but does not know the extent of it. She is incredibly protective of her children, especially the fairly maligned Isaac,

and Laurens Bancroft - One of Earth's richest, most powerful men, he can afford all of the luxuries that make him virtually immortal. As a result, he is able to survive an assassination attempt (with only 48 missing hours of memory), interacting with highly-infected ground-dwellers, and basic infirmities. He is convinced that his earlier iteration could not have killed himself (which is what most everyone else believed happened to him) and he hires Kovacs to prove that. He is depraved, but has a line he refuses to cross - so while he abuses prostitutes, he insists he has never killed anyone (including himself). He enjoys showing off the trappings of his wealth and exerting power over other people.

Joel Kinnaman plays Takeshi Kovacs (most of the time) and he plays the hardened military/rebel quite competently. James Purefoy plays Laurens Bancroft with arrogance and subtle cruelty that is familiar to anyone who watched Rome. Martha Higareda, Chris Conner, and Ato Essandoh embody the most empathetic characters quite well, providing viewers with a more human connection to the fantastic setting of Altered Carbon.

The action and special effects are well-directed throughout the first season of Altered Carbon.

Amid the violence, nudity, obligatory drug use, delightful cameos (Matthew Frewer's sudden appearance is incredible!), Altered Carbon weaves around the question of "Who killed Laurens Bancroft?" And it's hard to care about the answer given that the overlord of his corner of Earth seems to have virtual immortality (if a murder occurs on a person who can just replace their body and lose only two days worth of memory, is there truly a consequence?) and the ability to buy his way out of any problem he encounters.

For other works from the 2017 - 2018 television season, please check out my reviews of:
"Both Sides Now" - Supergirl
"The War Without, The War Within" - Star Trek: Discovery
"Past Life" - Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.
"Honey, I Shrunk The Flash Team" - The Flash
Grace And Frankie - Season 4
"Twice Upon A Time" - Doctor Who
The End Of The F***ing World - Season 1
The Orville - Season 1
The Punisher - Season 1
Inhumans - Season 1
Stranger Things - Season 2
Rick And Morty - Season 3
"Beebo The God Of War" - Legends Of Tomorrow
"Crisis On Earth-X, Part 2" - Arrow
Twin Peaks - Season 3 ("The Return")
Game Of Thrones - Season 7
The Defenders - Season 1
Friends From College - Season 1


For other television season and episode reviews, please visit my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2018 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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