First Impressions: Halo is a standard-issue sci-fi show

Pablo Schreiber as Master Chief in Halo Season 1, Episode 1, streaming on Paramount+. Photo Credit: Adrienn Szabo/Paramount+
Pablo Schreiber as Master Chief in Halo Season 1, Episode 1, streaming on Paramount+. Photo Credit: Adrienn Szabo/Paramount+ /

Halo, based on the long-running first-person shooter series, premieres this Thursday, March 24 on the streaming platform Paramount+. This show has been in various stages of development since 2013, so it’s been a long time coming. I’ve gotten to watch the first two episodes. So what are my thoughts?

This will be less a review and more just general impressions on certain elements that stuck out to me. We can save the details for another day. For now, let’s look at the big picture, starting with the story.

What is Halo about?

Halo has two core components to it: on the one hand, you have the video game-y, action-adventure aspect. Fans of the games will know the gist: humanity, having left Earth to colonize the worlds beyond, are locked in bloody war with an alien organization called The Covenant. Though The Covenant surpasses humanity in technology and firepower, we put our hopes in our “best weapons,” the Spartans, genetically altered super-soldiers with little to no will of their own. Master Chief, the lead character from the games, is the nuke of the arsenal. For humanity to win, things called keystones must be kept from the Covenants’ hands, or tentacles, or whatever it is they hold folks with.

That’s the weaker half of the story for me. I’m not a Halo fan, so seeing the story of the games get recreated for televised doesn’t do much for me. While I’m sure fans will get a kick out of it, the show doesn’t do a whole lot to stand out from all the other sci-fi stories I’ve seen. The space war aspect is a well-established trope (Star Trek featured battles against the Klingons in 1966), and the MacGuffin of “keystones” gives me Marvel flashbacks. Sci-fi is a tough genre to stand out in, and like I said, Halo blends in with the rest. These standard types of stories work great in video games when the player gets to participate, but as a show I’m expected to passively watch, it needs a little more to hook me.

Master Chief gets in touch with his feelings

But that’s just one aspect of the plot. Beneath that is an emotionally driven secondary story: Master Chief, upon contact with an alien artifact, regains part of his humanity and free will lost when he was made into a soldier. Suddenly, he forms a bond with Kwan, a character rescued from a massacre on her home world. This does a lot more for me. I like the idea of starting Master Chief out as a military tool who awakens to his own sense of self-determination. Before, he was an instrument of war for his masters; afterwards, he’s a master of himself, left to decide on his own how to use his power. We have here the makings of a true hero, and that excites me.

And what players fill our star-lit stage? Let’s discuss ‘em. Master Chief (Pablo Schreiber) is our lead, naturally, and the depiction of the character is pretty good. Mask off, he definitely looks the part: a veteran soldier with a pang of vulnerability. He’s a man of few words who gets right to the point, although he still says more than he does in the games. I would prefer if they made him a man of even fewer words, and allow him to communicate more through his actions and expressions.

Then we have our other main character, Kwan (Yerin Ha). I think the actor does a fine job at portraying her, but as far as the character herself goes, she fits that model of wise-cracking kid character in need of protection too much for me to get attached. I’ll get into the details why in the proper episode review, but to keep it short, her introduction before the start of the adventure is too quick, and given what happens to her, it’s bizarre to me how quickly she falls back into the humorous kid sidekick archetype. However, she does have a personal mission outside of Master Chief’s quest to reclaim her planet, which is promising for the future.

Some other characters: Dr. Halsey (Natascha McElhone) is the cold head scientist and possible villain. She promises to take the story in interesting directions, what with Master Chief going rogue and her charged with controlling him. So far her scenes have been restricted to those bland conversations between disapproving higher-ups: “We need results, Give me more time,” etc. She’s crafty and sly, showings she knows how to play the politics of the situation, which I dig.

Finally, the last character who bears mentioning is Soren-066 (Bokeem Woodbine), a dissenter Spartan from Chief’s days as a rookie. Soren is much more carefree and less rigid than Chief. It’s a useful contrast, although it gets tiring watching him have a smirking retort when anything is said to him. Won’t lie, a liiiittle grating.

Action, special effects and writing

The action is pretty well done, but as is typical for TV shows, it opens with an action scene to hook you in, and then it could be episodes before we see more of it. I liked how the point of view would somehow change in the battle scenes to show us what Chief sees through his visor, a neat reference to the games.

The special effects are a mixed bag for me. The creature designs are pretty good, but could be better; the armor on the big alien soldiers in particular looks odd. Additionally, when humans get blasted to death with the sci-fi guns, the inherent tragedy of a person losing their life sits awkwardly next to the actual look of the blasts.

As for the writing, it seems rather impatient with itself, especially in the first episode. The dialog tends to be less powerful than the actors delivering it. And there are some dumb structural choices that really took me out of the experience.

And those are my first impressions. Overall, while the show has some promising aspects, there’s nothing too exceptional about it. It isn’t horrible or bad, but unless you already love Halo and Master Chief, or you just really love sci-fi, there’s little here to get you interested.

But hey, it wouldn’t be the first time a good show got off to a bad start. I’m interested to see where Halo develops from here. Hopefully it leans into the emotional relationship between Chief and Kwan. The “keystones” I can give or take.

dark. Next. Celebrating the women of House of the Dragon

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