I have finally got to the end of watching Sense8 on Netflix. The show originally ran from 2015 to 2018. It took me the last few months, on and off.
The show starts with Daryl Hannah alone in a ruined church.
Naveen Andrews appears next to her, but it seems that he is only present to her mind and is not physically materialised in the church.
A sinister beardy man also appears and taunts her. He remains present when his actual physical body turns up leading a group of special soldiers.
But he can’t prevent Angelica, as we now know her, from shooting herself.
Before she shot herself, we saw a rapid montage of some other people Angelica is somehow connected to – these are the 8 “sensates” of the title, now joined together in a telepathic cluster even though they’re separated all around the world. Naveen Andrews’s character Jonas is not in the cluster as birthed by Angelica but he can connect to it.
The cluster members are:
Riley “Blue” (actual surname Gunnarsdottir), an Icelandic house DJ working in London, whose dad is a distinguished classical pianist. Even though she’s supposed to be top of the game and much in-demand as the most brilliant groovecontroller at the hot decks, the only times we hear her sets they seem incredibly naff, especially when she wows a chamber full of hipsters with “What’s Up” by 4 Non-Blondes – the original, not a fancy techno reworking.
Lito Rodriguez, Mexican heartthrob and the hot-blooded macho star of numerous action thrillers and horrors in which he blasts the baddies and gets the girl. He is in fact a closet gay man in a relationship with a male film studies lecturer and a pretend-relationship with an actress. Later on he gets outed and decides to be honest about his life and tell his agents he won’t lie about himself anymore, even though he immediately has trouble getting work.
Sun Baek, the daughter of a major Korean banker based in Seoul. She’s the honest member of the family, as it turns out daddy and her brother had fiddles going on and she ends up taking the blame and going to prison. She is also a top kick-boxer.
Kala Dandekar, trained as a biochemist in Mumbai and engaged to marry into a more successful family that have a big pharmaceutical business. She takes her religion seriously, although she mixes with wealthy westernised people who are scornful.
Capheus Onyango, bus driver in Nairobi trying to make money to pay for medicine for his sick mum. He names his bus “Van Damn” after his favourite action hero actor. The actor for the role changed between the 2 series.
Wolfgang Bogdanow, a locksmith/safecracker in Berlin on the fringes of the various gangs that carve up the crime in the city. He didn’t get on with his dad, in fact he burned him to death and is happy to piss on his grave whenever he has to drop by the cemetery. He’s very good at his business and can pull off lots of top blags and get ahead of the other players, though that puts him and his best mate in trouble. He also seems to be an amazing part-time special forces soldier who can do incredible stunt shoot-outs when required, presumably learned from Call Of Duty since there’s no evidence he ever did any military service or played by the rules of regular society. In his flashbacks are memories of tensions between East and West after reunification.
Nomi Marks, a transwoman now in a relationship with Amanita (played by Freema Agyeman, as an American). She doesn’t get on with her family, who deadname her and don’t respect her new pronouns. She is also in contact with various figures in hacking/underground tech and was involved in various kinds of activism and whistleblowing.
Will Gorski, the Chicago police officer who also gets to look at the scene of Angelica’s death. Because he inadvertently gets in a psychic connection with the main baddie he ends up the de facto leader of the group by the end, even though some of the others are clearly better qualified.
Here’s the gang all together, though only Riley and Will are bodily present at the hideout in this scene:
What all these people first begin to experience is that they are momentarily present in the church with Angelica; they also have moments of connection with each other. When two members of the cluster connect they each see the other present within their own physical environment, so the same sequence plays back and two between 2 locations. Any non-cluster people present will just see the nearby member acting strangely, which may include talking out loud to someone invisible – this is a very odd part of the 8’s behaviour, their telepathic communications are never silent. It is unclear how the connection deals with incompatibilities between the 2 distant environments – if a person at one end is limited in how they can move in their space, are they always so limited at the other end?
There is also the special trick that different cluster members can temporarily take command of another’s body, speaking and moving with it. This is signalled with the actor replacing the other entirely in the scene, rather than simply hovering nearby. Most dramatically, Sun or Wolfgang can fill in the place of one of the less dynamic characters and supply some fast-moving, ass-kicking action. It can also be useful for Lito to bring his acting skills if some improvised deception is needed, or Kala can step in to do some magic with chemicals.
The shifts in materiality and embodiment create anomalies with movement in this universe. Take the sequence early in series 2, when Lito and chums go back to his apartment after he has been told his latest movie deal has been cancelled, as the producers invoked the “morals clause” in the wake of him being outed. He discovers that he can’t get back in to his fancy apartment in Mexico City and the caretaker won’t talk to him on the intercom.
First, Lito’s not getting any joy from the jobsworth on the phone.
He tries to smash through the door, with no luck. A hand helps him to get up.
…which seems to turn into Wolfgang. That’s an oddity in itself, as he would have been physically assisted by someone not physically present, also not controlling his body. There is no suggestion the 2 non-cluster people helped him under the brief control of the German.
Wolfgang now uses his burglar skills to fix the electronic lock. In the minds of the cluster boys, Lito stands to one side while Wolfgang does the work…
…but that’s not what the normies see.
The normies see their mate demonstrate a baffling new ability with electronics.
And he goes through the door that Wolfgang opens, but they don’t see Wolfgang.
But in Lito’s mindworld he went in after Wolfgang… but he must be in Wolfgang’s place, as Wolfgang was acting as Lito to effect change at this place… where is he, how did he move, exactly?
It’s never certain if cluster members present at another’s space can experience any aspect outside the experience of the member they are piggy-backing on. If they can, then they must be projecting as immaterial beings at the other locations rather than routing through the local physical connection. That goes against the general emphasis on physical embodiment, and the existence of a neural basis of these abilities, which can be suppressed or concealed with special drugs, or just some narcotics. Our gang never think too much about how and what they do exactly, as they never have to explain too much of it to anyone, and they’ve got bigger problems to worry about.
The backstory to this world is that our team are all Sensates, examples of Homo Sensorium, one of the alternative branches of human development that lost out to Homo Sapiens. They have these amazing capacities to connect and empathise with each other, and share their joys and sorrows. They have been surviving and keeping their clusters alive for thousands of years. Since the 1960s, scientists have begun to study them, and the BPO (Biological Protection Agency) is a secret trans-national organisation devoted to learning about them.
Originally, BPO was a peaceful scientific body devoted to learning about this secret branch of humanity. However it changed fundamentally “after 9/11”. Suddenly the important people needed new methods of control, and the control of any undesirable untrustworthy elements. This facilitated the rise of Milton “Whispers” Brandt, the beardy bespectacled evil scientist dude who was taunting and pursuing his renegade colleague Angelica at the start.
Whispers is a sensate himself, and he has a line that what he’s doing is protecting his own people with constructive collaboration with their main threat. But a lot of his work is devoted to lobotomising sensates so they become zombie-like and can be remotely controlled as assassins, something like the work of the secret killing agency in Possessor. The picture in the banner shows various BPO top brass aghast at witnessing someone getting their throat slit under the distant will of Whispers. Various insiders want to frustrate Whispers and are willing to co-operate with the cluster to defeat his plans. Richard Croome is useful until Whispers gets the better of him.
It turns out there are other clusters, and they are using their powers for bad rather than good. Lila is a nasty bit of work who pursues Wolfgang and then turns him over to Whispers.
There are also nice clusters, such as the one lead by “Old Man of Hoy” (Sylvester McCoy), who is the other cast member to have done a long stint in Doctor Who.
Not a sensate or a BPO worker, but I don’t think we’re to be too impressed by the awfully pleased-with-himself Professor Kolovi, who did some of the early research on the possibility of Homo Sensorium. Amanita wonders if he’s being totally honest with them, and it would have been a fantastic twist to have him finally turn out to be the mysterious, faceless Chairman of BPO… sadly, that doesn’t happen.
There are some other ways in which the theory and practice of sensates don’t quite make sense. It’s useful that everybody in this world speaks and understands English, as otherwise we’d have to figure out whether sensates have immediate command of all the knowledge of the member body they step into, and can auto-translate whatever they need to say when they take over mouth-control. There must be some universal mental language that everyone translates instantly into the relevant vernacular. But actually it seems everyone in the world just talks English, it’s in the final episode it’s suggested that Korean is spoken in Korea or Indian languages in India. Kala lives in “Bombay”, even though her city has been known as “Mumbai” in Britain for at least 10 years before broadcast.
We are to take it as unsurprising that political corruption and links to crooked financiers exists in Asia and Africa, but there’s not much sign of that in Europe and America. The Berlin gangsters are just smart enough to stay ahead of the law, and to keep each other in line. The existence of BPO and its powers isn’t seen as a problem, since a reformed version stays in business at the end and that’s to be celebrated, it seems. Ordinary street cops like Will are decent and honest and help kids get out of bad situations. Whispers is a “brilliant” scientist who has lost his ethical way, trying to build something as long-lasting and important as Westminster Abbey (his grasp of historical detail is a bit doubtful). What a pity that the brightest and best give their talent to the baddies. In our world the more usual thing is that middling talents do the nasty work, the top people won’t touch it as they have better options and reputations to protect and so can incline to refuse, or misdirect it from the outset, I’d like to believe.
How exactly sensates are able to speak each other voices is not the biggest mystery: what would happen if Sun or Wolfgang inserted their high-kicking dexterity into an overweight or physically weak body? The magic trick of showing them suddenly replacing another subject in order to do the quick and brutal stuff elides the matter of how it could work if bodies were just too different. These 8 aren’t all the same height or weight. But the theory of sensates is that minds can flip bodies and bodies can be what the minds need them to be. They’re not the only puzzle: Detective Mun, who pursued Sun and her brother, must belong to a different category of superhuman as he’s back on the case about 1 week after getting shot in the stomach. It can’t be that his injury was simply retconned out of the plot, as he does seem to notice it again after several whirling rounds of leaping about.
It’s also not quite consistent about how partitioned these minds are. When a sensate gets injured, all of the cluster feel the same disabling pain (that would be quite a big evolutionary disadvantage, in fact it makes Professor Kolovi’s view that Homo Sensorium all went extinct a long time ago look quite reasonable). It gets awkwardly confusing when Wolfgang and Kala start a sexual relationship and seem to be enjoying the pleasures of 2 bodies in congress separately, whilst somehow the other 6 don’t know what’s going on. Which bodies are the minds inhabiting when they experience the body with the other body, neither together whilst not apart? At this point there really doesn’t seem to be any coherent line about materiality and immateriality underlying this way of being. We do see scenes when all the 8 are having sex with other people they seem to have a collective joy-time altogether in their groupmind as well.
This whole world is interconnected with collective minds anyway: the secret conspiracies, the codes and messages, the electronic subterfuge of the semi-magical “hackers” that Nomi knows. It’s not surprising as it was written by the same team behind The Matrix and is pitched towards a similar audience, but with a strong message about LGBTQ issues and the need for inclusion and acceptance and empathy. It ought to be popular with Matrix boys as it also comes in a package with the concept of a specially gifted elite hidden in plain sight amongst the ordinary normie masses who just go along with the propaganda fed to them by secret agencies. They wouldn’t wonder about the location of multiple orgasms either.
The whole show is now grouped in to 2 series, but in fact the second series originally ran up to the penultimate episode. The final episode, nearly 2 and a half hours long, was made after the series was cancelled and is clearly a big blow-out party for all the cast and fans: every one gets to come back, including some colourful passers-by from the first episode. There is a literal party at the Eiffel Tower that goes on for a long time with no dramatic twist of the baddies coming back, because it all feels good in the end. This is even though several new strands set up in the previous episode (including new careers and responsibilities for several characters) are completely jettisoned. These people are free to do whatever they want to do. Free minds and free bodies, in a world free to those who know how to manipulate the magic machines and networks, imagining being the subject who is on top.