Beacon 23 season 2 review: A storytelling reset can’t fix this unwieldy sci-fi show

Beacon 23
Beacon 23

In its first season, Beacon 23 billed itself as a sci-fi series about trust. In the farthest regions of the galaxy, a beacon (namely, a space lighthouse) was the setting for a constant cat-and-mouse game between Halan (Stephan James) and Aster (Lena Headey). Each had ulterior motives for being there, and the story of what happened to the beacon keeper who had preceded them soon unspooled as a preamble to an increasingly intricate mythology about quantum A.I., rogue algorithms, mythic minerals, a rebellion, and even a budding romance. After the shocking final moments of its season-one ender, the MGM+ series returns on April 7 with an equally sprawling and unwieldy sophomore outing that feels particularly insular to new or even partly curious viewers.

We open with the very moments that had closed out that shocking season finale: Aster, who’d been ever more under the spell of the mysterious artifact she’d known since childhood, has been shot. She’s bleeding profusely, collateral damage to the standoff between Aleph (Eric Lange), an all-powerful artificial intelligence intent on getting information about the artifact by whatever means necessary, and a group of rebels devoted to destroying Aleph and freeing humankind from his influence. In the middle of it all is Halan, who now finds himself mourning the loss of Aster, her personal A.I. Harmony (Natasha Mumba), and those pesky rebels whom Aleph quite briskly then kills off once Halan goes rogue and explodes the artifact before attempting an escape. It’s all to no avail. Angered, Aleph brings Halan’s ship back and locks him in the beacon.

Beacon 23

C+

C+

Beacon 23

season

2

We begin, then, exactly where we were at the start of last season: with Halan alone in beacon 23, unable to leave with no one to help him and few options in the form of possible allies or collaborators. There’s a feeling of a reset, especially given the way Headey’s swift exit leaves a character and storytelling vacuum of sorts. She and James had such thrilling chemistry that it’s a shame this season has to do without it. Instead, and as was customary in season one, the next seven episodes shuttle between Halan’s attempts at getting out and sorting out the mysteries of the universe Aster’s left him with and a number of tangentially related storylines.

Beacon 23’s attempts to be both a distinctly episodic offering as well as a serialized narrative centered on Halan (whose military past yet again finds its way into his present situation) are only intermittently successful. The need to be introduced to new characters in almost every new installment, each weighted with hefty backstory and enough characterization to make us care for them, starts to get exhausting, even as new additions to the cast like Ellen Wong (as another beacon keeper) nicely offset the sour notes James is called to play ad nauseam as Halan.

On that point, the most interesting focus of season two is the development of Harmony, Aster’s former personalized A.I. who is clearly evolving before our very own eyes. And it is in that characterization (as in Aleph’s, as well) that Beacon 23 feels like it keeps cornering itself into places its writing cannot seem to nail. Harmony as written is supposed to be an A.I. whose allegiance now puts her at odds with her maker, with Aleph, and her programming. In episode two, we’re transported to an office-like space where Harmony and other A.I.s are put to work as they await further assignments—and it’s there where she’s finally able to move through the world with a body that can pick up (and break) mugs that the show runs into the narrative and philosophical conundrums that risk bringing it all apart.

She’s an A.I. but in that space she’s not disembodied. She’s supposed to not have feelings yet anger and fear fuel her motivations. She’s driven into ever more human territories. But if the A.I. characters here are not substantially different than the human ones, where is the central tension between Aleph and, say, Halan? Between QTA, who runs the world, and the rebels who aim to defeat it?

And that’s all before the shape-shifting mysterious forces Halan encounters in space continue to thread together subplots that further create a spiderweb of mythology that proves tiresome. “I’m not sure what’s happening,” one character notes in episode four, in between black-and-white scenes that seem to exist at the intersection of a childish nightmare, an A.I.-hijacked vision, and a mystical daydream spurred by a mysterious intergalactic force. They could very well be describing what audiences may feel at any given point during Beacon 23’s second season.

Nevertheless, as sci-fi shows go, this is a handsomely mounted production that, despite its sole key location, finds ways of keeping its visuals arresting and engaging. And even as the series’ ambitious storytelling gets wildly out of hand, each new episode finds the right cliffhanger to end on—and keep avid fans on the edge of their seats.

Beacon 23 season 2 premieres April 7 on MGM+