The first season of sci-fi thriller Altered Carbon, that premiered on Netflix 2 decades ago, was a flashy, sleek and ultraviolent futuristic play that took Richard K Morgan’s cyberpunk novel and turned it into an addictive — if occasionally head-scratchingly complicated — cult string.
Much time has been spent setting up the stunningly-depicted ancestral world which orphan/soldier/rebel — and man of few words — Takeshi Kovacs (played with Joel Kinnaman in year one) inhabits.
It is a Blade Runner-esque future where individuals can store their awareness onto disks (‘piles’) embedded in their necks, that may be’split’ into new bodies when they become older, or their physical bodies (or’skins’) are killed, or when they just fancy a change.
While the premiere episode had Kovacs — on ice for 250 years following his role in an uprising by a team called the Envoys — defrosted and popped into a brand new skin so he can address a crime between super-rich businessman Bancroft (James Purefoy), over 10 episodes the series quickly became much more than a whodunnit.
It explored the divisions between rich and poor (the rich living in the heavens in shiny new bodies, the poor on the ground down below not able to manage such untoward upgrades), religion (Catholics are forbidden to spin up when they perish, they are dead forever) and individuality (is Kovacs nevertheless Kovacs in a new body, or does he take on a number of his host body’s traits?)
And, if it did not feature people beating different people’s faces, intense torture and rather too much gratuitous female nudity, it also had flashbacks exploring Takeshi’s past (from the body of Will Yun Lee) as a Envoy under the direction of rebel Quellcrist Falconer (Renée Elise Goldsberry) and his relationship with his sister Reileen (Dichen Lachman), stories that led to an exceptionally brutal finale.
By the end, half of the cast were dead, recovering from the weirdness in a quiet corner, or inhabiting bodies.
At the start of season two, it and Kovacs has been in several new skins on several worlds in the intervening years. That offers the series something of a clean slate and a new puzzle soon presents himself transferred into a new body (Anthony Mackie, marginally less brooding than his predecessor), Kovacs is asked to protect the life of another rich person, but the job is surprisingly short term when stated businessman is killed before Kovacs even offers a chance to draw breath into his new form. Oops.
There may be a time leap and a brand new’ Kovacs now around, but a lot of the show’s mythology stays — anybody joining the show for season two will be completely confused as little time is spent recapping or explaining what the hell happened in year one — which means a number of the most enjoyable characters return, too.
As well as figuring out another murder mystery, Kovacs is looking for his past love Quell’s pile that he believes is out there somewhere, and he still has the assistance of a quirky artificial intelligence version of Edgar Allen Poe (Chris Conner), that had been one of the joys of this first time.
However, just two of the most interesting characters are left behind and are sorely overlooked — Purefoy’s deliciously arrogant (and scene-stealing) Bancroft, also Kovacs’ tough police partner Ortega (Martha Higareda), who was truly the heart and soul of the very first year.
There are new characters to fill the gap, including the suspicious governor of the planet, Danica Harlan (Lela Loren) and shrewd writer Hideki (James Salto), but make as much of a feeling — that’s left to the most attractive new inclusion, bounty hunter Trepp (the terrific Simone Missick — best known as Marvel’s Misty Knight).
Her scenes are the most enjoyable, but there is still much shine, cool tech, action and plot twists to keep you interested when she isn’t on screen. And Mackie is a fun recruit, also, as he slickly delivers some of the clunkier pieces of sci-fi dialogue without making them sound dumb, and effortlessly slides into the role of tough, brutal (yet mushy on the inside) Takeshi Kovacs in this way that fans won’t overlook Kinnaman’s grittier interpretation too much.
There’s one progress on season one, also. Though the 2018 series featured some really powerful roles because of its female cast — as does season two with Harlan, Quell and Trepp — it was rightly criticized for the violence (often sexual) against girls and the aforementioned endless female nudity.
Thankfully, it seems the series manufacturers and founder Laeta Kalogridis have taken this on board, and this time round there’s not an inexplicable scene or a ridiculously see-through gown in sight.
Therefore, if you enjoyed navigating Kovacs’ complicated sci-fi story you’ll find the new series is a slick follow-up that delivers as much big-budget action and tension with fewer nipples on screen.
Modified Carbon year 2 starts Thursday, February 27 on Netflix