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What Went Wrong With Netflix’s Altered Carbon

I’ve read Richard Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs series in my early twenties, back when I lived in Poland. There was a bit of hype about it, and I decided to check it out. Needless to say, a book that started with the main character dying on the first two pages had to suck me in (and I missed my tram stop because of it). I devoured all three books as they became available in Polish, and then—since there were no more Takeshi Kovacs stories—I moved onto other exciting reads.

When Netflix released its series based on the books, I hardly remembered the stories, only the setting, so it took me a while to actually get around to watching it. That delay allowed me to watch season 1 and 2 of Netflix’s Altered Carbon almost back to back.

If you had not watched the series, be warned—some spoilers ahead.

The minor shifts of season 1

Season 1 of Altered Carbon is pure cyberpunk, and its dark and gritty atmosphere follows noir style as closely as the book did. It offers an interesting mystery for the main character to solve, and most of the elements of the story, seemingly unrelated, become more and more linked as it neared its end.

As I kept watching, I remembered parts of the plots and found the television version to steer away from the original. Some changes were irrelevant to the greater story arc while others became quite consequential.

In the books—as far as I remember—Kovacs often quotes the revolutionary Quellcrist Falconer and seems to be closely following her teachings, but he was never her student, instead trained by a fellow Envoy. I could see how reciting Quell’s motivational quotes would look kind of boring on tv, so I understood the choice of shifting the story a bit. After all, it was all in the past anyway, so it couldn’t hurt, could it?

Little did I know…

The same applied to Rayleen Kawahara, who was turned into Takeshi’s long lost sister. Although inserting her into the story required adding new material and heavily altering Takeshi’s back story, I embraced that change as well. It seemed like a good idea to create more personal involvement for Takeshi and some harder choices. Even the big reveal related to Quell herself couldn’t shake things too much.

There were more changes, shifting the focus and story lines of characters, adding to and subtracting from the side plots, but in the end they didn’t affect the main plot and atmosphere of the book much, and that noir detective story set in a fittingly cyberpunk world remained true to the original.

Yet, as it turned out, all those changes set season 2 on the crash course with disaster.

The cliff-diving of season 2

In the books, at least such was my impression, the atmosphere shifts from book 1 to book 2. As Takeshi leaves the decadent Earth and heads back to the frontier of the colonized planets, the cyberpunk takes a step back to make space for purer science fiction. Of course, all the existing elements, the sleeves, and the technology are still there, but neither book 2 or 3 struck me as particularly “noir”, and there were hardly any detective-worthy mysteries to solve.

I expected the shift, and I was prepared for it, though the notions that Netflix’s series would skip book 2’s to material had me slightly worried.

And after watching through season 2, I know I had reasons to worry.

All the minor changes from season 1 returned, to haunt the story, and in the end, it neither followed the noir feel of the first season with intricate investigation providing a solid plot line, nor it went for the action-packed feel of the original book’s sequels.

Instead, we got a drama with little tension, contrived problems, and a setting that it couldn’t decide whether it’s noir or science fiction. As a result, even though the tv series did pick up some of the plots and characters from book 3, it didn’t feel like a conscious decision to create new content on the base of the old, but rather struggling to fix the issues which the new content created by weaving some of the original story in.

In the end, season 2 lacked tension, intrigue, interesting characters… In comparison to its predecessor, it felt like it lacked everything.

What ELSE went wrong?

I mentioned before that I embraced the changes made in the first season, and if that season was a stand alone, I think they would have been very good choices. But they forced an even bigger gap in the atmosphere and storytelling—a gap that perhaps is more digestable in the books but jarring on screen.

The setting’s somewhat unique feature, resleeving into new bodies-sleeves, didn’t help either. While the books benefited from Takeshi’s point of view, giving the sense of continuity and consistency no matter which body he was in, visuals-based tv show didn’t have that advantage. As a result, the viewers didn’t get to maintain the attachment they had build over the first season, and what’s more important, the new actor had no way of conveying the same personality present within yet another body.

More so, because due to changes in the story, the personalities of Season-One-Takeshi and Season-Two-Takeshi were completely switched (and then there’s also Season-Two-Takeshi’s-Copy but at least he’s consistent). A composed and calculating soldier from the first season gets replaced by an emotions-driven lover, and aside for fighting skills he possesses, it is hard to believe that we’re watching the composed and always-planning Envoy famous for his observation skills and adaptation.

Will it get better?

Season 3 has been tentatively announced, but not much is known yet. Perhaps with a new actor taking on Takeshi’s role things would improve the show, but the problems inherent to the show, like the lack of continuity in his personality and lack of attachment due to a yet another new face, along with the story taking sharp turn toward boring love story and straying away from noir-flavored cyberpunk-slash-science-fiction, leaves me doubtful whether the series will manage to pick itself up and go back to its gritty roots.

Joanna Maciejewska

Joanna Maciejewska is a fantasy and science fiction author who enjoys all things SFF: books, movies, and video games. Her short stories appeared in magazines and anthologies in Polish and in English. Her epic fantasy adventure series, starting with By the Pact, is available in ebook and paperback at all major retailers.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Lissa Johnston

    I appreciate your insight as a reader of the original series in its original language. I have not read the books, in any language. I really enjoyed the first season because I love sci-fi and I’m a huge fan of the actor who played Kovacs, Joel Kinnaman. I was apprehensive about how the second season would be, but after reading a very positive review, I was hopeful. Alas. I also did not enjoy S2 as much as S1. I have not taken the time to pinpoint why exactly. I had no problem with them changing actors. The sleeve concept sorta makes that inevitable. I vaguely recall feeling it wanted to spend a lot more time on fighting and special effects/stunts than an intriguing storyline. I will say I did like the new character Col. Carrera. He was a great villain.

    1. Melfka

      Thank you, Lissa!
      I haven’t actually read Altered Carbon in its original language (English). Back in my early twenties, I didn’t feel confident enough to read in English, so I only read Polish translations of foreign books. Nowadays, I read mostly in English. 🙂
      To me, season 2 felt like very little action and effects, very little storyline, but a lot of drawn out drama that because of too few plots was very repetitive. I did like Carrera as well!

  2. sjhigbee

    An excellent dissection of this show, Joanna:)).

    I haven’t seen the show, but recall the books with affection – especially the premise of changing sleeves. But I do remember discussing with Himself that the TV show would be a huge challenge, because of the inevitable change of actor, to keep the continuity and bonding of the audience with the protagonist, unless they were VERY clever about it. It sounds like they weren’t. That is always the drawback with a really sharply written first-person narrative – unless you have a voiceover – and I really don’t know why more TV programmes don’t – you lose that immediate connection with your audience. Because watching is always relegating the viewpoint to third person POV…

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