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Where is the voice that said altered carbon would free us from the cells of our flesh?

Altered Carbon
Season One

(SPOILERS) Well, it looks good, even if the visuals are absurdly indebted to Blade Runner. Ultimately, though, Altered Carbon is a disappointment. The adaption of Richard Morgan’s novel comes armed with a string of well-packaged concepts and futuristic vernacular (sleeves, stacks, cross-sleeves, slagged stacks, Neo-Cs), but there’s a void at its core. It singularly fails use the dependable detective story framework to explore the philosophical ramifications of its universe – except in lip service – a future where death is impermanent, and even botches the essential goal of creating interesting lead characters (the peripheral ones, however, are at least more fortunate).


Joel Kinnaman (playing revived terrorist Takeshi Kovacs), who resembles a long lost Carradine brother put in cold storage five decades ago, is technically a good actor, but I’m not sure he’s a very interesting one.  Martha Higareda (as cop Kristin Ortega) outright resembles a block of wood.


Eyebrows have already been raised at the recurrence of the whitewashing issue Ghost in the Shell fell foul of last year, through having an Asian character played by a white actor (sleeved in a new body), although this element at least follows Morgan’s novel. Ironically, Takeshi Kovacs is much more interesting as played by Will Yun Lee, inhabiting the character’s original body, in the seventh episode (Nora Inu), when also partnered with the more engaging Renée Elise Goldsberry as his mentor-cum-romantic interest Quell. The problem with that storyline is that it’s an entirely rote rebel plot, with Quell as a platitudinous Morpheus teaching her Neo progeny how to fight the Protectorate (it also highlights that the mythos surrounding the Envoys is rather broke-backed, given they were massacred before they achieved anything to make them legendary).


The hook of the season, however, of Takeshi revived to solve the murder of the previous sleeve of Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy), is an instantly arresting one, the sort of thing you could imagine Philip K Dick thinking up, but it arrives absent any of the fractured sense of reality that make Dick’s work so engrossing. Indeed, while there’s much potential in this world-building, it devolves into the hackneyed around the point that Bancroft’s killing is revealed as not very important after all. The season shifts focus and duly, and dully, becomes one of those stories where the main character is intrinsically linked to all epoch-changing events that have occurred, thus reducing the scope, scale and intrigue of the scenario. Takeshi turns out to be tied to the resistance (not all that much seems to have changed, tech-wise, in 250 years) and to the elite, or rather Meths (Methuselahs, because they have the money to swap from body to body uninterrupted – their own clones – whenever an old one runs out, so their stacks never go into storage; Laurens has been knocking around for 360 years).


Quell: The creation of stacks was a miracle and the beginning of the destruction of our species.

Meths don’t so much represent a metaphor for the current elite/one percent as they are those elite, making it rather nonsensical that Quell warns of “a new class so wealthy and powerful and cannot die”; that is, after all, a fairly precise description of the power wielded generationally by a ruling family. While their status is a convincingly decadent, there are holes, or at least gaps, in the premise elsewhere (unless I missed the explanations). There’s the question of resources (and potential population explosion); we don’t learn the percentage of people regularly resleeved aside from Meths, or even why the average joe is stacked at all. In whose interests is it, unless it’s a means for martialling and control? The solitary voice against the process (in 2384) comes from Neo-Catholics, who believe you should remain dead when you’re dead, and there’s a Proposition 653 due to be passed that allows Neo-Cs’ revivification in murder cases.


There is no other indication of the advantage of stacking all Protectorate citizens; surely, at bare minimum, the stack would include the tech to track everyone everywhere at all times (they’re inserted at one year of age), so there’d be no problem finding rebels, or murderers, or anyone in the vicinity of any crime? Which, wouldn’t, of course, make for a very easy means to fashion a murder mystery, but thems the breaks.


One wonders about other aspects here too, such as the fashioning of bionic limbs. Now, clearly they aren’t cheap, but given how powerful they are, wouldn’t any felon, or violently-minded individual worth their salt, favour the advantage they offer over the real thing? Particularly so in an arena such as the fight club, where enhancements are de rigueur. Failing that, wouldn’t the police just go around boosted sporting super-powerful tech attachments, to aid them in bringing criminals to justice? I have to admit, I liked the Robocop-esque advertising spiel as Kristin’s operation is in progress (asking if Takeshi wants to purchase an extended warranty).


The show is at its best prior to the reveal of Takeshi’s sister (Dichen Lachman, of Doll’s House; I’m guessing someone on Altered Carbon is a fan of the show, as Tahmoh Penikett also appears, while elsewhere, Adam Busch – murderous geek Warren from Season 6 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer – is a tech geek on the force, so no typecasting there) as the Meth head behind most of the dodgy goings on, so the first six episodes (and it takes a couple of those to even get up and running). The red herring of Isaac using his father’s sleeve to execute a business deal is especially strong (caught in a “benevolent dependence trap”, never to succeed to head the family business, he is desperate to prove his worth).


Kovacs: Did I fucking stutter?
Poe: No, your speech was quite clear… if a trifle laden with obscenities.

And there are engaging incidentals throughout. The standout character is Poe (Chris Conner), or “Eddie”, the AI hotel manager, and he’s definitely the type you’d expect from a Joss Whedon show (the hotel setting – The Raven – as a base also put me in mind of Angel), allowed the kind of humour and personality the leads very much lack. His humanity in the face of the remoteness and brutality of actual humans is the closest Altered Carbon comes to a thematic echo of Blade Runner (“Whatever it means to be human, Eddie, you are”), and one can only hope that, should a second run come to pass, he will somehow be Mk II’d (I’d bank on it, actually).


Purefoy does a lot with Laurens, increasingly short-changed as the season progresses, and there’s an interesting scene in 1.5: The Wrong Man where he visits with generational victims of a contagion bomb, purposefully infecting himself as a symbol of compassion and solidarity (“This isn’t sacrifice, it’s theatre” scoffs Takeshi). Despite being a monstrous individual, the show offers Laurens the understanding of someone who convinces himself what he’s doing is acceptable and even commendable (and that he draws the line at where it counts).


Poe: Surely, true love triumphs over all?

There are several well-spun threads exploring the theme of cross-sleeving, such as Kristin’s grandma, who comes out of the stack to spend time with her family; that body later houses  murderous Midi; Matt Biedel is effective as both the doting grandparent and an unhinged psycho. Later, Ava, the wife of Takeshi’s entirely clichéd sidekick Vernon (Ato Essandoh) is cross-sleeved, and Vernon must adapt to her switch in gender (Cliff Chamberlain is hugely sympathetic). The idea of double sleeving oneself too, by which Midi has a duplicate of himself walking around who he calls his brother, is highly inventive. In contrast, I found Vernon and Ava's daughter Lizzie (Hayley Law), innocent trauma victim-cum-kick-ass assassin girl, a tired and overused trope. I could happily have seen more of Max Headroom himself, Matt Frewer, as Carnage, owner of the fight club who, appropriately, favours analogue video as it cannot be traced.


But taken as a whole, Altered Carbon is too enamoured with the trappings of its own corporeality and materialism, ironic for a show about how these are no longer limitations. There are lashings of sex and violence throughout, but they’re rarely other than gratuitous. 1.4: Force of Evil is one long torture session, as Takeshi is subjected to VR interrogation that, at one point, includes having his legs burnt off. 1.8: Clash by Night might have been better titled Shooting Naked Women in the Head, Repeatedly; presumably the makers thought they could get away with this as Kristin’s doing the shooting.


Stylistically, the show’s so thoughtlessly derivative that, following Takeshi slaughtering the staff of the Wei Clinic, the cops arrive to find it bathed in darkness, for no other reason than the director felt it was time to break out the X-Files flashlights. Further mimicry of Blade Runner finds characters randomly slipping into multiple languages, but it comes across as an entirely unmotivated gimmick.


Depravity is a key part of the show, yet it’s squeamish about following the uses of this tech to their (un)natural conclusions. We focus on the profusion of new drugs (Stallion, Reaper) and diseases, but the activities of the Satellite of Sin (where Peter Woodward, of Crusade, can be found in a small role) are broached as if they’re an anomaly; in a world where the preservation of the body has no currency, surely the licence to feel that anything goes would be a stronger one. There is shocked reference to “snuff whores”, while Kristin (or rather, Reileen as Kristin) wonders “What kind of sick person uses the sleeve of a kid” as if that and worse wouldn’t be taking up a whole lot of police time. Particularly since, more than 250 years earlier, young Takeshi is told by CTEC “This time tomorrow, you’ll be in a man’s body” (and that’s the Protectorate speaking). A myriad of disturbing possibilities come with the technology, yet there’s little indication of the policing of how stacks and sleeves are utilised. Indeed, downloads appear to be wilfully disordered unless you have the funds to pick and choose. At one point, reference is made to a man being downloaded into a reptile; he was sent mad. That would surely be the tip of the iceberg.


Takeshi: There is no coming back from real death.

If Altered Carbon’s a soulless, somewhat pedestrian show, perhaps that’s partly because it’s a show that finds the soul a redundant, outmoded concept. Despite the lofty imagery of the title sequence and Takeshi’s tattoo – Ouroboros, the snake eating its own tail as a symbol of eternity, the cycle – or trap – of endless material birth and death – suggesting, depending on where you’re coming from, that this is the natural order and that sleeving goes against it (“Natural order? You sound like one of those insane Neo-Catholics”), the series is coy about the ramifications, or lacks the imagination to explore them. The stack holds “Pure human mind, coded and stored as DHF: digital human freight”; there is no soul in Altered Carbon, no metaphysical debate, only your consciousness, which is rather perfunctorily the sum of your memories.


Aside from the Neo-Cs, never given a coherent voice, we learn that Abboud (Waleed Zuaiter) has a religious faith (“I’m a Muslim, not a monk”), but there’s no indication how stacking affects his beliefs. True, there are occasional nods towards an entirely materialistic outlook (“You think we should leave it up to God, do you?”), underscored by the fear of the finality of real death. But even if the show posits no possibility of the soul/spirit, it should surely recognise that groups would find loopholes in the science (be it suggesting those resleeved no longer have a soul, or that the soul cannot move on until consciousness itself is permanently laid to rest, assuming they are one and the same; this is exactly the kind of debate you’d expect the show to be having – that it invites –  but which has been studiously avoided).


Quell’s “We aren’t meant to live forever. It corrupts even the best of us” is taken as read as a
Star Trek-esque invocation to our being better through frailty and limitation, but the only justification for this is the idea that mankind, given unlimited lifespans, would devolve rather than aspire to better himself (again, this presumably rests on the Altered Carbon’s realisation that the physical is all, and that consciousness is merely a scientifically quantifiable, distillable element, piped from the brain itself).


Mister Leung: Their power is absolute and they never die. What else would you call them?
Takeshi: Has anyone ever told you you’re really fucked up in there?

There’s a nod to how beliefs might develop, but as expressed by Mister Leung (Trieu Tran), with his “Are you a believer?” mantra, it’s entirely unconvincing, so much so that it’s called out as soon as it is voiced (we’re given no reason to believe the average person wouldn’t entirely resent Meths, yet we see them regarded as benefactors or, in Leung’s case, worshipped, on the basis that they are equivalent to gods, but better than the old gods, as “All gods were silent”).


Other elements were left hanging, such that I wasn’t sure if they were holes or there was a genuine thought behind them; given how prosaic the show has been, I don’t have much hope for Season Two. Why did Rei save Quell, other than to provide Takeshi with some motivation next time? We’re told “Humanity spread to the stars”, which seems like a nod to Blade Runner’s off-world colonies in, but where’s the rationale in sticking around on Earth? Is life better elsewhere (it certainly can look nice, if Nora Inu is representative)? Who goes there? Is the Earth’s ecosystem permanently screwed? Is that why it rains almost all the time 350 years from now? And what was the throwaway line “Is it evolution, using the work of aliens to extend our own lives?” about? I wish I could say my interest was piqued for the next run, but the show went wrong as soon as it decided Takeshi was someone special, and even more so by involving him in a quest to overthrow the established order. His sister revealed as a hugely influential Meth was the nail in the coffin. If it had just accepted stacking and sleeving as the new status quo and gone from there, Altered Carbon might have found a much firmer footing and more distinctive voice.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

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