Halo is exactly what you think it is.
The first two episodes of Halo, streaming soon on Paramount+, do not resemble traditional science fiction television, nor do they leap forward into some fine new future of entertainment. So far, it’s another drawn-out, drama-heavy Game of Thrones wannabe with a huge budget, an expensive cast, and a production that was too big to stop even when the showrunners left the project.
So as Paramount’s next sci-fi money-sink, Halo certainly comes with a whiff of season one of Star Trek Discovery: similarly, expensively bombastic and too big to pump the breaks when behind-the-scenes creative issues arose. A cynical mind could view it as a mandatory content drip to boost the appearance of quality content, without being of particular quality in-and-of-itself. But I am not a cynic—despite what such criticism may have you believe. I like to look on the bright side.
Written and developed by: Kyle Killen and Steven Kane
Release Date: March 24, 2022 (Paramount+), weekly afterward
To be clear, I absolutely love science fiction and science fiction TV perhaps most of all. Star Trek, Babylon 5, Battlestar Galactica, Continuum, The Expanse: these are all great shows you could be watching, right now, rather than reading this review.
Wait! I’m only being facetious for comedic effect. I’m not here to poke fun or sling mud at Halo. After all, I own the Animatrix-esque collection Halo Legends on Blu-ray (and I actually like it!). I dig this stuff. I just need you to know where I’m coming from when I tell you what this show is so you can decide for yourself.
Actually watching Halo isn’t a great chore. Like the occasional mid-to-high tier Netflix show or Disney+’s The Mandalorian, it’s a handsomely produced blockbuster of highly detailed aliens, gooey violence, and lots and lots of characters. As television goes, we’re talking a nearly immaculate science fiction presentation—the weightless animation of Covenant Elites in combat is perhaps the only weak link.
As with another distended mega-budget sci-fi show, AppleTV+’s Foundation, this is cinema-level material from a technical standpoint. However, in terms of colour and variety, the series is more on par with regular TV and movies than the Halo games themselves, as is the norm with game-to-screen adaptations outside of Arcane.
Anyone expecting the bright, popping, almost garish style of the games will probably be disappointed to see the (sufficiently detailed, but) chiefly monochrome worlds: a dusty desert, a metallic space habitat, a shiny silver city. Even what we see of the Covenant themselves is well reduced in saturation from their video game counterparts.
Sound-wise, players of the game series will recognise many of the key sounds of gameplay while the Master Chief is doing his thing in action. The most exciting part of these first two hours, a brutal attack on a tiny mining colony by the newly-encountered Covenant forces, has been heavily featured in the marketing for obvious reasons; the scene is a blast. There is even a moment (that long-time fans will probably guess ahead of time) where a familiar Spartan sound effect is employed for suspense.
The writing is where this appearance of quality unravels. Due to the choice to tell a story leading up to the events of the first game, rather than starting with that original story’s bang, there’s no spoiler to say these first two hours are free of the eponymous Halo ring itself. Thank goodness the proposed Ringworld television series never got off the ground: we’d spend the average length of three whole movies before we saw the actual Ringworld.
In addition to taking hours to reach the object of its title, Halo also indulges in the scourge of serialised streaming shows: flashbacks. Master Chief’s mysterious pre-Spartan memories and his more recent Spartan training memories are Robocop‘ing into his mind, against the wishes of his UNSC handlers, providing the required breaks from present-day action.
Similar to other sci-fi and fantasy shows with split allegiances to genre fans and a general TV audience, the show feels cart-before-the-horse. While Master Chief is discovering his humanity and taking care of Kwan Ha—an original character who serves as Jiminy Cricket to the Chief’s cybernetic Pinocchio—the other 50% of the show depicts conversations between secondary characters who fret and argue to better drill home the rules of the show’s fictional universe.
Yes, it’s character-driven exposition, but it’s still exposition: Expanse-lite, “people arguing in metal rooms” drama that spends scene after scene enforcing archetypal character traits and also-ran sci-fi worldbuilding that we hope may pay off later on, but for the first two hours results in surprisingly frontloaded, “eat your vegetables before you get your dessert” viewing. One marginally interesting character, original to the series—whose very existence makes the show an alternate universe for lore reasons—indicates the possibility of a shadowy reflection of the Master Chief, but their narrative is not developed enough to tell from the first two episodes.
Why the producers would think this contextual, action-light, science-fiction-flavoured-drama format was essential for Halo, a series of games that is famously quite boring in its politics and mainly exciting for the parts where Master Chief shoots stuff, is mostly down to the mechanics of streaming television production—not as much from a creative urge to tantalise viewers with a live-action version of Cool Spaceguy And The Scary Ring. Eight to ten hours of relentless space action would never work, so instead, it’s another character-driven show, just without particularly engaging characters.
However, as I said several paragraphs ago, this is not the terrible, unpleasant, badly written version, like Another Life or even the worse parts of Discovery. Nay, as of two hours in, Halo is simply middling. I’m not going to kvetch about the broader trend of drawn-out, “it’s like a 10-hour movie,” TV shows when this one is merely a product of that trend—it may be slow, but that’s serialised television for you, and Halo is more of that, with a little of the juice of an incredibly successful video game franchise.