In the universe of Beacon 23, humankind has perfected intergalactic travel, effectively allowing people to live in space. The televisual adaptation of Silo author Hugh Howey’s short story collection is a strange and mesmerizing product. While the series brilliantly uses the infinite nature of space to get to the heart of human estrangement, it’s also bogged down by the lack of narrative momentum, content as it is to simply dwell in its own air of intrigue and mystery. Nevertheless, following in the footsteps of mystery box sci-fi dramas like Severance, the series’ tendency toward the cerebral might actually be its most promising element.
Set in the 23rd century, Beacon 23 follows an ex-soldier, Halan (Stephan James), who is suddenly thrust into the role of keeper of the titular beacon. In this world, beacons are intergalactic lighthouses that steer incoming spacecrafts away from debris. For hundreds of years, beacon keepers live alone with only an AI as companionship, and a recurrent theme in Beacon 23 is the unyielding loneliness that keepers like Halan face. This changes, however, when a ship nearby crashes, leaving lone survivor Aster (Lena Headey) stuck on Beacon 23 with Halan. From the first episode, it’s established that neither Aster nor Halan are who they purport to be, and the series’ refusal to clarify their respective intentions provides adequate suspense for its limited season order. (A second season is already underway.)
Unlike the expansive production value of Apple TV+’s Silo, the entirety of Beacon 23 takes place in the confined setting of the beacon; to its credit, Beacon 23 cleverly navigates its claustrophobic atmosphere, often introducing different characters every other episode to explore the budding and conflicted friendship that Aster and Halan share. But at times, Beacon 23’s portrayal of Halan’s experience as a keeper feels contrived, as the series prefers blunt proclamations of loneliness rather than actually investing in a substantial exploration of its characters’ backgrounds. Headey’s Aster suffers the same fate, as her interactions with Halan swing from friendly to distrusting without any thematic explanation, making any grasp of the dynamics between the main protagonists a tall order. Both Headey and James, however, give momentous performances with the scant material they have been dealt with, and this elevates what could have been a case of a subpar script sinking the ship into something far greater that what’s on paper.
Oddly enough, the episodes without Aster or Halan imbue Beacon 23 with the exciting potential for a much improved sophomore season. One episode sees a flashback to 180 years ago, when Beacon 23 had a different keeper named Sophie (Barbara Hershey), though accompanied by the same AI that presently runs the beacon. In storylines like these, the series is able to shift from the tension of Aster and Halan dealing with various invaders to a contemplative discussion on the dangers of relying on AI, as well as the unbearable sacrifices that people make in order to be loved. While this self-contained episode may be seen as a deviation from Aster and Halan’s arcs, it informs the narrative’s present day and also deftly sets the ground for a much more in-depth look at the pitfalls of scientific hubris, whereby the importance of human connection is abandoned for the sake of technological progress. Sophie’s disturbing and doomed intimacy with the beacon’s AI also raises the stakes for Aster and Halan, who have not yet begun to question their reliance on their respective AI companions.
There’s a striking visual motif that recurs throughout Beacon 23: the portrait of a single man standing outside of a lighthouse, while the waves threaten to consume him whole. Does he make it back inside? Is he there as a final act of despair? Is there anyone else waiting for him in the lighthouse? The ambiguity is intentional, and it’s precisely the not knowing that constitutes the tragedy. Neither Halan nor Aster know their purpose in the beacon; Halan isn’t the original keeper, and Aster, who was tasked with stealing relics on board the beacon, sacrificed her chances of escape to save Halan. The beacon keeps drawing them back without answers. Sophie was trapped alone in the beacon with an AI who betrayed her, and this same tragic fate may very well await Aster and Halan. But for now, all can they do is trust one another.
CREATOR: Zak Penn; CAST: Lena Headey, Stephan James, Marnie McPhail, Daniel Malik; DISTRIBUTOR: MGM+; STREAMING: November 12