Friday, January 6, 2017

TV Review: Sense8 "A Christmas Special"

Of all the series out there, Sense8 was probably the last I would have expected to have had a Christmas special. In fact, SF and Fantasy, in general, do not tend to go much for this sort of thing, probably thanks in part at least to the flashbacks all Star Wars fans get to the infamous 'Holiday Special'*.

Christmas specials are the preserve of quirky BBC comedies like Only Fools and Horses or The Vicar of Dibley, not a slick, hip, high concept SF series. For those that are not aware, Sense8 is the result of a collaboration between the Wachowskis (of Matrix and Jupiter Ascending fame) and ‎J. Michael Straczynski (of Babylon 5 fame).

Produced by Netflix, it follows the stories of 8 people across the world who become psychically linked as they try to discover why this has happened and what it means. The range of characters is broad - a Chicago cop, an Icelandic DJ, an Indian Pharmacologist, a German gangster, the daughter of a Korean corporate magnate, a San Francisco hacker, a Mexican film star and an African bus driver. In addition to the range of professions and ethnicities presented, we also have diversity in sexuality with one character being homosexual and another transgender.

This is especially noteworthy as they are played by a transgender actor which is something quite unusual in itself - though not unexpected given the involvement of the now famously transgender Wachowskis - with maybe Laverne Cox in Orange is the New Black being another rare example**.

Each of these characters has problems to deal with - their own little struggles ranging from getting hold of HIV medication for their mother to being arrested for the murder of their father. There is also a metaplot involved with a shadowy organization chasing them down, which has yet to be developed much. The series itself was known to be a slow burner - something which did not make it popular in this age of instant gratification. It takes a few episodes before it is obvious what is going on and the big reveal comes in a rather well written and epic scene that makes it clear what their connection to each other means.

The series ended with the characters all aware of each other and having developed bonds with each other (some romantic, others deep friendship, some that seem to be little more than a working relationship of mutual respect) and also aware of the shadowy organization that is looking for them. And this all leads to the Christmas special. Luckily this is not a 'music extravaganza with turkey and misguided comedy' as the Star Wars special was. Instead, we are treated to an extended episode which fits quite nicely as either an epilog to series one or a prolog to series two.

Either way, it is definitely a transition episode.

Here the characters are coming to terms with the revelations from the series finale and you see some development of their individual plot-lines but mostly you see character development as they gain strength and purpose from each other. Like the series, this is not an episode for the impatient.

A lot of screen time is spent marveling at the different locations (as stated above this is truly an international effort) and the characters spend a significant amount of time wallowing in the emotions they all feel - bear in mind the nature of their connection means that when one has sex, they all feel it and there is quite a bit of sex in this...

There is sometimes a sense of frustration as the characters do this personal reflection while seeming to ignore the clear and present danger that is looming over them, a lack of direction or action. However, it is worth it for the moments of genuine warmth and drama that are woven into the narrative. In addition, you get to see even more of Naveen Andrews (Lost), Darryl Hannah, Terrance Mann and Freema Agyeman (Doctor Who) as the few actors you might recognize playing support roles amongst a host of relatively unknown leads. You even sort of getting used to the weird dissonance of London-born Agyeman with an American accent. If you are perceptive, you can also spot a cameo by Douglas Reith, more normally associated with period works like Downton Abbey, playing a little against type as a German gangster.

The episode ends with a wonderful lead into the next series and hints at where at least one of the characters is likely to be headed. Overall, this is a solid episode worthy of being included in the Sense8 continuity. If you are a fan of the first series it is definitely worth checking out (though I suspect you already have if you are a fan).

If you haven't experienced Sense8 before and you are a fan of high concept, inclusive SF drama or even just like the work of either the Wachowskis or JMS, then you definitely should check this out. Just be sure to watch the series first and wait out the slow burn start otherwise much of this will make very little sense.

*Which at least spawned the idea of Boba Fett so you have to give it that much
**And it seems to have kicked off a revolution with the OA also casting Ian Alexander.

-David Lascelles 

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