Cortana contains spoilers!
Based on the wildly popular video games of the same name originally from Bungie and now from 343 Industries, Halo the TV series features a 26th-century war setting, mainly between the humans of the United Nations Space Command, and the Covenant, a conglomerate of advanced alien races determined to eradicate humanity.
It’s hard to accurately describe just how long we, the fans, waited for the TV version of Halo to come out and do our beloved FPS justice. The storylines of the Halo video games have always been epic and ground-breaking for whatever time they were released, perhaps especially for the much-beloved character of Master Chief John-117, and that’s not even going into the grand scale of the music that rocketed Halo into mega-stardom – even if you don’t play the video games, there are few geeks and nerds alive today who don’t recognize the epic strains of the male choir and orchestra that is another staple of Halo fandom. So this attempt to make Halo work on the small screen has a lot to live up to, from far before filming even started. Strap on your helmet, make sure Cortana’s jacked in, as we dive deep into the war-torn worlds of Halo!
As we join the show already in progress, the world as we know it is effectively a sh*t-show. The Covenant, a cabal of non-humanoid alien races, have been sending wave after wave of killer soldiers to hunt down and destroy the infidel humans, but also, to hunt for powerful ancient artifacts that the Covenant believe to be useful super-weapons. Humanity has already spread far beyond Earth into the stars, though military and thus effectively most of humanity, is still supervised by the United Nations Space Command, or UNSC. And the UNSC has their own version of shock-and-awe elite troops, those killer death commandos who’ve had those minor annoyances like emotions and attachments chemically blocked off, universally known and absolutely feared by a great many, called Spartans.
Leading the front-runner Spartan troop called Silver Team, is of course Master Chief Petty Officer John-117 (Pablo Schreiber). A towering presence that normally doesn’t remove his helmet at all, Master Chief is a genetically engineered soldier who leaves death in his wake pretty much everywhere he goes – Covenant or human alike. The Spartan soldiers as a whole aren’t known for things like morals and mercy, making them rather hated by the fringe human colonies getting relentlessly attacked by Covenant, and their survivors mowed down by Spartans in the dust-up. And this is exactly where our story begins, on the Insurrectionist planet of Madrigal, far off in the outer reaches …
Madrigal has, far as I can see, very little going for the planet as a whole, other than, hey, the good possibility that some of the Forerunner artifacts the Covenant are hunting for are here, on the planet. Which leads to the burgeoning rebellion under Jin Ha (Jeong-hwan Kong) being squashed like an insect under a combat boot as Covenant drop ships lay waste to the planet, intent on their slaughter as they hunt for the artifacts. His daughter Kwan Ha (Yerin Ha) watches in horror as, after the first wave of Covenant slaughter makes way for the next onslaught, the Spartan Silver Team falls like Death from the skies and lays waste to literally everyone and everything in their paths. The whole concept of pyrrhic victory is entirely lost on the UNSC and their killer pet Spartans, and this happens to be more or less why the Spartans are particularly feared and hated, especially by their human brethren.
This separate perspective and the massacre of the Insurrectionists on Madrigal, the apathy and lack of empathy from the UNSC, even the battle fatigue of what’s left of her own family, all cause Kwan Ha great grief and fury. Kwan Ha endures the refugee planet-hopping lifestyle for all of two seconds before deciding to turn her rage into vengeance, all alone if necessary, but at times both aided and hindered by an old associate of Master Chief’s, Soren-066 (Bokeem Woodbine).
Back at UNSC HQ, Dr. Catherine Halsey (Natascha McElhone), the genius scientist creator of the Spartan-II Project soldier program, has been trying to puzzle out the human factor of her precious Spartans entirely. The Covenant have been humanity’s greatest threat for the longest time and Halsey has clear goals – get to the artifacts made by the Forerunners, locate this mysterious Halo, and lay claim to whatever they are in the name of humans, all first before anyone or anything else can. Master Chief in particular is Halsey’s greatest personal achievement, her baby that she effectively rebirthed as a hatchling of her own design, and molded into her own needs as John grew. However, a genetically engineered mutated soldier as a fully grown adult still comes with pesky problems like free will involved, and so Halsey created the super-secret super-smart AI construct modeled after her own brain, known as Cortana.
The strange, strained, and ultimately rewarding relationship between Master Chief and Cortana is well-documented in the video games. Given that Halsey originally created Cortana via an entirely illegal (and potentially immoral) process and what her ultimate goal is – to use the AI with an attitude to control John-117 and ultimately replace his brains/free will entirely – it should be no surprise that Master Chief wants zero to do with Cortana initially. But despite Halsey being the template for Cortana, the blue lady badass has real empathy for Master Chief and the human still inside the Spartan, and she almost immediately begins to resist the controlling orders of Halsey as soon as she’s implanted into John-117. For the TV show, the makers made the brilliant choice to keep the same voice actor for Cortana, who’s been doing her voice for all the Halo video games since Halo: Combat Evolved, Jen Taylor.
Moving on to the Covenant and their Hierarchy, a lone misanthropic human, stolen and raised as a “Blessed One” for her mystical connection to the Forerunner artifacts and the mysterious Halo, Makee (Charlie Murphy) has been primed with her hatred for humanity and is about to be sent in undercover as it were, to ferret out whatever information the UNSC has and use it to secure the weapons for the Covenant first! This again raises some very interesting questions of nature vs. nurture, and while I say that human nature certainly will out in many instances, this isn’t always a good thing – humans often being like many-faceted gems, each capable of mass destruction and bloodshed, or conversely love and sincere empathy, and all points in-between.
The show deals with all sorts of heavy concepts – mass genocide, destruction of free will, humanity vs. everyone-else, the improper use of a military force by a governing body, child slavery (I’m not kidding either, prepare yourself for some hard scenes involving this), what happens when a genius scientific mind is allowed to run unchecked and turns frankly evil – and does it all with style, grace, and an unflinching eye for honesty, even when the truth is terribly brutal. The CGI usage for the Covenant Elders, the massive Covenant and Flood combat scenes and the Covenant home planets, are done strikingly well and look, to my jaded eye, to be quite believable.
For the legend of the video games brought to stunning, epic life, catch the mystery of Master Chief’s past and how it connects to his combative present, available from Paramount+ now is Halo The Series!