Halo Episode 1 Review: Contact
Zooming in, the show set out to present Master Chief as more expressive than in the games, and Pablo Schreiber makes a good first impression. It’s hard not to compare his performance to the smoother yet deeper voice of Steve Downes, or the surgically beefy animated character, but Schreiber’s glimmers of confused humanity hold promise for this rendition of Chief.
Yerin Ha balances the portrayal of a believable teenager and a rising soldier quite well, although the script doesn’t always give her enough to dig into. She briefly shows off her chops in a scene where she’s asked to create a propaganda video against her own faction, playing her just conniving enough to still be vulnerable. However, Quan’s interactions with Chief force him to move quickly from shock to mobility, and hopefully future episodes will delve into them a bit more. (A scene where the leader tries and fails to tell a joke also tries admirably to be heartfelt and funny, but comes a bit too early in both the character relationship and the world-building to really land.)
As a fan of the game’s lore, I’m pleasantly surprised the series is putting so much on the table so soon. Initial descriptions of the “silver timeline” as not quite a reboot but not quite canon were confusing. I probably show my hand taking a stand on them. Large parts of the fandom have flags firmly planted in the ground for what they think of the show’s final years, another reason why the show’s timing seems odd. But in 2001 Halo fan, I find the decision to put the insurgents front and center to be rich narrative fodder. In games, you hardly see them; they’re simply a story explaining why humanity had super-soldiers ready to go when the alien crusade began. Now they are our eyes in the story.
There is a kind of utilitarian polemic here: the UNSC techniques are obviously duplicitous. (In the books, Paragonsky oversaw a scheme to sell arms to Covenant rebels.) On the other hand, the Spartan program works. Or does he? The Spartans don’t actually save the civilians in the first scene; Kwan’s survival is essentially an accidental byproduct of the Spartans serving as indestructible cameras for UNSC spies. Master Chief begins to realize that this could be the heart of this series.
A major element missing from the first episode is a glimpse of how Halsey feels about Chief. It is implied in the lore that their relationship is a kind of twisted facsimile of mother and son. This appears to be a missing and carrying emotional pin in the subplot involving Miranda’s father, Jacob Keyes (Danny Sapani), and Halsey. But that can’t be present yet because the show has to keep Chief’s past a secret.
Still, the show has carefully pieced together many other story threads that are glossed over in the games. It was a treat to see Shabana Azmi as Paragonsky, a particularly deep cut of lore. However, it might be a bad sign that much of the show’s fun comes from seeing the familiar faces (alternate timeline), not the character dynamics. The conversations between the UNSC characters are particularly slow, the sets sterile in a way that’s probably intentional but bordering on the credits.