Paramount+’s Captivating, Ambitious Halo Series Shoots for the Stars

TV Reviews Halo
Paramount+’s Captivating, Ambitious Halo Series Shoots for the Stars

This review originally published March 14, 2022.

Written by Kyle Willen and Steven Kane, directed by Otto Bathurst, and counting Steven Spielberg among its executive producers, Paramount+’s highly anticipated Halo series is based on the juggernaut first-person shooter videogame series that started 20 years ago with Halo: Combat Evolved. It has had 15 sequels, spinoffs, and remakes, including last year’s Halo Infinite. The show stars Pablo Schreiber as Master Chief Petty Officer John-117, the helmeted space marine archetype that embodied the videogame’s power fantasy. A genetically modified Spartan super-soldier, Master Chief doubles as humanity’s last hope for survival in a galaxy-spanning war between the United Nations Space Command (UNSC) and the multispecies alien theocracy known as the Covenant in the year 2552.

When I first saw the trailer for the Halo series (which was originally meant for Showtime before being moved over to ViacomCBS’s streaming service), I thought “This looks pretty cool; wow the Elites look big; I hope they don’t gloss over the thing where the Spartans were created to suppress revolting human colonists.” Without giving away any plot points, the trailer undersold the show. Halo’s first two episodes (available for review) are exciting and captivating, though they differ greatly between one another in tone, and there’s no way to tell from watching 22% of the season whether they stick the landing. What I can say is that it is more ambitious in scope than I expected, but in becoming so it veers away from the original games. With a second season already greenlit, it seems likely that the show’s creators already have their story in mind (though they’re also being replaced as showrunners).

The diverse and impressive cast includes Bokeem Woodbine as Sorren-066 (previously featured in the book Halo: Evolutions); Natasha McElhone as Dr. Catherine Halsey, the scientist behind the Spartan program; Danny Sapani as Captain Jacob Keyes, one of the centerpieces of the original game; and Olive Gray as Jacob and Catherine’s daughter, Dr. Miranda Keyes.

(There’s something to interrogate in the intentional racial diversification of imperial military regimes in sci-fi worlds. The most memorable nonwhite character of the original Halo trilogy was Sgt. Johnson, a beloved cigar-chomping stereotype, and the effort to create a more colorful UNSC brass is admirable. I’m curious if or how that is meant to affect the audience’s interpretation of the oppressive space-faring military government….)

The Halo series begins at an interesting narrative moment, where it seems likely the first season will end around when the game series began. Like with all adaptations of “geek” media, it will find an audience that is variously enraptured and appalled at the changes made to bring it to a new medium. The obvious thing to do would have been to start the show where the first game starts. There, the spaceship known as the Pillar of Autumn flees the interstellar hub planet Reach after being attacked by Covenant spaceships near the ring world called “Halo,” with Captain Keyes handing over the ship’s artificial intelligence Cortana (voiced by Jen Taylor in the games and played by her in the show) to Master Chief for safe-keeping from the Covenant. Master Chief and some other space marines crash land on Halo, and then over the rest of the 10 hour campaign (which might have mapped nicely onto 9 or 10 episodes of TV) he and Cortana gather other, lesser space marines, eventually seek to rescue Keyes, discover and fight an alien parasite known as the Flood, discover the Halo ring is actually a superweapon, and destroy it. In the sequels, Master Chief continues to defend humanity, fight the Covenant (including helping spark a Covenant Civil War) and the Flood, and gradually learns more about the advanced alien race that built the Halos, as well as some other kooky worldbuilding that rewrites human history.

I’m not sure why so many sci-fi games, like Assassin’s Creed and Mass Effect, are concerned with the idea of advanced ancient alien races. Maybe it’s because humans are subconsciously stressed about bombing each other to oblivion and leaving only our technology to be utilized and misunderstood by future generations like in the Horizon videogames. Regardless of whether the TV series eventually leads down the same path, Halo starts by prominently featuring the fictional planets Reach and Madrigal in the early going. Halo: Combat Evolved alludes to the fall of the military base on the planet Reach that houses the SPARTAN-II program training center, later captured in the novel The Fall of Reach and the prequel game Halo: Reach, while Madrigal to this point has only been featured in books (though it’s mentioned in the Halo 3 spin-off Halo 3: ODST). Essentially, this is an action-adventure sci-fi series with features of a war drama, likely to emphasize the importance and majesty of soldiers as warriors who sacrifice their wellbeing for the safety of others, as illustrated in the pseudo-realistic “Believe” ad campaign for Halo 3. It seems ready-made for fans of Battlestar Galactica, Stargate, or maybe even The 100 or The Expanse.

Further, some decisions around the Master Chief’s relationships and his conduct seem written to try and humanize him. While it’s unlikely that fans who have grown accustomed to the mostly silent videogame protagonist Master Chief want his character changed, these adjustments allow for viewers that aren’t closely familiar with the existing franchise to connect to the character. Still, it could be a mistake to try to recontextualize seemingly esoteric sci-fi to appeal to the broadest possible audience; the reason the games are in position to have a show made about them is that the story and the world they originally created was unique and compelling enough to become popular. I can accept that adaptations are very seldom exact replicas; when fans get nitpicky about this (from the benignly annoying to the toxically malicious), it’s because of the preconception that adaptation can mean a piece’s essence changes in the popular imagination. So rather than new fans getting a different reading on an existing text, they get a whole different text.

Halo game developer 343 Industries tried to get out ahead of this earlier this year with an official blog post, where Franchise Creative Director Frank O’Connor said:

The TV show timeline-the ‘Silver Timeline’-is grounded in the universe, characters and events of what’s been established in core canon, but will differ in subtle and not so subtle ways in order to tell a grounded, human story, set in the profoundly established Halo universe. Where differences and branches arise, they will do so in ways that make sense for the show, meaning that while many events, origins, character arcs, and outcomes will map to the Halo story fans know, there will be surprises, differences, and twists that will run parallel, but not identically to core canon.

But what I didn’t understand upon seeing the trailers, and still don’t understand now, is the purpose of creating the human character Makee (Charlie Murphy) whole cloth to embed with the alien antagonists—do the creators not trust that fans will pay attention to their CGI aliens without a human with them? Perhaps they should have tried to put humans in special effects makeup rather than do it all by computer. And I can speculate that making the Sangheili/Elite species of the Covenant army twice as big as humans rather than just taller than the average human (from 7-8 ft to seemingly 10 or 12) is to make the Spartans seem even more impressive in contrast, it also makes some of the action seem disproportionate. One choice that feels funny (but that makes sense within the context of wealth disparity as presented in the show’s world) is the distribution of technological advancement—some people do indeed seem to be living a few hundred years in the future, whereas some others seem to be living in the near future, if not the present. This material distinction helps create a world that feels lived-in; the grit-and-grime of one area contrasts with the shininess of another, and with that the show has a viewpoint.

Before Halo 5: Guardians, all of the main first-person shooter Halo games have been rated M (mature) games, primarily for the blood and violence that attempts to apply some realism to the fantasy of fighting aliens, and the chaos and grief of being a lone supersoldier on a death-defying mission. As a successor to those games, it feels authentic for the TV series Halo to commit to the brutality of that violence, as well as its emotional and ethical consequences. It’s commendable too because it keeps the stakes of individual moments in mind, as well as underlining the moral flaws of villains, or contrasting with a depiction of warfare that could easily (and perhaps still does) become glorifying. Some shows ostensibly about wars in space sometimes eschew violence to make the viewing experience more family friendly, in turn easing tension and lowering stakes. Halo isn’t quite that sanitized, which means that from the very beginning, parents should exercise caution if they intend to watch it with children. It isn’t The Sopranos, but it also isn’t Boba Fett.

As a casual fan of the games, I’ll accept any changes that end in making a good story. I’m apprehensive by nature, but I’m enamored by the cast and generally impressed by the composition of the design. A lot of expensive projects end up looking cheap these days, but when I say it feels more like a high-end SyFy show than a low-end HBO show, I don’t mean the production values are bad; but rather, that this collaboration between Showtime and Amblin Entertainment does feel, in its bones, like it’s made for people that want to visit the world of the Halo franchise. Series composer Sean Callery is riffing off Martin O’Donnell’s original game scores closely enough that I needed to check to make sure it wasn’t the same guy. Jen Taylor, who voiced the AI Cortana in the games, reprises her role for the show. There are first-person sections that draw from the videogame’s HUD even if it isn’t an exact replica. The Elites make the noises they made in the games and the combat sequences look like the live-action expression of gameplay. Will it end up propagandistic and committing to an idea that some of the excesses of warfare are necessary or acceptable? Almost definitely. But it’ll probably be a fun ride, and hopefully a good story.

Halo premieres Thursday, March 24th on Paramount+.

Kevin Fox, Jr. is a freelance writer, editor, and critic. He is a former Paste intern with an MA in history, who loves videogames, film, TV, and sports, and dreams of liberation. He can be found on Twitter @kevinfoxjr.

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