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In a new streaming series, the familiar world of 'HALO' needs a little space

Master Chief (Pablo Schreiber) asks to see your <em>HALO</em> in the Paramount series.
Adrienn Szabo
Master Chief (Pablo Schreiber) asks to see your HALO in the Paramount series.

Here's what can be confidently said about the new Paramount+ series HALO after viewing the two episodes made available to the press for review: Not much.

At first glance, the central plotline, involving a piece of alien tech that unlocks the main character's memories, is a bit too redolent of hoary science-fiction tropes that have been trotted out many times (RoboCop, Blade Runner, Total Recall, etc.). And if that weren't enough, the retrieved-memory stuff seems to tie into a Chosen One narrative; it's tough to fathom that we're still making those in the 21st century, much less the 26th, when the show takes place.

But there is an an attempt, as there was in the video game franchise on which the series is based, to build a science-fiction universe rife with factions — disparate cultures advancing different goals in a manner that creates uneasy alliances and shifting allegiances. And in the fleshing out of all of that ostensibly chewy conflict, an attempt to create rich, satisfying television.

Rich, satisfying television like say ... The Expanse.

And that's the problem: The series seems determined to ignore the more than two decades that have passed since the launch of the game HALO: Combat Evolved, and the many science-fiction properties that have, in that time, incorporated many of the game's once-innovative story elements.

The Expanse, for example, burst out of the gate in 2015 by confidently setting a slew of competing interplanetary interests against each other and letting each group evince moral failings, such that we constantly found ourselves rooting for, and against, the same characters at different times. That Syfy (and later, Amazon) series also harbors a pitched distrust of both government and the military, and has featured several plotlines involving the sacrifice of human lives in the interest of political expediency.

Some of that's here, in HALO. But it's more gestured towards than viscerally demonstrated: In place of The Expanse's Byzantine political maneuverings, we get a single scene of an Admiral (Shabana Azmi) cautioning the ambitious head of the series' Spartan super-soldier program (Natascha McElhone) against doing the thing she almost immediately proceeds to do.

There's also the nagging fact that the show's protagonist, Master Chief, is an armored soldier (Pablo Schreiber) wearing a helmet that obscures his face, who incongruously takes a vulnerable orphan (Yerin Ha) under his metallic wing.

Once again: The HALO source material predates both The Expanse and The Mandalorian, but the series doesn't seem interested in accounting for them even slightly.

According to producers, the Paramount+ HALO series sets its storyline in a universe entirely separate from the one established in the games, giving them room to create new conflicts that still manage to avail themselves of familiar game hallmarks. That seems promising, as it means they can mix it up a bit, and distance themselves from other, similar properties. Schreiber does get to spend time out of the helmet, eventually. And while the first episode features a grisly battle between Spartans and bad guys that players of the video game series will recognize (complete with plasma swords! Woo!), the second episode takes Schreiber and Ha to a visually impressive space redoubt composed of a cluster of asteroids tenuously connected by a series of cables.

The show certainly looks expensive, which bodes well. (What's even more encouraging is that it knows that a science-fiction show needs to change up the damn scenery every so often, The Book of Boba Fett.)

On that asteroid outpost, we meet a character played by Bokeem Woodbine, who instantly infuses the proceedings with a welcome degree of warmth and humor conspicuously absent from the premiere episode. This may prove to be an example of the series growing into itself, and recognizing what it's missing, or it may prove a one-off outlier.

If you've played the games, it is fun to guess at how the series will incorporate various elements (see above, in re: plasma swords, woo.). And Schreiber is doing his level best to embody a stoic character grappling with his conscience for the first time.

If both Schreiber's character, and the show itself, can loosen up a bit and settle into the easier rhythm it finds in the second episode, it's very possible the series will manage to chart its own path through a science-fiction landscape littered with many of the very same cast-off machine parts it once helped to create.

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Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.