What do you get when you combine stock characters–a loner ex-con recently released from prison with lethal fighting skills, a female cop with a chip on her shoulder who doesn’t mind breaking the rules, and a wealthy man with a taste for decadence and violence–and mix them into the noir-iest of film noir dystopian futures, and add plenty of gratuituous sex and violence? You get Altered Carbon, a very watchable and enjoyable sci-fi series that keeps you moving quickly from one episode to the next.
Central to the narrative arc of the series is the concept of bodies as “sleeves”: when a person’s body dies (or, more likely in this series, is violently killed), that person’s mind can simply be downloaded into another body. With this technology, people can potentially live for hundreds of years, assuming they can afford a new “sleeve.” Naturally, those with the most money are able to make the most use of this potential.
The film noir label is accurate: not only does the show delve into the dark, seedy side of humanity; it is also a murder mystery. The ex-con (Tak Kovacz) is released from prison (where he was “on ice,” i.e., not in a body) after 250 years to help the wealthy decadent (Laurens Bancroft) solve a murder of particular personal importance. However, the reason Kovacz was imprisoned in the first place was because he was part of a rebellion that was ultimately defeated and destroyed. Details of the rebellion emerge slowly as the series progresses, but it is clear that Kovacz has no love for the rich and powerful.
How can someone be murdered when spinning up a person’s mind into a new body is routine? The person’s mind is contained in a small disk that is inserted in the back of the neck. If a person is killed in a way that destroys the disk, there is no coming back. The murder Bancroft is concerned with was unsuccessful, however, even though the disk was destroyed. The murder victim was Bancroft himself, but he is rich enough to have backups of his disk, so he was able to restore his mind into a new body. However, the backup was made 48 hours before the murder attempt, so he has no idea who destroyed his disk or any memory of the 48 hours leading up to the attempt. Kovacz’s job is to solve this mystery.
Kristin Ortega is the tough-as-nails cop who was originally assigned the task of solving Bancroft’s attempted murder. Her investigation came up with nothing, and she is not pleased to see Bancroft hiring a dangerous criminal to solve what she could not. Naturally, tension develops between Ortega and Kovacz, as their stories begin to intertwine.
Another significant character in the story is the mysterious Poe, who “works at” the Raven, a luxury hotel endowed with artificial intelligence–“works at” is in quotes because the relationship between Poe and the Raven is considerably more complex than that, but I leave that to you discover as you watch the show. The references to the macabre imagination of Edgar Allen are obvious, but work quite well, as the hotel is themed around the eccentric nineteenth-century writer.
The dialogue is snappy and snarky, as one would expect of an old-school film noir. Twists and turns in the plot are everywhere. I won’t give away any more details of plot and character than this, but if you are in the mood for a richly dark world that at times hits too close to home, this is for you.