When I heard that Babylon 5’s creator J.M. Straczynski would be teaming up with the Wachowskis for this project I was beyond excited: Babyon5 holds a very special place in my SF “pantheon”, since it’s the show that changed my perceptions and preferences for televised science fiction in a major way, so I was quite looking forward to enjoying more of its creator’s work. With this I don’t mean to make short shrift of the Wachowskis’ work, not by a long shot, but I’m not as familiar with it as I am with Straczynski’s: of course I recognized the famous siblings’ hand in many places of this show (like the slow-motion fight scenes that reminded me of Matrix, or the seamless shifts in perspective I already admired in Cloud Atlas), but what I was looking for here was more of the magic that captivated me with Babylon 5.
Sense8 imagines that eight people, scattered all over the world, find themselves able to share their consciousness connecting in a way that allows them to perceive each other’s thoughts, emotions and experiences. The group (or sensate) whose story we follow is made from very different people: Will, a Chicago policeman; Capheus, an independent bus driver from Nairobi; Sun, one of the CEOs of a Korean financial firm; Riley, a DJ born in Iceland and working in London; Nomi, a trans-gender political blogger and hacker from San Francisco; Wolfgang, a Berlin safe cracker; Kala, an Indian girl about to be married; and Lito, a Mexican actor trying to hide he’s gay. Their “birth” as a sensate happens when Angelica, another gifted individual, triggers their connection in a scene mirroring actual childbirth: Angelica is assisted – mentally if not physically – by her lover Jason who warns her someone is on her tracks. It’s the mysterious and chilling Mr. Whispers, who – as we will soon learn – scours the world in search of sensates: it’s clear that this new evolutionary step in the human race engenders equal fear and curiosity, and the last parting message from Angelica to her “children”, before committing suicide, is a warning about being hunted for what they are.
Of course the eight initially believe they are losing their mind: how could it be otherwise when you find yourself confronted with people only you can see, or are transported in a faraway place without warning? But little by little, and with the help of Jason who – despite being a fugitive on the run – tries to impart necessary information for the group’s survival, they start to understand what they are and even to cooperate with each other in times of need, at them same time strengthening the bonds between them. All this while being hunted – and persecuted – by Mr. Whispers and his minions….
I must admit that the first two episodes of Sense8, that I watched back-to-back, were somehow disappointing: despite the fascinating premise, despite my understanding that the show needed to introduce the eight main characters and that this would require time, I found the pace very slow. I also understand now, with hindsight, that I was disappointed in not finding the same deep, spell-binding speeches that were the trademark of Babylon5 (some of which I even committed to memory…), while here the dialogue is quite spare by comparison: there was a small voice inside my head crying that it wanted “it all back the way that it was” (and yes, that’s a B5 quote in case you’re wondering). I asked myself – as did some friends with whom I discussed the show – where JMS’ imprint was in all of this.
Yet I persisted. And was rewarded.
Sense8 is the kind of story that grows on you, that builds up piece by piece like a puzzle: it requires patience, and faith. What I perceived as slowness was instead the painstaking buildup of the shared consciousness between the eight strangers: we see events through their eyes and at the beginning they know nothing at all and so we, the viewers, must stumble along the road as they do. Like the newborns they are they collect, slowly and sometimes painfully, whatever clues cross their path, like a baby’s their sight is blurry and only with time are they able to focus on what they are and what they can be, and do. There is an interesting scene in second-to-last episode in which each of them remembers/experiences the moment of their birth: even if the repetition might seem excessive, it serves to underline how they are truly being born again in that moment, when the bond connecting them finally solidifies.
The core story is not about unknown talents waking up among normal humans, it’s about ordinary people finding themselves in extraordinary circumstances and having to deal with them to the best of their abilities. About finding your strength in the most unlikely places. And here I found what I was looking for, what JMS does best – giving you a wonderful insight into the human soul. Each one of the main characters is somewhat flawed: their personal history hides a trauma, or a weakness – or both. The journey they start, first alone and then together, requires them to overcome those faults or work around them, and at the same time help the others along the way: not everyone succeeds, not everyone is strong enough to make it, but they do try – and it’s enough. By the end of this first run of episodes I came to care for each of these characters, both the ones that were instantly likable – like Capheus or Riley – and the ones that required more work – like Nomi or Wolfgang – because they gave so little away of themselves that it felt like there was an impenetrable barrier between me and them. But as their lives, and their past, were revealed in small, incremental brush-strokes, I saw them for who they were and rooted for them, worried about what happened to them. Little by little, through the magic of good writing and acting, they had become real. This is indeed what JMS does best, get you invested in a character’s life, make them become flesh and blood people you care about, even the ones that start out as not-so-likable. This is one of the best surprises of the story-arc, that our perception of these people changes over time, because in the end “no one here is exactly what they appear”, as another famous B5 quote goes.
This first season of Sense8 is therefore more dedicated to laying the groundwork for what must come, and the time devoted to it was time indeed well spent: Season Two will certainly take us into the heart of the matter. I more than look forward to it.