Saturday, November 11, 2023

Beacon 23, on MGM+

In this far-future universe, AI’s have some legal recognition of sentience, so maybe the new actor and screenwriter contracts will be invalidated. Of course, they are still programmed to serve mankind and given Asimov-esque prime directives. Frankly, humanity has more pressing work for them than movie-making, because starvation and strife are strangling the far-flung human colonies. This “space lighthouse” is stationed in a remote corner of the galaxy, but it might be on the frontlines of human evolution and first contact in creator Zak Penn’s Beacon 23, based on the novel by Hugh Howey, which premieres tomorrow on MGM+.

Due to a freak malfunction, Beacon-keeper Solomon Smythe is unable to warn an approaching space cruiser of the dark matter iceberg in its path. Only one soul is saved aboard the life-pod he rescues. As luck would have it, she is Aster Calyx, an operative of the QTA company, dispatched to investigate the mysterious rocks he discovered orbiting the beacon.

Complications soon set in when Bart, the station AI unmasks Smythe as military deserter Halan Kai Nelson, who replaced the real Smythe. Nelson tries to hold Calyx captive, but her personal semi-sentient holographic AI, Harmony, soon has her freed. She and Nelson will have to forge an uneasy truce to defend the station against the pirates (or “wreckers”) we see forcibly entering the station during the first episode’s prologue. Indeed, they seem to have a lot in common when they start to understand how the stones drew them both to Beacon 23.

This is sort of “big dumb object” science fiction, except the “artifact” seems smarter than any of the characters. It is also a lot like
Solaris, but with more action (which isn’t hard to accomplish). The AI can also be a bit twitchy, but Bart never goes the full HAL 9000. You might recognize many elements, but Penn and the writers re-assemble them in ways that feel fresh.

The alliance between Calyx and Nelson evolves in a manner that is interesting and credible. Lena Headey and Stephan James develop a nice on-screen rapport that definitely helps the series flow. Yet, some of best episodes are flashbacks to earlier eras on the Beacon. Howey’s source novel is a “fixed-up” of five related short stories, which is reflected in the series. However, in this case, it brings more variety that actually distinguishes
Beacon 23 from other recent shows (like The Ark or Silo, also based on a Howey novel). Every major flashback is justified (except maybe the in media res opening), because they establish information and events that will be hugely significant later.

There are also some terrific guest turns in
Beacon 23, such as Sandrine Holt, playing Coley, Calyx’s colleague and lover who is sent to check up on her and Marc Menchaca, as Keir, a luddite, doomsday terrorist. Also, look out for Barbara Hershy as Sophie, an early Beacon-keeper, who is probably the most humanistic character of the entire series.

There is some cosmic woo-woo stuff, but
Beacon 23 really does not depend on big spectacle special effects. However, the design of the Beacon station is impressive—and the battery of writers and directors really use that striking space to maximize the show’s impact. Yet, one of the most important aspects is Wade Bogert-O’Brien’s voice-over work as Bart, which might be the best performance of the series. Most importantly, it is intelligently written, rewarding investment with its surprise connections and revelations. Highly recommended for sf fans, Beacon 23 starts streaming tomorrow (11/12) on MGM+.