“Humanity has spread to the stars. We set out like ancient seafarers to explore the limitless ocean of space. But no matter how far we venture into the unknown, the worst monsters are those we bring with us.”
For this first installment of Viewing, I figured I would talk about a TV show I finished just a week ago, because well, what a show it was. I am of course talking about the sci-fi space drama Altered Carbon, based on the novel of the same name by Richard K. Morgan.
In this show, immortality has essentially been achieved through the use of stacks, an electronic device that can preserve the human consciousness indefinitely, allowing humans to be transferred to a different body. This is an extremely expensive process, but the hyper-wealthy, known as Meths, can change bodies (“sleeves”) several times, make a bunch of clones of themselves, and essentially live forever. Earth has also expanded its rule to other planets, now thriving human colonies, one of which we spend some time on in flashbacks and in season two, Harlan’s World.
In this show, Takeshi Kovacs wakes up from serving a prison sentence of a couple hundred years in a body that is not his own. He learns that he has been re-sleeved and commissioned by Meth Laurens Bancroft to solve a murder that occurred in his home in exchange for a full pardon for Kovacs’s crimes, which included being part of a rebellion movement against the Interstellar Protectorate. Kovacs accepts, and while he makes some allies in the form of ex-soldier Vernon Elliot and detective Kristin Ortega, he soon realizes that there is a lot more to the case than initially meets the eye.
The setting is dark, gritty, high-tech sci-fi, with lots of violence, gore, sex, and overall badass-ery. While it sometimes overdid it with those elements, the show was still appealing and its setting generally did not hinder plot or character development; if anything, it enhanced it. Such a setting was needed for the story the show tried to tell, so I was generally unbothered with its heavy use of R-rated elements. However, if you are sensitive to any of this stuff, I would definitely consider watching a different show.
The characters are well-rounded and their motivations are complex and fun to unpack. The character-driven viewer will have just as much fun watching Altered Carbon as the viewer who simply wants a cool sci-fi/cyberpunk story with lots of fight scenes. With me being the former type of viewer and my partner being the latter, we often have different tastes in TV shows, but when it came to this show and its characters, our differences didn’t stop either of us from thoroughly enjoying it. I truly think that most people who try Altered Carbon will find something to love about it, and so I highly, highly recommend that you check it out.
On a final note before I get into the spoiler-filled section, if you’ve read the book (which I haven’t), what I gathered from scanning the Wikipedia page is that a lot was changed for the show, including completely re-writing several key plot points and characters within the original story. If you’re expecting a 1:1 adaptation, you may be disappointed, so viewer beware.
*End of spoiler-free section*
I was honestly a bit surprised by how much I enjoyed this show. I never really thought space sci-fi could be my thing, since I don’t really love Star Wars (yeah, I said it, sue me) or anything similar, really. I think the technological setting especially, elements of which one might find in an urban fantasy or a dystopian work, really caught my eye. I loved the use of virtual reality as a tool for torture, covert meetings, and sex-capades — it felt extremely realistic, and I think that the show adequately made use of it as a compelling plot device. I really enjoyed the tension created both visually and narratively in every single scene done in virtual.
In terms of the plot, I personally preferred season two to season one. While I will admit that the familiarity of the “solve a murder” plotline helped ease me into the world at first and was ultimately a good choice on the part of the showrunners for that very reason, it was not nearly as original and compelling as what came in season two with the search for Quell, the politics of Harlan’s World, and the whole Elder struggle, in my opinion. The attempted quashing of the Quellist movement, the many flashbacks, Kovacs’s original DHF coming back in the OG sleeve… just brilliant stuff.
I think I preferred many of the non-main characters of season two as well. Danica and Trepp felt so much more complete than Ortega and Vernon, for instance, although that isn’t to say that those two aren’t well-done either; just not as well as season two did its side characters. I think my preference for the season two characters is purely personal and subjective, though, and ultimately, both seasons made great use of their characters, pimping them out to the plot, if you will, in really pleasant ways.
I want to emphasize this through a couple of examples. First, Elizabeth’s transition from traumatized victim to self-confident woman ready and willing to defend herself was not only really entertaining and heartwarming to watch unfold, but was also a clever way to further flesh out Poe’s character and help us better understand his abilities as an AI.
A second great example is Trepp, a great addition to the cast in season two. Rather than just being a jaded bounty hunter, the show provided her with a concerned wife, a child who was re-sleeved after a tragic accident (the financial consequences of which Trepp is still paying and which provide further commentary on the structure of the world), and a Quellist brother who mysteriously disappeared. These were all plot-relevant ways to not only weave Trepp into the story and develop her character, but to enrich the story and the show as a whole. But for those elements, the story would not have advanced as smoothly, and Trepp’s return at the end to help the group wouldn’t have felt so rewarding.
It’s this idea of everything being purposeful, every aspect of each character being made to pertain to the plot, to relate to the setting. Writers of any kind know this principle well: it’s what makes a story and its characters feel complete and compelling. And Altered Carbon does it brilliantly.
This dedication to properly fleshed-out characters outside of just Kovacs was a huge bonus for me personally in part since I was a bit back and forth on whether or not I liked him. As his near-fanatic obsession with Quell grew over the course of season two and he seemed to lose some of his sassy, aloof edge in favour of a slightly more mean-spirited version of himself, I grew a bit bored and annoyed with him. The Quell thing especially bothered me because it felt a bit like he was objectifying her by holding her up as this god-like figure, which I think was part of what the showrunners were trying to demonstrate (that he was unhealthily obsessed with her and that she was incredibly charismatic and brilliant, but still only a human being), but it still annoyed me.
I think that my one gripe with the show was Rei — while there is something to her character, I do think that her vengeful obsession with Kovacs was a bit overdone and not as justified or realistic as I think the showrunners hoped it to seem. She came off a little too much like a “big bad” that couldn’t really be empathized with or related to in the same way that other villains (for instance, Danica) were for me, even though you could probably successfully argue that Rei had more reason to be angry and turn evil than Danica ever did. It’s not necessarily about just slapping a tragic backstory onto a character, or of making their motivations seem justified in some fucked up way, though; it’s about making them relatable, and for me personally, Rei’s character failed to do this successfully.
Ultimately, though, Altered Carbon did an excellent job by combining effective characters, plot, and setting to create a highly cohesive and immersive story. It made particularly good use of the technology present in the show (virtual reality, cloning) and brilliantly used its characters as effective “chess pieces” or plot devices to drive various aspects of the plot forward. I absolutely loved this show and was left wanting more at the end of its second and sadly final season.