Halo, now streaming on Paramount+, is full of fun—and mostly cartoonish—sci-fi action, but also manages to touch on more ambitious themes concerning transhumanism, the relationship between artificial intelligence and human beings, and the corruption of science. Season 1 is not particularly successful in dealing with those themes, but generous viewers pleased by the action scenes the series delivers may give Halo a mulligan on that score in hopes that season 2 will do better.
The Paramount+ show is an adaptation of the immensely popular video game series of the same name. Screen history is littered with unsuccessful video game to TV adaptations. Fans of the video game series should probably expect a very different experience. Both the game franchise and the Paramount+ series follow the exploits of the biomedically enhanced Spartan supersoldier John-117, or Master Chief, in his war to save human civilization against the coalition of religiously-motivated aliens called the Covenant, whose aims and reasons for hostility toward humans are, at least at first, very obscure.
Because of the difference in medium, certain things have to be altered from video game to serial show. In the games, you are the Master Chief. Your point of view is that of Master Chief. That sort of perspective in a show would get tiresome quickly as, generally, the TV medium does not support first person perspective well. But that requires certain consequent developments: first and foremost, that the Master Chief (Pablo Schreiber) take off his helmet and that he becomes a character in the show like other characters, thus necessitating greater distance between viewer and Master Chief than exists in the game franchise.
Another change that fans of the game franchise may or may not welcome is the creation of a new character, Makee (Charlie Murphy), a human collaborator with the Covenant. Without giving too much away, she seems to play a similar role to that of Gaius Baltar in Battlestar Galactica, both as far as the plot is concerned, but also as a way to put a human face on the enemies of the protagonist. Her introduction accompanies an alteration of a key element of Halo lore, which is unobtrusive to viewers of the show who have never played the game, but changes one of the more interesting contrasts between humans and the Covenant aliens from the video games’ lore.
The Spartan supersoldiers of the show are the brainchild of Dr. Catherine Halsey (Natascha McElhone), a brilliant but unscrupulous bioengineer, whose constant refrain is that natural evolution has proved to be insufficient to help humans adapt to a cosmic environment loaded with threats orders of magnitude greater than the natural evolutionary process can handle—even before the appearance of the Covenant. Halsey author’s a scientific study, reminiscient of Hari Seldon’s psychohistorical predictions in Asimov’s Foundation series, that predicts that human insurrections and civil wars will escalate to horrific proportions, even potentially causing the collapse of human civilization without intervention.
Halsey inherits previous attempts to augment soldiers for use in human conflicts but sees quickly that the process of enhancement, in order to be truly effective, needs to be begun in childhood. Only these new supersoldiers will have the capabilities necessary to pacify humanity. As a result, she convinces military authorities to authorize the kidnapping of suitable child candidates for augmentation, puts them through excruciatingly torturous enhancement procedures with high mortality rates, and wipes their memories of their previous lives.
Halsey organizes the replacement of the abductees with flash clones of the children that are programmed to die of seemingly natural causes soon after replacement, leaving no trace of the kidnapping. The child Spartans, in addition to their physical augmentation, are given extensive military training and a top-notch education. Much of the internal drama of Halo’s first season involves John-117’s returning memories of his own abduction and the start of his coming to terms with his manipulation and abuse by the very people he thought had his best interests at heart. Every character in the show—with the important exception of Halsey—comes to acknowledge that the kidnappings were wrong. But it also seems inarguable that, without Halsey’s Spartans, the human forces would be able to put up little resistance to the Covenant. The show invites the viewer to wrestle with the question: what is justifiable in the face of extinction? Once certain boundaries have been crossed, even if they are later regretted, what is the right attitude toward unethically realized gains?
The storyline involving the unscrupulous Halsey is a classic sci-fi plot feature. It retains its power especially for us because we have a sense that there are people making frankly unethical decisions and carrying out wicked actions in order to ensure our own survival. But we would prefer not to confront our sense directly. I suspect Halo will have a hard time rejecting the Halsey option altogether.
John-117 and Makee are set up to have had parallel but contrasting experiences. Both were kidnapped; John was kidnapped for his potential as a supersoldier, Makee was kidnapped for her link to certain, ancient artifacts that the Covenant believe will lead to the eponymous Halo devices, devices that might be weapons or sources of precious knowledge capable of turning the tides of war—a link John-117 also has, as it turns out. Makee was taken off of a garbage dump world where she and everyone on it were enslaved and brutally forced to do hard labor in a harsh and pitiless environment. She looks to the Covenant, therefore, as her saviors and despises humans as cruel. When the two characters meet, both must reexamine the worthiness of human beings. John-117 must decide if humans are worth protecting; Makee must decide if humans deserve destruction.
John-117 and Makee’s brief romantic plotline is supposed to provide a touchstone for both characters as they work through the problem. But the romance is too brief and too superficial to make the characters’ decisions flowing from it believable.
To add to Halsey’s moral complications, she has cloned herself in order to provide a neurological model for a new AI. The development of the AI involves the killing of the clone. The resultant AI, Cortana (Jen Taylor), is capable of interacting with John-117 and, in extreme circumstances, replacing his own consciousness. In addition to shining a light on Halsey’s crusade to remake humanity into her own image, the introduction of Cortana also presents the viewer with yet another character who has to make a choice about the value of human beings.
It must be said that the show does not seem to have the ethical resources to answer the questions it raises. The only character to offer much in the way of arguments for a position is Dr. Halsey. At one point, she even indicates her willingness to sacrifice everything for her project to save humanity. In perhaps an unwitting nod to Dostoevsky’s quip, Halsey professes to care for humanity; it’s just humans who annoy her. For the rest, the show relies on the viewer’s moral revulsion—an unstable support, especially in light of the Spartans’ obvious necessity in order to stave of the Covenant. Further seasons will need to develop the moral underpinnings of the anti-enhancement argument for the thematic direction of season 1 to remain plausible. It goes without saying that a theological perspective—let alone an intelligent theological perspective—would be far more than we could hope for.
There is also what is apparently a side plot involving an insurgent, Kwan Ha (Yerin Ha), who might have a role to play in the larger war greater than she thought. The side plot does not rejoin the main plot by season’s end, however.
Halo’s violence, an implied sex scene, and themes concerning child kidnapping and abuse mean that it is not appropriate for younger audiences.
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