Descartes would presumably would have got a kick out of Altered Carbon, Netflix’s visually dazzling but ethically murky noir set in a cyberpunk future where the mind/body question has long been settled. In the 24th century, human consciousness can be digitised, backed up on remote servers and handily downloaded into a new body, be it a perfect clone of the original or a “sleeve” customised for combat or pleasure. This has unlocked immortality for elites at the top of the food chain – nicknamed “Meths” for their Methuselah-like longevity – while also creating some unpleasant new avenues of exploitation and degradation for those at the bottom.
Season one launched in February 2018 with the gloopy, unexpected re-sleeving of Takeshi Kovacs, a veteran soldier turned freedom fighter released from a lengthy virtual prison sentence to investigate the murder of the galaxy’s richest man. For this high-priority mission, Kovacs’s mind and memories were poured into the square-jawed, impressively toned body of Joel Kinnaman, who radiated furrowed angst in the rare moments between intense sex scenes and visceral fight sequences. There was a lot of sci-fi jargon to parse, and a little mid-season meandering – including an episode set almost entirely in flashback, something that happens so often in Netflix dramas it can seem like a contractual requirement. But Altered Carbon finished strongly, with a climactic samurai sword battle on an orbital bordello, streaking flame as it tumbled furiously back toward Earth.
Two years later and, in keeping with the central gimmick of shucking off shop-worn bodies in favour of something newer and flashier, the drama has returned with what initially feels like a pretty comprehensive reboot. When we jack back into the story, Kovacs has been a fugitive for three decades, body-hopping around human-colonised space with his loyal hologram sidekick Poe – an AI equerry with memory issues – to stay one step ahead of galactic militia the Protectorate. The promise of learning something about the fate of his long-lost lover Quell (Renée Elise Goldsberry) tempts Kovacs back to his home planet of Harlan’s World, a hardscrabble mining colony ringed by ancient alien technology. There, he is promptly decanted into the body of Anthony Mackie, familiar to fans of Marvel movies as Captain America’s flying buddy the Falcon. This new sleeve has a range of nifty enhancements, notably a long-range quickdraw trick where guns fly unerringly into his hands.
Placing a literally upgraded new lead in a different setting seems like a consciously fresh start, perhaps designed to lure back anyone who did not make it through all of Altered Carbon’s first season. But another recurring theme of the show is that abandoning an old body does not necessarily mean getting rid of your baggage. “With endless future comes endless past,” murmurs Mackie in the traditional noir voiceover. “We are trailed by spectres.”
While in search of Quell, Kovacs finds himself entangled in another murder-mystery: someone is assassinating the noxious ruling class of Harlan’s World, using tech that burns through all their back-ups, which means that actual, irreversible death is back in a big way. The war dogs of the Protectorate are still on his case, led by a chiselled badass called Carrera (Torben Liebrecht) who, deliberately or not, bears a passing resemblance to Kinnaman. Other familiar faces and characters from Kovacs’ past are folded cleverly back into the story; there’s a genuinely unsettling torture device that scans your digital brain stack to see who you love or hate so it can create clones of them ready to be joyridden by bloodthirsty assassins. On Harlan’s World, it seems, you could easily end up fighting your mum.
This volatile cocktail of emotional angst and bone-crunching action is in Altered Carbon’s DNA; while the screen adaptation has veered away from the storylines of Richard Morgan’s series of sci-fi novels, it has retained the same hard-boiled, slightly dyspeptic flavour. But if Kinnaman’s default setting was burdened solemnity, Mackie brings a suaver, more self-amused feel to his Kovacs, which helps smooth over some of the plotting’s sharper edges. Mackie’s inherent charisma and the faltering Poe’s reliance on Post-It notes to help his ailing memory also help leaven the succession of life-or-death battles and bone-deep betrayals. Meanwhile, it is strangely reassuring to know that, even in the 24th century, wearing a scuffed leather jacket over a black hoodie is still the universal symbol of anti-hero cool.
The first season of Altered Carbon felt flashy and provocative but scattershot. This newer incarnation is sleeker and sharper, suggesting that taking two years between seasons was a good thing. Shrinking the episode count from 10 to eight – with the slimmed-down opening instalment barely 40 minutes – makes everything seem more fleet and focused. Kovacs has now established himself as the go-to gumshoe for baffling sci-fi cases, while also solving the mystery of how to combat Netflix bloat in the process.