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Entry updated 20 May 2020. Tagged: TV.

US tv series (2015-2018). Anarchos Publications/Georgeville Television/Javelin Publications. Created, part directed and part written by J Michael Straczynski, Andy (now Lilly) Wachowski and Larry (now Lana) Wachowski. Other directors include Dan Glass, James McTeigue, Tom Tykwer. Continuing cast (all 12 episodes) includes Freema Agyeman, Amil Ameen, Doona Bae, Jamie Clayton, Tina Desai, Tuppence Middleton, Max Riemelt, Miguel Angel Silvestre, Brian J Smith. Cast also includes Naveen Andrews, Daryl Hannah, Alonso Herrera, Purab Kohli, Terence Mann, Max Mauff. 12 60-minute episodes. Colour.

Sf readers will immediately detect echoes of Theodore Sturgeon's More Than Human (fixup 1953) in those passages of Sense8 that seem intended to humanize the eight-protagonist gestalt at its heart by suggesting that Psi-Powered love is all you need to grok, alone or in teams. But given the sixty-year gap between the two stories, and a welcome decision on the part of The Wachowskis and Straczynski not to adhere to Young Adult shibboleths, major differences can be detected. Perhaps the most telling distinction of all lies in a reversal of explanatory field, one that may also say something about the darkening of the twenty-first century world: the coming-of-age characters in More Than Human represent a forward move in the course of Evolution, with the gestalt being a step in the right direction; the characters in Sense8, on the other hand, represent a survival of the original human race, with normal humans being seen – tacitly but unmistakably in season one – as Mutant stock (see Devolution), half-crippled, half-deaf, half-blind, half-dumb. The mystery, which is not solved in the first season, is how, millennia earlier, the afflicted came to conquer Earth.

Hints are given, however, that a cadre of Secret Masters may have been manipulating events from behind the scenes, presumably from time immemorial. These hints are conveyed in sequences conspicuously beholden to the shadow of David Mitchell, the film version of whose novel Cloud Atlas (2004) – Cloud Atlas (2012) – had just a few years earlier been written and directed by Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski. Secret masters may be absent from that novel, though it conveys a powerful sense that the lives of individual humans, like those comprising the Sense8 gestalt are synchronously iterated and reiterated through time, each individual being perceivable as a tarot-card-like palimpsest whose essential characteristics come to the surface – like musical leitmotifs, or Doppelgangers – at moments of crisis or high significance, sometimes under the rod of Amnesia, sometimes wakefully. And in novels like Ghostwritten (1999), number9dream (2002), and particularly The Bone Clocks (2014), where secret masters seem to govern these synchronicities, the influence of Mitchell on Sense8 seems all the more telling.

The story-arc is ambitious. Eight young (but mostly not juvenile) men and women, in eight cities around the world, begin to discover inexplicable affinities with one another; suddenly, though at first intermittently, they find themselves gazing through each others eyes, or becoming visible to one another (though not to others), or experiencing Identity Transfer or actual bodily transpositions (where one of the eight in his or her own person takes over the actions of one of the others, almost invariably in order to save them from peril). These consanguinities increase in frequency and intensity as the eight begin to understand that they are being called together in order to protect themselves against an enemy – represented in the first season by a sole secret master figure, the powerfully sinister Mr Whispers (Mann), with whom eye contact can be deadly – whose goal is to cripple their gestalt abilities. Even before the eight begin to understand something of the universal scope of the story they star in, the consequences of Mr Whispers's actions are heavy, for the act of crippling is tantamount to lobotomy.

With eight protagonists to flesh out, and an exceedingly complicated pattern of mutual engagement to trace, Sense8 is both confusing and cartoonish for long stretches, certainly as far as dialogue and characterization are concerned. If the first season is saved from Cliché, it is almost certainly through the decision to locate each of the eight protagonists in a separate real City: Berlin, Chicago, Los Angeles, Mexico City, Mumbai, Nairobi, Reykjavik and Seoul; with some scenes in London. This adherence to locations adds powerfully to the richness of the story told, if for no other reason than that the superflux of intricate life-filled footage that almost drowns the story could not be made "meaningful" in the classic film industry manner, where nothing found or "extraneous" is allowed to problematize mise en scene. At the end of the first season, Sense8 is far richer than the story it tells.

Some of the patterns that tie the various tales together are inherently rewarding, all the same, even if there is only time to sketch them. Each of the eight protagonists – Wolfgang Bogdanow (Riemelt) in Berlin, Will Gorski (Brian J Smith) in Chicago, Nomi Marks (Clayton) in Los Angeles, Lito Rodriguez (Silvestre) in Mexico City, Kala Dandekar (Desai) in Mumbai, Capheus (Ameen) in Nairobi, Riley Blue (Middleton) in Reykjavik and Sun Bak (Bae) in Seoul – is engagingly and intensely engaged in a life crisis, often involving the law, and overpoweringly mediated governed by Sex or its temporary absence; the transgender romance between Nomi and Amanita (Agyeman) (see Transgender SF), which is particularly joyful in its execution, conveys a normative reading of interactions that some viewers might find transgressive, while moving the plot ahead ingeniously. Not all of the eight's life crises seem to have been engendered by Mr Whispers, though much remains to be told. A temporary resolution in Iceland, with Whispers defeated for the nonce, leaves almost everything to tell.

There are some danger signs. The Seven Samurai "band of warriors with special powers" trope, for instance, though only hinted at, could bring Sense8 far too close to Superhero country (for Seven Samurai see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below) for the comfort of adult watchers. And various budding romances among the eight could leach Sense8's makers' attention from the far more difficult and rewarding task of maturing the story so promisingly begun: a story in which secret masters attempt to extirpate the original form of Homo sapiens, leaving normal humanity clearly vulnerable to some dark intent. (Echoes of the Wachowskis' previous effort, Jupiter Ascending [2015], come inevitably to mind; it is to be hoped that these assonances are a false positive.) [JC]


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