After seven long years, the Halo TV show is finally within sight.
Over the last year, we’ve been slowly seeing more and more tidbits of news about the show trickle out, following what feels like millennia of “It’s coming, stay tuned!”
Last November, it was announced that the cast had assembled, the table reads completed, and production was ready to begin – and nothing, not even the Flood could stop it! (How naive we were about all things 2020…)
Given all this additional free time that it’s now our civic duty to observe, I thought I’d share some of my own thoughts on the potential of this series and why I’m excited for it.It seems mad to think about, but by the time this show releases, Halo will be twenty years old. Two whole decades…
I’ll be going on twenty-seven years of age at that point (another scary thought), and it strikes me that it’s hard to remember a time when this series about the blue lady and her silly green sidekick wasn’t a part of my life.
It’s humbling to reflect on the major events of my life up to this point and how Halo has been there, every step of the way.
Not only that, but the wonderful friendships and connections that I’ve forged over the last seven years of running this blog – dedicated to the narrative study of this fictional universe that I, like you, care far too much about – have opened up so many doors. I daresay that this was more useful in getting my job in the gaming industry than my degree…
But this is also a point where some big questions have to be asked about the future of the series in order to keep it fresh, relevant, and accessible.
Inevitably, not everybody is going to agree with the answers.
ON CANON, TRANSMEDIA, AND GERALT OF RIVIA
One of the greatest strengths of Halo is its transmedia. It’s so wonderfully deep and expansive, and it’s proliferated so many forms of media in some sensational, revolutionary ways – ilovebees and Hunt the Truth are easy examples there.
But this also doubles up as one of Halo’s greatest challenges.
(On this, I did a whole seven-thousand word treatise on the subject back in January – ‘Halo has a growing transmedia problem’)
There’s now so much franchise media that it’s a struggle for anybody who isn’t a hardcore fan to keep up. The article linked above was prompted by the fact that Halo now has thirty books.
Compare that to the amount of literature we had going into Halo 4, not even a decade ago, where there was less than half of that.
You could comfortably say “I’m going to reread the books to catch up on the story!” and nobody would look at you like you were some sort of madman.
Even then, at that point, the amount of available fiction was considered to be “a lot” for the average fan.Questions have to be asked about what kind of stories are going to be impactful? What’s going to be appealing and accessible to a whole new generation of fans?
And this is before the hard realities of production come into the equation.
What does a Halo story on television look like? What opportunities does telling a long-form story on this scale afford for expansion, but what compromises have to be made as well?
And there are always compromises. Unless you have visibility on production, you just can’t know why certain decisions are made because of considerations that exist beyond the limited perceptions of fandom.
Halo is not (and has never been) immune to these realities, regardless of the prestige we impress upon it.
I certainly have things that I want from a Halo TV series, certain directions that I’d go, but I won’t be being too precious about clutching those particular pearls.
Comments on the overall canonical status of this show have been relatively ambiguous, which is a genuinely understandable grievance to have. People want transparency, and that’s what 343 promises to give.
But the most likely reason why we’ve not received more concrete statements on the matter comes down to the fact that television production must remain fluid. Especially for a series in uncharted waters, which is being backed by a premium television network that is not going to compromise its own experience-driven priorities that come with investing in a production like this because some people might get upset.
Forward Unto Dawn was a small-scale web-series; Nightfall’s production was more like that of a film; the live-action shorts and trailers are just that, beautifully constructed bytes of marketing material. An actual television show is an entirely different beast.
Things can be up in the air on the day of filming, adjustments are always having to be made, and the simple fact that something has worked out positively before doesn’t mean it can be taken for granted to happen again.
The Sword of Damocles is ever-present over television production, and, again, Halo is no more immune to it than any other (brand new) show.
These are not ‘satisfying’ answers, but this is what the bigger picture looks like.There’s a sense, I think, that because this show has taken so long to come together, we have some sense of ‘ownership’ over it. This has to exist for us, to please us…
While understandable, and certainly something I have myself felt throughout this period, I don’t think it’s a reasonable or realistic expectation to have.
As hard as it may be to see through our own investment and bias, if this show does branch away from the canon to tell a new story, using key points of the Halo universe, to be a quick and easily-accessible jumping-on point for new fans… well, with everything mentioned above considered, that makes sense to me.
In which case, what’s truly important is that the show captures the heart of the series. The themes of hope, family, discovery, loss, revenge, truth and reconciliation – these are arguably the things that drive the broad appeal of Halo’s story more than anything else.
And I think that’s exciting, the prospect of Halo feeling ‘new’ again. I want to be surprised by things I never saw coming, I want to see new takes on major themes and characters, unbound from the obligations of having to adhere to a dozen other pieces of fiction.Some people are concerned that this is going to “confuse” new fans, that they’re not going to know the ‘true canon,’ but I really don’t agree with this line of thought.
Take The Witcher, for example.
The ‘true canon’ of The Witcher can be experienced in a Polish fantasy series of novels that began in the ’90s. It then went on to be adapted into a Polish TV show in 2002, followed by three massively successful and expansive games (two of which you can comfortably skip, I might add) starting in 2007, which became the basis upon which it was primarily ‘known’ in popular culture.
Most recently, it has been adapted into a Netflix show which was so successful that it boosted sales of The Witcher 3 – itself going on half-a-decade at this point – by more than 550% and caused copies of the books to go out of print.
The Witcher told its story out of order across three separate perspectives, changed the ethnicity of several major characters, significantly altered the timeline, and reinterpreted the stories of its source material.
If people can handle juggling the separate canonical entities of Polish Xena’s mythology and have that moulded into mainstream entertainment, then the aesthetic trappings of Halo – which is itself grounded in fairly conventional sci-fi – are really not going to be any sort of hurdle.
Before December 2019, The Witcher was not well known in the U.S. outside of avid fantasy book readers and video gamers. Now, it’s probably harder to find someone in your social circle who hasn’t heard of it. The Witcher, once a more niche IP, has become widely known due to a very successful first season of its new Netflix series, catapulting it to a new level of awareness and creating tremendous value across the entertainment spectrum.
Thanks to the widely popular Netflix series, book sales for the IP grew significantly during December. As pre-release publicity for the Netflix series ramped up the week of November 24, physical book sales for The Witcher also began increasing. During the two weeks following The Witcher’s premier on Netflix, USA physical book revenue was 562 percent higher than the same period in 2018. This increase in revenue was driven primarily by The Last Wish: Introducing the Witcher, a book that contains short stories, which take place before the main book series. A new streaming tie-in edition of The Last Wish short-story collection was released on November 12 to capture new readers for the series coming over from the streaming series. This edition was the fastest-selling series title in December 2019, demonstrating the success of the cross-category strategy.
[…] U.S. December physical sales for [The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt] were 554 percent higher than December 2018, and still 63 percent higher even when excluding the Nintendo Switch platform. [Sartori Bernbeck, NPD – ‘The Witcher’s Impact Across Entertainment’ (13/2/2020)]
Much the same could be said for other adaptations in Halo, like those from Halo: Evolutions (‘The Mona Lisa’, ‘The Return’, ‘Headhunters’, and ‘Midnight in the Heart of Midlothian’). Many people may never read that book and get the ‘true canon,’ yet those stories carry the essence of those narrative so well.We live in an age of transmedia, it’s not a novel approach to mass-market storytelling like it was ten years ago. Numerous reinterpretations and retellings and remasters permeate our culture, they always have – Halo is not ‘exceptional’ in this regard.
I’ve personally never cared for any of the retellings of The Fall of Reach. Not one of them.
Not the game (and I do have many thoughts on the game), not the comic, not the animated adaptation (of the comic)… I always felt that they were a waste of time and resources that could’ve been spent telling other, newer stories. Sometimes, I still do.
But I’ve recently been following a streamer named Dee Bee Geek, who has primarily grown up with PlayStation and is now diving into Halo for the first time.
One of the things he’s watched is the Fall of Reach animated series, and it struck me while watching his reactions that I finally ‘got it.’
After half-a-decade of dismissing it, I reevaluated my thoughts upon seeing it through new eyes. Because those are the eyes it was meant for, somebody going into that story with absolutely no ‘baggage.’ And I finally realised what made it worthwhile.
And I still don’t care for it. I still have all of my grievances with it, but my issue was looking at it purely as something that should be pleasing me.
Because I love The Fall of Reach. I must admit that I hold it as being somewhat sacred for what it proved about transmedia in the gaming sphere.
Knowing the history behind the making of that book and the struggles Eric Nylund, Eric Trautmann, and the folks at Microsoft went through to prove they could build a substantial system-selling series with serious literature (which Bungie tried to ‘kill’) is context I cannot divorce from my experience of rereading that book.And I’ll always have that book. I can just glance to the left right now and it’s there on my shelf with its well-worn cover and thoroughly broken spine. It’s not going anywhere…
So what does it really matter if somebody else has that same kind of experience with the game, the comic adaptation, or the animated series? Is their enjoyment ‘lesser’ than my own because it’s not the original canonical text? (Hell no.)
One of the central tensions of fandom is the expectation of being catered to, and social media has only enabled the minutiae of those expectations to become ever more widespread around ideas that take hold.
And it’s fine for us to have expectations, to have things we hold to a lofty standard, to want things of a story. We all do that. I do that.
But I think that there’s a tremendous responsibility for us long-time fans to know when we need to take a step back and realise, to be blunt, we’re not always the priority.
Twenty years later, it’s the new generation’s ballpark. They’re the ones who are going to be doing the bulk of the job of sustaining the series, and gatekeeping the ‘true’ story (or mechanics, or whatever it is) is both unhelpful and only likely to drive people away.
Critique, yes. Absolutely. We’re still going to have things that we dislike, we’re still going to have a voice that gets heard, but that must also come with some measure of humility.
The stuff we love will still be there.
The last thing to cover here is the most loaded, and I’ve somewhat buried the lede up to this point, but quite frankly it has to be said that the community’s reaction to the casting news has been thoroughly disappointing.
In an interview with Olive Gray, who is portraying Miranda Keyes, she said:
“Even the fact that my character in the game is white has been a massive topic that has been discussed over Twitter by Halo fans, with… varying opinions about that.”
Some reactions to Gray being cast in the role of Miranda led her to step away from the online chatter for the sake of her “well-being and joy,” she tells Den of Geek. “I would turn off my Twitter notifications and not follow those things.” [Louisa Mellor, Den of Geek – ‘Halo TV Series: Olive Gray on Miranda Keyes and “New Twists”‘ (3/4/2020)]
This is absolutely tragic.
The series hasn’t even finished filming and instead of feeling a warm welcome from the community, Gray has instead been moved to distance herself from it.
It’s a truly astonishing new low that should absolutely be condemned.
The discourse itself around casting people of colour as characters who have previously been depicted as white has often brought up the go-to ‘gotcha!’ question of “Well, what if they cast Johnson with a white actor?”
And it’s always Johnson, of course, because you can count the number of major black characters in the Halo games on one hand, and folks seem keen to avoid talking about Kojo Agu – Romeo in Halo 3: ODST – being portrayed by Nolan North (who also played Sergeant Forge that same year), and other ‘colour-blind’ casting in the series.
“Even though you may see characters of color represented on screen, you can’t see the faces of the people hired to do the voices,” Gaskins said. “Historically, white people did all the voices including those horrible imitations of what Asians, blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans were supposed to sound like.”
[…] “It’s easy to find someone who can emulate an accent, but it’s important to have someone who actually has a tie to a character’s background and history.” [Saleah Blancaflor (quoting Rudy Gaskins and Andrea Toyias), NBC News – ‘Has Hollywood’s diversity discussion reached voice acting?’ (3/4/2018)]
It may occur to you that it’s a totally unfair double-standard that black characters aren’t made white, and if we were to assume that all things are equal in this world then you would be quite right.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the case.
List off any number of white characters, particularly those who are central figures in popular culture (and you’re really spoiled for choice here), who have their ‘whiteness’ as a defining trait.
Now do the same for black characters (indeed, any non-white character). How many traditionally black characters have ‘being black’ (or whatever their ethnicity or culture it is that differs from ‘white-as-default’) as a defining trait?
Johnson is a great example here. The origin of this character in Halo: Combat Evolved was that he was literally copied and pasted from Sergeant Apone in Aliens, right down to his dialogue.
The mannerisms and speech of these characters are hard-coded as ‘black,’ which cannot be transposed onto a white person – and I invite you here to find me an example of this which isn’t hideously racist.To put it simply: There are very few traditionally white roles where ‘whiteness’ is central to their character, and there are very few traditionally black roles where ‘being black’ isn’t.
To this day, white actors have the freedom to play any role, including characters of colour.
The most cursory study of this will reveal deeply racist caricatures with white actors in blackface and yellowface. From Shakespeare’s Othello and other European theatrical productions, through the 18th and into – perhaps most famously – the Antebellum period of the early 19th century, all the way up to today.
Non-white actors, by contrast, are often passed over – even for characters of colour. And when they’re not, it’s still often white writers and directors who are telling their stories.
Making a woman the face of the macho Gears series may be a bold move, but if you go by her last name, Kait is also a Hispanic woman being played by a white actor, Laura Bailey.
It’s far from the first time Bailey has played other races, including a Chinese woman in Binary Domain and, most notably, black mercenary Nadine Ross in Uncharted 4. Similarly, we’ve seen other white actors taking on roles of other ethnicities, such as Troy Baker as Hong Kong-born dictator Pagan Min in Far Cry 4 or Melissa Hutchison as Clementine in Telltale’s The Walking Dead series. Bailey even reprised her role of Nadine in Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, alongside Claudia Black who plays Chloe Frazer, an Australian woman with Indian heritage. [Alan Wen, The Verge – ‘The gray area for casting characters of color in games’ (19/2/2020)]
Perhaps one of the most well-known modern examples of this is Lavender Brown in Harry Potter. In the film adaptations of The Chamber of Secrets and The Prisoner of Azkaban, she is portrayed by Kathleen Cauley and Jennifer Smith respectively – two black actresses.
But when we get to The Half-Blood Prince, where she becomes a major character throughout the story as Ron’s girlfriend, Jessie Cave – a white actress – was cast instead.
In a series spanning seven books/eight films, there are a grand total of five black characters out of more than one-hundred-and-sixty (Angelina Johnson, Dean Thomas, Kingsley Shacklebolt, Blaise Zabini, and Lee Jordan – all of whom are tertiary).
This is not ‘an exception.’ This disproportion is a systemic issue.
There’s this idea that people get up in arms over a non-white character being cast with a white actor, yet it’s when it’s the other way around that the literal hate campaigns and boycotts actually start.
It’s the same story every time, the same language used, the same cycle of racist abuse.
John Boyega’s casting in The Force Awakens, Kelly Marie Tran in The Last Jedi, Sonequa Martin-Green in Star Trek: Discovery, Amandla Stenberg as Rue in The Hunger Games, Michael B. Jordan in Fantastic Four, Anya Chalotra as Yennefer in The Witcher, Halle Bailey as Ariel in The Little Mermaid, Quvenzhané Wallis in Annie, Leslie Jones in Ghostbusters, the idea of Idris Elba as Bond…
The list goes on. And on.
And it’d be really nice if this community didn’t add the the names of this cast to that list. These people shouldn’t be made to feel uncomfortable when they’ve barely taken their first step through the door.
“Fans often seem to believe that if a character is changed from white to black, they will no longer be able to identify with that superhero” Aaron Kashtan, a postdoctoral fellow at Georgia Tech who teaches a course on transmedia storytelling, wrote in an email to me. Kashtan adds that this is an example of “unconscious or overt racism” – a point underlined by the fact that the barriers to identification are so clearly arbitrary. [Noah Berlatsky, The Atlantic – ‘The Incoherent Backlashes to Black Actors Playing “White” Superheroes’ (20/2/2014)]
“Just make new non-white characters” is another nice idea that is once again founded in that fantasy of equality.
From the start, they are engaged with in bad faith. Jameson Locke and Holly Tanaka are prime examples of this in Halo, the discussion around whom revolves entirely around parroting the same handful of bullet point phrases – “They’re boring” – without ever actually engaging with the character (and those people making it their business to slant any positive discussion about them towards that).
In the case of Miranda Keyes, she’s a character who was constantly ‘done dirty’ by Bungie.
The original conception of the character came from Jason Jones having a bad breakup, so Miranda was conceived to betray the Master Chief to get revenge for her father’s death in Halo 1 by making a deal with the Prophets, which the Chief would’ve discovered after collecting a trinket for her…
“There was this scene which will go down in the untold lore of Bungie [where] Miranda staps a bomb to the Master Chief’s back and shoves him down a hole, and it was this horrible scene of betrayal, and, uh, Jason was going through a rather difficult break-up at the time. I think that might’ve had something to do with it.” [Joseph Staten, The Making of ‘Inside Halo 2,’ X03 2003 (3:07)]
She was entirely forgotten about by the writing committees for Halo 3, and only begrudgingly included by Martin O’Donnell to be killed off to make it feel like there might be things at stake because he watched Serenity.
I hear nothing on these far more loaded issues, the only hill there seems to be to die on is how important her whiteness is.The question of “What if they made Johnson white?” cannot exist separately from this context – the systems that actively work against non-white actors (and other roles behind the camera).
“Pushing an agenda” is often said in a derogatory fashion, and yes… without an agenda to push for positive change, nothing gets done.
I’m glad to see that Halo is actively looking to be part of the solution rather than contributing to the problem.
Again, the meritocracy argument rears its head. Shouldn’t the role just go to the best actor? And if people of color are able to play white or nondescript roles, why not the other way around?
But the reality is that these equal opportunities don’t really stand up to scrutiny when people of color still have significantly fewer roles available to them. “It’s only fair if the talent pool is a 50-50 split between the marginalized and the not so marginalized,” Tran argues. “You’re not trying to say the best person we could find is a white person to play a black person when you only have 5 percent black people in your talent pool instead of half.”
If marginalized people have fewer opportunities, then it stands to reason they’re more likely to be at a disadvantage in terms of experience and skill set. While the solution might be to just sharpen your skills, that still doesn’t address the socio-economic divide some actors face. “There are friends and peers of mine who can’t find the time to study their craft, and they are usually marginalized groups,” Tran explains. “They can’t study because they can’t find time because they’re too busy working, so meritocracy comes down to who has the time to study their craft and afford the classes. When you think about it that way, it’s stacked against them.” [Alan Wen and Kimlinh Tran, The Verge – ‘The gray area for casting characters of color in games’ (19/2/2020)]
TRUTH AND RECONCILIATION
The last five years has been a huge period of change in my life. As I’ve gotten older, and hopefully a little wiser, the battles I prioritise fighting have changed. Experience in teaching and production has altered my perspective on the nature of being a fan, and the years since Halo 5 has been nothing if not an important period of self-reflection on what kind of fan I want to be. What voice do I want to have?
And so, I quite simply find myself in a position where – taking those steps back where I would’ve previously been more self-interested – I am tremendously excited by the stories this show has to tell.
The family drama between Halsey, Jacob, and Miranda is something we’ve never properly seen before, it’s only been peripherally referenced.
The Master Chief interacting with these new Spartan-II characters (Vannak-134, Riz-028, and Kai-125) strikes me as a great new dynamic to see in action. We don’t typically see John working in any substantial capacity with Spartan-IIs who aren’t Blue Team.
Pablo Scheiber is a fantastic casting choice, I can’t wait to see his take on this iconic hero. And Yerrin Ha’s character, Quan Ah, seems to be positioned in a similar fashion to Thomas Lasky in Forward Unto Dawn in how their stories will intersect.Shabana Azmi is likewise inspired casting for Margaret Parangosky. Despite appearing prominently in several novels, she still feels like a relatively ill-defined character. To see her brought to life like this is something that feels long overdue.
Makee being an orphaned child raised by members of the Covenant absolutely has precedence in the lore, given that humans are Reclaimers. A group of Covenant discovering and exploiting this has always seemed an inevitable story to tell.
And it’s a story we’ve already seen echoes of in Halo 2, Halo 3, Halo Wars, and Halo 4, where human characters are kidnapped to activate Forerunner technology. Miranda, Johnson, Anders, Glassman…
The difference is that this is a long-form television show. That changes the kind of stories you can tell, compared to a three-act structured video game where events move much more quickly (which necessitates that characters hastily escape from those situations).
Soren-066, previously featured in Halo: Evolutions’ ‘Pariah’, has always been a tantalising loose end as well. Seeing the Chief go up against one of his own may well be the realisation of that aspect of Halo 5’s story we’ve been waiting to see come to fruition.It’s entirely likely that this show simply isn’t being made for a fan like you or I. But I just can’t find it in myself to be up in arms about that when there’s literally two decades of fiction that is – with even more still on the way. But laying out the storylines like that, this sounds like it’s going to be doing a lot of things I’ve wanted to see.
We’ve been in this position before with the likes of Halo: Legends and Halo: Reach where extensive and far more problematic liberties have been taken and misconceptions have arisen. Ten years later, some people still think Halsey is Jorge’s mother, and that Cortana was created at the end of Reach under SWORD Base…
Storytelling doesn’t (and shouldn’t) stop to consider that people who categorise things on a wiki are going to have a bit of a harder job curating the absolute facts. No disrespect to the fine work that those people do, but Halo doesn’t exist to service that.
Stories aren’t about facts, that’s why they’re called stories. The Earth will keep turning. We’ll figure it out.
Hoping for the show to fail or be cancelled demonstrates far more cynicism than what’s gone into this production. I feel like a positive voice has been sorely lacking at a high-level in the community discourse, and, while I certainly don’t expect to change peoples’ minds, I do hope that this has perhaps done something to broaden some perspectives for things we may not have considered.
I get it. This protectiveness comes from a place of passion, of love for the series, and the love of a fan is a very selfish kind of love because it’s so ingrained in our personal experience. But sometimes we need to self-reflect and consider where that’s taking us.
Looking beyond ourselves is where we can find a greater truth, and, perhaps, some measure of reconciliation with our grievances.
To conclude: I want to extend a warm welcome to the cast and crew as they join the Halo family. We’re embarking on the next big step of this Great Journey, and I can’t wait to see what they’ve come up with!