The premise of Altered Carbon (Netflix) is that in the future mankind has “solved” death. Using technology left behind by an earlier race known as “elders”, human personalities can be stored in glowing blue chips and reactivated infinitely in different bodies, called “sleeves”. You can be reincarnated in any race, as a man, a woman, young or old, even an animal, although the last tends to lead to insanity. You can only kill someone by destroying their chip, so it’s a fate reserved for your worst enemies. “Sleeve death” is much less serious.
The series is an adaptation of novels by Richard K Morgan that. Like George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, the books had a devoted following before the producers came calling. The fans had high expectations. Altered Carbon’s intriguing core idea ought to make it a playground for experimenting with identity and gender across time and space: what does it mean to live and love when your mind is separate from your body?
So it was disappointing that from this promising material, and a large budget, Netflix managed to create a merely competent sci-fi thriller. Morgan’s hero, a renegade special forces soldier called Takeshi Kovacs, was given the body of Joel Kinnaman, as white and wooden a beefcake as you can imagine. The female characters were reduced to a series of sassy archetypes, too often naked (even if James Purefoy treated us to his alterable carbon rod, by way of compensation). The reviews were mixed. As in the airport books section, however, there is an appetite for science fiction in TV audiences that is not reflected by the number of options available, and Altered Carbon obviously did enough to justify a second season. If they could lean into the possibilities of the universe, and fight harder against clichés, they might have a blockbuster on their hands.
The second outing opens with a twisting set-piece that suggests the writers and directors have the right idea. We are in a dive bar on a distant planet, where a jazz singer (Jihae) is belting tunes out to the usual ghouls and misfits. A mysterious woman is looking for Kovacs. She asks the barman, who we recognise as Poe (Chris Conner), Kovacs’s AI friend from the first series. Another man enters. He is also looking for Kovacs. Without giving the game away, Kovacs was not who I thought it would be.
Sadly the sleeve proves short lived, and Kovacs is reincarnated again, this time in the body of Anthony Mackie, best known for playing Falcon in Marvel’s Avengers films. He is not white, it is true, but he is still firmly in the cis-male hunk mould. Quickly, he is reunited with Poe, and the two begin another quest. Although death has been conquered, capitalism is very much at large, with the power to re-sleeve, along with the best sleeves, in the hands of a few tycoons. The new story revolves around the idea that the body knows things separate from the mind; some memories can only be accessed if the physical conditions that created them are repeated.
If you like its trashy cyberpunk aesthetic, Altered Carbon provides plenty of entertainment. It’s Blade Runner without the writing but with the same to spend on sets. There are virtual reality torture chambers, shadowy backstreets lit with strips of neon, gun-toting ninja bodyguards and mysterious crime syndicates aplenty. Mackie isn’t as stiff as Kinnaman, and there are interesting questions raised by the idea of what comprises a person. It still falls short of its potential, but Altered Carbon has probably done enough to ensure it runs for years to come. A lump of graphite, if not quite the full diamond.