Altered Carbon – Season 1

We finished watching Altered Carbon on Netflix a few days ago, which has given time for it to sink in and for me to ruminate some on what I’ve seen, what I liked, and what I didn’t like. In discussing how the TV series is different to the book it was adapted from, it’s impossible to say much without MASSIVE SPOILERS so read on at your peril…

Altered Carbon is a noir detective story, with sci fi bolted onto it so that Richard K Morgan could talk about things like the nature of identity, capitalism, etc etc. Like so many such stories, the plot is terribly convoluted and by the time it gets to the end, after all the red herrings, the final reveal is a little underpowering. Probably because by that point you’re exhausted. In the TV series they have a fair amount of exposition at the end that explains it, and that was actually something I welcomed because it made things more digestible.

The big thing about Altered Carbon is that people are “d.h.f” or digitised human freight – your consciousness resides on something a bit like a USB memory stick, your stack, and so if you’re rich, when you die (or get bored) you can be ‘resleeved’ in a different body. Takeshi Kovacs, the protagonist, is hired to find out why Laurens Bancroft, a man richer than God, apparently committed suicide. The plot then swivels around a few times as Bancroft is convinced he would never kill himself (and his stack is backed up dozens of times over, so it would be pointless anyway), Kovacs hunts for his killer, then constructs an elaborate plot to trick Bancroft into thinking he really did kill himself when in fact it was murder, and then finally Kovacs discovers it was suicide after all.

Along the way there’s background about the religion of Quellism, founded by Quellcrist Falconer, who is some sort of Zen Buddhist nutjob. Kovacs is unhappy because the last thing that happened before he was resleeved into his current body was that his girlfriend, Sarah, got shot by the police and he’s only cooperating with Bancroft so he can rescue Sarah and resleeve her.

In the TV series, Sarah dies in the first episode – Real Death, because the cops destroy her stack, and there’s no back up. There needs to be a female interest, so instead it’s a mysterious woman, who turns out to be Kovac’s sister, Reileen. In the book, Reileen is not related to Takeshi, and is just a thoroughly evil woman, as long-lived as Bancroft. It makes sense to swap over Sarah for Reileen and create a sister, because it’s easier then to explain Kovacs’ childhood motivations (beaten by his father) although just to ruin the lives of the purists, Kovacs still needs a love interest, who is Quellcrist Falconer.

Now, Kovacs was an Envoy, an elite UN soldier capable of social manipulation on a grand scale (because super soldiers aren’t so useful if you need to beam them into a new and strange planet – you need somebody who can take over the means of power, not just shoot people.). But in the TV series, the Envoys are plucky freedom fighters living in a treehouse like a bunch of Ewoks, and hated by the UN, and led by Quellcrist Falconer, who was meant to be dead several centuries before the book. Uh… what?

So that’s one big change that annoyed me. The other major changes are adding in more of a home life for Ortega (the police officer girlfriend of the person who had Kovacs’ new sleeve before he was added into it) and also creating an extra, new evil person, because Reileen isn’t evil enough on her own. There are smaller cosmetic differences, like the AI-run hotel that is the personification of Jimi Hendrix being replaced by the same, but Edgar Allen Poe, but that’s not so offensive, and there’s also the removal of the most gruesome torture scene, which is a Good Thing to not have to watch.

Other than that, I felt it was a fairly faithful adaptation. The changes to the plot and the modifications of characters made things flow much better, and changing Lizzie from a dead woman who gets resurrected near the end, into a dead woman who returns as a vengeful spirit and saves the day in the final episode, felt like a much neater resolution than just having Kovacs be Superman all the time. It was also fun to watch parts where the story cut between Kovacs in his original body, and then his current body, and back again, without any explanation, and wonder what the average viewer would make of this when they didn’t have any context.

There’s also some complaint that it’s a bit too much like Blade Runner, as if that’s a sacred cow we can never emulate, and forgetting part of the Ridley Scott yawnfest consists of Harrison Ford drinking whisky and scratching his bum while watching TV, whereas Altered Carbon gives us more full frontal nudity than you can stand, every hour, on the hour for ten episodes.

So in short, I liked most of it. I felt the choice of including Quellcrist Falconer was absolutely dreadful (the showrunner says it’s because she wanted to include her and wasn’t sure this would make it to a third season) but I really think it screws things for later on. But that’s somebody else’s problem to resolve.

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