Julien Neaves, Sci Fi Head Writer
You’re everything I need and more
It’s written all over your face
Baby, I can feel your halo
Pray it won’t fade away
Oh wait. Sorry. Wrong halo. The Halo we are here to discuss is the Paramount+ sci fi action series based on the popular Microsoft video game series. Season 1 wrapped a few weeks ago (What? I’ve been busy) and as Red Mango Reviews’ resident Sci Fi Head Writer you know I had to give it the old review treatment. So with a planet-sized SPOILER ALERT let’s break down Halo Season 1 in four blasts:
Blast #1 Spartans! What is Your Profession?!
So let’s first deal with the armoured elephant in the room. Many fans lost their poop when series stoic protagonist Master Chief took off his helmet at the end of the pilot. Now in the games MC never revealed his face, which I presume was a mechanism for players to insert themselves into the character or for their own imaginations to cook him up. It’s similar to comic character Judge Dredd and the uproar when Sylvester Stallone removed his helmet in the campy 1995 film (a mistake which was thankfully rectified in the vastly superior and criminally underrated 2012 version with Karl Urban).
Now I’m aware of the game series but I have only ever played the first level of the first game. So I wasn’t outraged like the fans but I can understand where they’re coming from. That said, I understand where the show runners are coming from. Wearing a helmet all the time would remove the actor’s ability to emote (in this case Liev Schrieber’s less famous little brother Pablo) and could be awkward depending on the scene. They were able to work around this with the Mandalorian and they made the removal of his helmet a major part of the story. In Halo MC removes his helmet to gain the trust of annoying young insurrectionist Kwan Ha. They could have taken a page out of the Mandalorian’s book and had a longer and build up and made more of an event out of it .
I’ve spent two paragraphs talking about a helmet so let’s move on. I thought the man under said helmet, Schrieber, did a commendable job as MC and his journey from battle-hardened stoicism to a semblance of humanity is a believable one. In terms of the other Spartans Kai-125 (Kate Kennedy) is the only one (other than MC) who removes the emotion inhibiter and the only one to have an actual arc. I found Kennedy’s performance fun and a breath of fresh air among the mostly super serious characters. Riz and Vannak are cool but are just a couple notches above automatons, and understandably so.
For the other heroes of United Nations Space Command home planet Reach (and I use the term loosely for some of these folks) we have borderline sociopathic scientist Dr Catherine Halsey, played brilliantly by Natascha McElhone. She is quite a piece of work and I loved to hate her. Halsey/McElhone provides the look of advanced AI assistant Cortana (though the revealing nature of her design has been removed) but in a nice touch Jen Taylor, who voiced the character in the game series, returns to voice her here. I was excited to meet Cortana and she did not disappoint, with her intelligence, wit and thoughtfulness. The evolving relationship between her and MC was one of the best of the show aspects of the show. In terms of the rest of the folks on Reach, they are all decent but nothing much to write home about.
Blast #2 Breaking the Covenant
Someone I have to write home about is misanthropic Covenant agent Makee aka The Blessed One. Presented as a mirror image to MC (both taken as a child by a military force and fashioned into a weapon with a connection to the mysterious Halo devices) I loved everything about her, from her inventive design to her intriguing, conflicted nature. MC may be the star but Makee was my favourite character and Charlie Murphy’s nuanced performance was simply next level. I actually felt sad when she bought it in the finale, but at least her tragic death was well done.
In terms of the rest of the Covenant, things were less stellar. The foot soldiers look decent enough but the CGI on a TV budget shows, with the alien beasties looking very plastic and lacking weight. And we didn’t get much in terms of differentiation among them other than design, resulting in them becoming little more than cannon fodder. I think a bit more about their culture and the behaviour of the different classes would have gone some way in making them more interesting. Oh, and the Covenant leaders were some pretty rote bad guys as well. Thank goodness for Makee because otherwise it was Snoozeville all the way.
Blast #3 Annoying Side Missions
On the pacing of the show, things start off with an action bang with the Spartans battling Covenant forces on the desert planet of Madrigal. Yeah, they definitely came strong out of the gate. But it was jarring that they jumped so quickly into the storyline of MC rebelling against the UNSC and beginning his quest to uncover the truth about his origins. They could have taken a little time to establish MC as the loyal soldier and then bring in this storyline as that would have been more effective. And yeah, it is that quest that slows down things practically to a crawl in Episodes 2-4, and I have to admit I got both somewhat bored and concerned. Thankfully things picked back up from Episode 5.
I was also not a huge fan of the Madrigal storyline. Yerin Ha’s acting as Kwan Ha was fine but the writing for the character made her grating. And Burn Gorman is apparently the go-to guy for bland-as-hell villains because, as he did in The Expanse, he gives another bland-as-hell performance here as politician and UNSC collaborator Vinsher Grath. I also found it hard to get invested in Kwan’s story and kept waiting for it to switch back to MC and company. And even so, the whole battle against Vinsher and his goons gets wrapped up in just one episode. Kinda weak. Thank goodness for the always energetic Bokeem Woodbine as wisecracking Spartan deserter Soren, as he made the whole arc actually tolerable and at times enjoyable.
Blast #4 Finale Goes Full Circle
I presume a lot of fans of the video games came to the series looking for that sweet alien blasting action. And while some may be disappointed in how infrequent it was, when there were battles the series delivered. The scenes were grand, pumping, and full of Spartans being super cool and killing Covenant fools with style. That style was no more apparent than in the finale where we get a first person, video game-inspired perspective on the fight. And unlike the contrived way it was done in the 2005 misfire Doom, this felt organic and worked for me. My action meter was filled and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t entertained. I was like, “Oh yeah! Come get some you alien bastards!”
And continuing on the finale, I liked how MC had a circular arc, going from emotionless soldier to quasi-human being and then becoming AI-controlled after “dying”. It was touching and kind of beautiful in the way it was done. With a Season 2 we know John/MC will return, but it was still impactful, with the scene of Kai asking him if he was “in there” and Cortana-MC not responding being quite resonant.
Overall I think the series did a good job with the source material, delivering both for general Sci Fi fans and (I suspect) fans of the video games as well. And yeah, I would Press Start on a second season to see where the story goes.
Editor Jules’s Score: 7.5 out of 10
So what did you think of Halo Season One? And you can check out more great content below:
Julien “Editor Jules” Neaves is a TARDIS-flying, Force-using Trekkie whose bedroom stories were by Freddy Krueger, learned to be a superhero from Marvel, but dreams of being Batman. I love promoting Caribbean film (Cariwood), creating board games and I am an aspiring author. I say things like “12 flavours of awesome sauce”. Read more.