You can’t fault the people behind the Halo series for shooting for the moon – after all, we now live in a time where other fantasy/sci-fi shows want to nail the Game Of Thrones effect and have sprawling casts and numerous warring fractions to keep track of while reliving the same kind of visual fireworks usually reserved for the big screen. As a result, what should have been a large scale bug-hunt has become something that seems needlessly complicated, taking the legendary first person shooter and expanding on its already rich back story only to add cluttery side-plots involving in-fighting Insurrectionists, human agents working for the Covenant, dodgy goings on behind the scenes of the UNSC and even a tried a true arc for the Master Chief as he yearns to retrieve his emotions and memories.
To be blunt, it was a bit of a bore, its been-there-done-that nature carried only by the fact that it was the long-awaited, live action debut of a game franchise I absolutely worshiped back in the day. Can Halo pick itself up out of the gloom and manage to glow again?
Master Chief, after his brief bout of Insurrection, has surrendered himself back into the arms of the somewhat fascist UNSC, bringing the mysterious artifact known as the Keystone with him. This not only makes his fellow Spartan teammates breathe a physically enhanced sigh of relief, but it puts a gleam in the eye of Dr. Catherine Halsey who now can put her controversial Cortana plan in action. For those unfamiliar with the name, Cortana is Halsey’s groundbreaking AI that’s been formed by fatally downloading the brain of her own, illegally made, flash clone and that will be uploaded into the consciousness of Master Chief in order to make this perfect soldier even better. However, what the hulking killing machine didn’t count on was that, when injected into his brain, Cortana seems to be quite the chatter box, manifesting around him in her blue holographic form and basically being annoyingly helpful. However, unknown to both Master Chief, Halsey eventually hopes her little science experiment will take over the Spartan completely, rendering him completely subservient at the expense of his personality, but the only reason she hasn’t given Cortana the go-ahead is that they still need a un-brainwashed John – 117 to activate the Keystone to see how it ticks.
Meanwhile, John – 117 is on a quest of self discovery thanks to the memories unlocked by the artifact and after their bickering starts to slowly become bonding, Master Chief requests her help to remove in the emotion-inhibiting pellet all Spartans have implanted in their spine which means his next interaction with the Keystone reveals even more. Meanwhile, on Rubble, Kwan Ha bribes Soren into taking her back to her homeworld on Madrigal to join the resistance and Makee, the Covenant’s human agent, starts her quest to locate the Keystone.
So, if I’m being honest, I was trying to put a brave face on the fact that Halo, episode 2 was essentially a whole lot of exposition for a small amount of gain that spun out a bunch of sub-plots and secondary characters that didn’t so much enhance the Halo Universe as slow it down to a crawl. However, while the series still has a ways to go until it actually becomes legitimately intriguing, I found myself way more connected to events that I was previously. It could be that I’m merely now used to the fact that Halo: The Series is going for sprawling space opera rather than balls to the wall war movie, or maybe now it’s just because all the separate pieces have been introduced and are now moving – but anyway you look at it, it’s still a case of me wanting Starship Troopers and getting The Phantom Menace instead.
However, the real reason my interest has picked up is because the show has finally introduced one of the aspects about the original game I really loved, the weird will they/won’t they dynamic of Master Chief and Cortana that has always played to me like some deranged rom-com despite the fact that one of them is a jacked up super soldier and the other is a computer programme that lives in his head. While stopping short at describing it as When Harry Met Sally meets Her meets Iron Man (imagine if Tony Stark and JARVIS had sexual chemistry), it’s always been the heart of Halo to me and to see a version of it finally adapted gives me hope for the remaining episodes. While there has been complaints from fans outraged that Cortana isn’t “hot” enough (come on guys, seriously?), the angry back and forth could use a bit of work before we reach buddy movie potential, but the seeds are there and fairly encouraging, mostly down to how creepy her origin is with Halsey killing and harvesting her bald doppelganger without a flicker of remorse.
Elsewhere it’s still a mixed bag with Master Chief’s fellow Spartans being as interesting to watch as documentary about oatmeal dubbed into a language you don’t speak and the show needs to either flesh them out or get them something to punch, pronto. Similarly heading nowhere fast is the plot thread of Kwan Ha whose desire to return to her home planet and spark a revolt against a warlord seemingly has less and less to do with the main plot the more we sornd with it and creates a similar lack of interest.
However, one thread that shows promise is that of Makee who not only starts her mission with style (more on that in a minute) but also gets an origin flashback that explains her hatred of other humans (grew up on a trash collecting slave world) and why she’s so special (she, like Master Chief, can also open the Keystone), to things that instantly make infinitely more interesting than she was an episode ago. Also, her assault on a UNSC craft is a series high-point so far, confidently hitting the promise of what a Halo show could be for the first time since the opening battle sequence in the first episode. Here we get the introduction of a game-favourite Covenant soldier dubbed the Hunters that look like hulking beasts coated in battle armour but who Halo fans know are actually made up of hundreds of worm-like creatures entwined together. This was something that was never really explored in the original game, but here we see their true, wriggling forms pour through the ships bridge like something out of The Thing as they entwine and crush their prey like some type of Cronenbergian python. It’s moments like this that accurately portray the smaller details of the universe that not only make some of the larger changes (Cortana’s origin for example) forgivable, but remind you why a Halo adaption was such an exhilarating prospect to begin with.
We’ve still got a way to go before Halo reaches a point that could be described as heavenly (Master Chief’s desire for emotions feel like a glossier rerun of Christian Bale’s in Equilibrium), but it’s certainly started on the right road.