Radiation by Fiona Rae


The immortals

During the plague, I’ve been amusing myself by watching a show about immortality. In the world of Ad Vitam, a French series on Netflix, Covid-19 wouldn’t exist; disease apparently doesn’t and death hardly at all.

The reason for this is “regeneration”, a process finagled from jellyfish that allows humans to renew themselves. As the series begins, billions of people have just celebrated the birth of the world’s oldest woman, who is 169, but doesn’t look a day over 45.

The lead character, detective Darius Asram (Yvan Attal) is 119, his wife, who is newly pregnant, is 84.

Ah, but imagine what that does to the world. Young people are forced into an extended adolescence, minors until they are 30 while their entitled boomer parents zap themselves youthful. Overpopulation has led to a proposed ban on new births, although Benidorm, where the series was mostly filmed, doesn’t look that crowded.

With such long lives, citizens must retrain after 33 years and are only allowed three terms in one job. Darius has been a cop for nearly 99 years.

The French do love a careworn police officer – think of Julien Baptiste – and Darius, despite regeneration, looks older than everyone else, which is something of a relief. He is haunted by the loss of his son and at 119, he’s the definition of ennui, especially when he starts investigating seven murders that are connected to a youth suicide cult from 10 years before.

Ad Vitam is not big-budget sci-fi such as, say, Westworld. Technology doesn’t seem to have advanced that much; the phones are a bit fancier and the cars are electric. It’s a world that has given itself over to the idea of perpetual youth. It looks boring.

Immortality is the theme of Altered Carbon, also on Netflix, except it’s a straight-out actioner. Joel Kinnaman was in the first series and Anthony Mackie in the second, although they are the same person, Takeshi Kovacs (Will Yun Lee), downloaded via a “cortical stack” into different bodies. 

Altered Carbon is based on a book by Richard K Morgan, which perhaps you need to read, because the show is often confusing. The best character is Edgar Poe (Chris Conner), a digital construct who helps Kovacs and displays more real emotion than the rest of the cast combined.

Immortality is a sub-plot in Westworld, on Sky’s SoHo channel, although for a while I thought that was where the show was heading, a world where the rich could download themselves into new bodies.

However, Delos founder James Delos, played with fury by Scottish actor Peter Mullan, tried and failed. “The project doesn’t work, at least not yet,” Anthony Hopkins’ cryptic Ford told the perpetually confused Bernard (Jeffrey Wright). Bernard is suffering his own case of ennui after learning he is a host, based on Ford’s creative partner Arnold Weber.

After a circular and frustrating second season, Westworld’s overriding preoccupation in season three is predetermination. In the real world in 2058, a quantum artificial intelligence system called Rehoboam knows more about us than we do ourselves and is not just using the information to sell us homewares or presidents. The system has been locking everyone into a predetermined life course and escaped Westworld host Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), who understandably has a thing about being locked into a life loop, has hacked Rehoboam and released everyone’s files. Weirdly, this seems to have caused civil unrest rather than universal concern about the unbridled power of a private technology company.

There’s another quantum computer in Devs, also on SoHo and available on Neon. It’s an elegant device housed in a floating box in a concrete bunker in the middle of a forest. Devs, created by Alex Garland, goes the whole hog on determinism; anything anyone does and has ever done is cause and effect, which has led the show’s two leading geniuses, played by Nick Offerman and Alison Pill, to just lie back and let it all happen, confident that the universe is unfolding exactly as it should. Offerman’s character is called Forest, in case you didn’t get the allusion.

The show is slow and quiet, except for the amazing avant-garde music, so to liven things up, there’s quite a bit of murdering, mostly by Zach Grenier’s security chief Kenton. Will computer engineer Lily (Sonoya Mizuno) somehow defy logic? Arguably, anything she does is predetermined, but perhaps, this once, in the finale, the machine will be wrong.

These high-concept sci-fi shows, which are wrestling with unsolvable problems or thought experiments, risk being unable to come to a resolution, and TV really relies on the big finale.

In season three, Westworld has introduced a new villain in Vincent Cassel’s Serac and mounted some terrifically exciting action sequences featuring Dolores as a kind-of Terminator T-X 3.0, but so often, the show gets lost in its own loop and I hope it can deliver.

Sometimes I long for the simpler days of the best sci-fi show of all time, Battlestar Galactica, in which the Cylons cut to the chase and tried to kill everyone. That’s a real human story.

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