Hmm. What to say about Charlie Jade? It’s a freaky little SF show you’ve probably never heard of. I hadn’t, until Preston mentioned it in his blog. I was intrigued enough to go looking for the episodes. They were surprisingly easy to come by, given that the show has never aired in the US and isn’t on DVD. It was a Canadian/South African production set in Cape Town, which gives it a slightly alien feel even when it takes place in the here-and-now. Among other things, the variety of accents is great.
The basic premise is that there are three parallel universes. Alpha, where Charlie comes from, is very Blade Runnerish:
Beta is more or less our world, with occasional dreamlike moments:
And Gamma is a utopia:
Vexcor, a Big Evil Company™, hasn’t told the rest of the world that the other universes exist. Its execs are attempting to link the three universes so parched Alpha can suck Gamma dry. A couple from Gamma, understandably opposed to Vexcor’s scheme, bomb the reservoir where the link will be made. Charlie is near the facility when it goes and gets thrown into Beta along with one of the Gamma bombers.
Let me pause here to say that I love the name “Vexcor.” It’s like the company exists just to annoy people. This does in fact seem to be the case. We never learn how they make their money, although they appear to serve as the government for Alpha, or at least the parts of Alpha we see. And speaking of names, the show is very self-aware, so if you’re thinking that “Charlie Jade” is kind of a dumb name, hang on until episode #12 and he’ll tell you how he got it. In the episode after that, his perpetual stubble will be a topic of discussion. (There’s also a scene where he turns on someone’s electric razor but has no idea what to do with it.) I love the self-deprecating dialogue that turns up now and then.
Anyway, the story gets off to a very slow start. We’re introduced to Charlie, a PI who has weird visions that he can’t control — and he’d like to, because they distract him at inopportune times and generally come with nasty headaches. He’s had a long day at work when he stops at the office and trips over a lost woman who wants his help. She claims to be from Cape Town, but it’s Cape City here in Alpha, so Charlie has no idea what she’s talking about. At first it seems like the whole point of her plot thread is to move Charlie into position for the big explosion at the end of the episode, but much later we’ll find out there was a lot more going on with her. Charlie’s investigation does turn up some useful information about a guy named 01 Boxer, the son of Vexcor’s founder and the only known person who can move between universes at will. But I’m getting ahead of myself; Charlie doesn’t know about that part yet.
The first episode ends with the big explosion at the reservoir, kicking off the main arc. While our hero wanders around trying to figure out where he is, Vexcor scrambles to reestablish the link. Alas, an internal report suggests Beta might cease to exist if the permanent link is established. Oops. But hey, what’s six billion people when there’s a profit to be made? The biggest problem with the series is that all the characters we care about spend way too much time wandering around looking confused after the explosion. Granted, they’ve been tossed into an unfamiliar universe. Still, a memo to writers out there: give your protagonist a goal and do not leave him whining on someone’s couch for six episodes, or the viewers will wander off to do the dishes no matter how pretty he is. Especially when none of our other viewpoint characters are doing anything worth noting. These early episodes are yet another example of my ongoing gripe with SF: when you’ve told the audience what’s going on in a voiceover in the first five minutes, but it takes your hero (who did the damn voiceover) half a dozen episodes to figure it out, the audience is going to get restless.
So, six episodes in, Charlie quits whining and gets off the couch, and things get interesting in a really big way. Jeffrey Pierce is mesmerizing when the writers give him something to do; he does a lovely transformation from swaggering jackass to vulnerable kid in the flashbacks to Charlie’s past.
Things really start to cook in episode #7, “Diamonds” — not coincidentally, around the same time the score eases up on the OMG-teh-nonstop-drama and interjects some playful notes here and there. Charlie and his Beta buddy, Karl, discover a guy making big synthetic diamonds. (Evidently those don’t exist in Beta.) Karl theorizes that Vexcor’s planning to sell the synthetics in Beta, replacing all the natural diamonds there and selling the real ones in Alpha.
Charlie: Karl, you’d be a miserable detective. You jump to too many conclusions. You don’t ask enough questions.
Karl: Well, what else then?
Charlie (pointing to a scar on his wrist): See this?
Charlie: Everyone’s got one of these. Diamond microchip. They classify you, and then they tag you, and then they track you.
Karl: If he’s synthesizing these here, does that mean these are intended for use here?
Charlie: Now you’re asking the right question.
By the time Charlie shakes some answers out of 01 and starts to confront the fact that he has much, much bigger problems than getting back to his girlfriend in Alpha, I was well and truly sucked in to this show.
The plot is very twisty. Things you think you know turn out to be skewed — the lost woman from the first episode is far from the only example. While some characters are just caricatures, others have a surprising amount of depth given how little time they have to develop. The writing is pretty uneven, though. The characters sometimes make huge leaps of logic, or interject completely unrelated information into a conversation, just so the writers can get them where they need to go. I’m inclined to forgive them their jerky transitions just because they managed to pack so much weird shit into a mere 20 episodes, including a few duds and one flippin’ awesome clip show. (SRSLY. Best clip show ever.)
According to Wikipedia, the scripts for season 2 exist, but haven’t been produced. I doubt they ever will be; time has passed and the actors have moved on. It’s a damn shame, because it’s such a good show once it gets going, and there are so many unanswered questions…
- Are there any other universes we haven’t seen yet? A couple of times Charlie lands in a place labeled “Verse: Unknown,” but it’s not clear whether he just doesn’t know where he is or if he’s really in uncharted territory.
- What is the deal with water? Water seems to be the key to practically everything, but why?
- How are Charlie and 01 connected? How about Jodi?
- Why is 01 so very different in each universe? According to one thing I saw elsewhere, he’s a child in Alpha, an adolescent in Beta, and an adult in Gamma. But everyone else seems to be more or less the same when they’re elsewhere. I’m sure “he’s a psycho” is a valid answer here, but it would be nice if there were more to it than that.
- What’s up with the blue glass?
- Is there the slightest chance Essa was telling the truth when she said the execution hadn’t taken place?
- Charlie doesn’t seem to have heard of Greek mythology before he reads some of Karl’s books. Does the literature not exist in Alpha, or has it been suppressed for some reason, or is this just another result of Charlie’s upbringing?
Having seen this, I’m now wondering how much excellent SF might exist in other parts of the world without ever coming to the attention of US audiences. And I’m really wishing someone would film season 2 of this little gem.