While I haven’t been able to keep up with the confident viewing pace that some of my colleagues have, my longtime enthusiasm for the franchise couldn’t keep me away from viewing the new Halo TV series. Each episode leaves me increasingly perplexed as I’ve watched from week to week. I’m a longtime Halo player, a fervent sci-fi fan, and a dedicated gamer; I should be the target audience for this long-awaited adaptation. And all the pieces feel like they are in place for a good time. The meticulously reproduced versions of Covenant and UNSC weapons and ships, the overwhelming power of a Spartan on the battlefield, and the semi-mystical nature of ancient artifacts related to the Halo – these are all the sorts of things fans should want, right? And yet, as each episode comes to a close, I’m left feeling cold about the entire experience. Somehow, even with all the trappings, this Halo series just doesn’t feel like Halo.
Warning: The following opinion piece includes SPOILERS for the Halo TV series up through Season One, Episode Eight.
I often get frustrated when the rolling tide of internet hate threatens to overwhelm a film or TV adaptation simply because the involved showrunners, writers, directors, and actors make choices that don’t slavishly conform to established (and often nebulously defined) parameters that fans have set from the source game, book, comic, or other media. An adaptation is just that – a thing adapted into a new form. It deserves, and usually needs, significant changes to fit the new space.
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That sort of vitriol has taken an especially nasty turn in recent years when casting directors have made choices that defy fan expectations along racial lines, selecting actors to fill roles based on talent and personality rather than a visual parity with those characters’ previous appearances. I think that’s an especially limiting lens through which to evaluate an adaptation’s quality, and those concerns don’t factor into my difficulties with the new Halo series.
Nonetheless, adaptations do owe some measure of fealty to the core ideas, themes, and character arcs that define an existing fiction. It’s here that the Halo TV show feels like it misses the proverbial last ship off the exploding ringworld. Caught up in a desire to introduce new characters, establish the bureaucracy of the UNSC, layer in additional pathos for main character John, and root everything in layers of interpersonal deception, the core thrust of what makes Halo special is left by the wayside.
Last year, I had the good fortune to speak to 343 Industries as the development team prepared to launch Halo Infinite. That game featured a campaign that really worked for me on multiple layers. It was because the studio managed to lock into something that felt right for the series and its characters, even after releasing a couple of numbered entries in the series that didn’t always gel. “I think 343 made some mistakes in chasing dragons; they forgot that they owned their own dragon,” head of design Jerry Hook told me in the months before that game launched. “Creating or designing for an established franchise versus a brand-new IP is very different.” In crafting Halo Infinite’s campaign, 343 returned to some core principles and themes that helped make the original Halo: Combat Evolved so rewarding. In short, they zeroed in on what made Halo be Halo and put their focus squarely on those elements.
Consider both Halo: Combat Evolved and Halo Infinite. In both cases, the focal point is a lone hero fighting against overwhelming odds. He’s in an unfamiliar and frequently alien setting that inspires awe and wonder. He works alongside a companion A.I., whose strength is not in her physical power but in her vast intelligence and the powerful partnership she shares with the warrior. And, perhaps most important of all, it follows a story about resilience and hope for humanity in the face of seeming destruction.
Watching the Halo TV show, it feels like someone did indeed receive a report on some of those core principles, and they may have even registered the primacy of those ideas. But then they said something along the lines of: “Okay, sure. But what if is also…,” and then launched in a new direction. Along the way, things begin to get lost. Master Chief stops being the hero whose superpower is that he always finds the path forward, and he becomes instead a self-doubting and troubled soldier who can’t figure out where his loyalties lie. The UNSC stops being the distant and battered remnant of humanity’s military might and instead emerges as a tangled mess of broken power structures and administrations. Add in a troubled youth grieving her father. Spice things up with a lost Spartan who abandoned the program long ago. A kidnapped human allied with the Covenant. A power struggle in the government. A maniacal planetary governor. A Master Chief love scene? Who thought that was a good idea?! The list goes on and on.
Rather than tell a focused story of survival and conflict on an alien Halo, the first season of the Halo TV series feels compelled to fill in the gaps before the “real” story begins. And in so doing, the show seems to forget that less can sometimes be more.
None of this is to say that I haven’t felt glimmers of enthusiasm. McElhone’s Catherine Halsey is compelling as the anything-it-takes scientist. The fierce battle on Eridanus II offers spectacle and excitement as we see the Spartans (especially Master Chief) in action. And after decades of inhabiting the role, Jen Taylor’s voicing of Cortana nails the character’s cleverness and compassion for John, which have always been guideposts for the character.
As the series teeters toward its season one finale (which I haven’t yet seen as of this writing), I’m left hoping that this grand live-action Halo show manages to right the ship in the already confirmed second season. To do so, the next season needs to jettison some of its extraneous weight and rediscover why fans have such genuine affection for these characters and their stories. I’m not asking for a shot-for-shot remake of a game I’ve already played; in fact, that would be deeply disappointing. But the existing first season has already moved perilously close to fundamentally misunderstanding and misrepresenting the characters and themes that make Halo click for many fans.
The most recent episode eight of the series featured some of the most egregious missteps in storytelling for me. But one redeeming scene caught my attention, as Master Chief speaks to Makee about his recent experiences, saying: “I saw a capacity for hope. Love. There is something within us. Something special in humans. Something sacred. Something worth protecting.” Behind the Mjolnir helmet mask of the original game character, this feels like a sentiment that lines up with Master Chief’s core principles. The TV show would do well to take that quote and run with it into season two, and there find a story direction far more compelling than what we’ve seen so far.