Halo review – fails to be TV’s first great video game adaptation | Television & radio

In the 51st minute of Halo – a military space-opera that’s among the first shows on new streaming service Paramount+, with a one-episode taster on Channel 5 – Pablo Schreiber takes his helmet off. His character, disaffected soldier Master Chief Petty Officer John-117, lets the scared and angry girl he’s chaperoning see his strong face and sad eyes. It is the show’s first convincing human interaction – before then, we’ve been playing games.

Halo was the video game that, when it debuted in 2001, perfected the first-person shooter genre – where you see through the eyes of the character you’re controlling as they fire at baddies. It made the launch of the Xbox console a hit for Microsoft, and helped introduce grand narratives to games, basing its bullet-fests on a mythology about a battle centuries from now between the United Nations Space Command and an alien theocracy called the Covenant.

Halo the series seeks entry to a pantheon of great TV shows dramatizing video games that already includes … actually, that hall of fame is as empty as an abandoned cave on an irradiated planet. Turning games into telly doesn’t make a lot of sense: stick within the existing story and there likely won’t be enough to power a drama; abandon it for your own ideas and the goodwill from gamers is lost.

Armed with the game’s chunky backstory, Halo ought to have a decent shot at bridging that gap. But its opening episode butts up against another dilemma: how to please Halo fans without perplexing newcomers who don’t know their Forerunners from their Precursors. We begin during the year 2552, in a dusty outpost on the planet Madrigal – the TV show keeps the game’s clunky placenames, including the human base planet named Reach – where the participants of a raucous card game discuss their rebellion against the UNSC, and the fearsome Spartans against whom resistance is futile because “they just keep on killing”.

Yerin Ha as Kwan Ha in Halo.
Yerin Ha as Kwan Ha in Halo. Photograph: Adrienn Szabo/Paramount+

Not long after, some marauders rock up, blasting heads and legs off a ragtag gang of teens in the woods before attacking the rebel compound, eviscerating opponents with spooky glowing sceptres. These 10ft, metal-clad lizards just keep on killing! Ah, but then some other, even mightier armored titans arrive to massacre the first lot. We go inside one of their helmets to see what the soldier sees, as he selects weapons and scans the battleground – just as an Xbox player would. With all the lizard folk dispatched, the main guy says something tough and pithy in American action-movie idiom, overheard by one of those teens, a girl who is the only survivor of the rebel gang. Roll opening titles.

For the uninitiated, it takes a while to work out that the human rebels were ambushed by the nasty, lizardy Covenant, and that their regular nemesis the Spartans, a genetically engineered fighting force deployed by the UNSC and led by Master Chief, were the ones who tried to save them. Gamers have enjoyed a live-action version of a Halo level, but the rest of us have sat through a middling battle scene with murky protagonist motives.

Cut to UNSC HQ, where Natascha McElhone is wearing one of those white calf-length jackets with thin gray piping that we’ll all be sporting in the 26th century. She is UNSC boffin Dr Catherine Halsey, swishing stuff about on a giant touchpad and pointing her otherworldly bone structure at helmet-cam footage of the most interesting part of the Madrigal mission: while doing a situation report after the battle, John-117 found some sort of psychic amulet, touched it, and had visions. A dramatically inert encounter with the officious Admiral Parangosky (Shabana Azmi) confirms that Halsey is a loose cannon with a scientific curiosity – she’s created a bald clone of herself and stashed it in a cupboard, despite being ordered not to – that is at odds with the doctrines of the UNSC, a colonial operation whose smooth propaganda belies the ruthlessness with which it maintains control.

As Master Chief’s encounter with the mysterious artifact triggers childhood memories that were suppressed when he became a Spartan, he questions everything he knows and goes rogue, with the rebel survivor (Yerin Ha) his unlikely sidekick. What for much of the first episode is a sterile mix of trigger porn and talky world-building suddenly has potential for a bit of Replicant/Cylon nature-of-humanity philosophising, with a dash of strong/silent Mandalorian cool about the hero. But as a sci-fi show that wants to deliver something more rewarding than its source material, it’s too slow to load.

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