The idea of parallel universes is well explored in TV science fiction. Classic Star Trek had the memorable “evil empire” episode with a bearded Spock from the alternate universe. America’s longest running SF show, Stargate SG1 and its spinoff Stargate Atlantis have both plumbed the idea far too many times in far too many versions. And the show Sliders featured the “multiverse” as its core narrative, with its heroes “sliding” from universe to universe every week.
But it’s the joint Canadian-South African production, Charlie Jade, that finally brings this concept to a gritty, realistic level, without the comfortable technobabble and easy resolutions of more family-friendly shows. In the Charlie Jade narrative, there are three main parallel universes: the “Alphaverse”, which is a technologically advanced, but horrendously polluted, violent, fascistic and unpleasant world with a brutal caste system that relegates its lowest denizens to near slave status; the “Betaverse”, which is essentially our universe; and the “Gammaverse” which is comparatively paradisical, where humans have managed our natural resources and social structures responsibly.
Transcending the various ‘Verses is the Vexcor corporation, which exists in various strengths in all three worlds, and has somehow managed to organize across all three, even creating a machine that might be able to transport matter across universes. The motivation of Vexcor is unknown, but a suggestion is made that the transportation of resources from the Gammaverse to the Alphaverse may be a part of their plan.
The scion of Vexcor is “0-1” (not “Owen”) Boxer, an amoral sociopath who uniquely possesses the ability to unilaterally walk between worlds, a skill that makes him indispensable to the wary and distrusting Vexcor executives, who would just as soon keep 0-1 working in the mailroom. As the story begins, 0-1 Boxer has drugged and raped a woman from Capteown, South Africa, in the Betaverse (our world), and has transported and murdered her in the Alphaverse, where our protagonist, private detective Charlie Jade, reluctantly takes up her cause. His investigation causes him to follow Boxer, and he suddenly and mysteriously finds himself trapped in the Betaverse.
Charlie Jade is unsure of what he witnesses upon arrival in our world, but it appears as if Reena, a terrorist from the Gammaverse, destroys the Vexcor facility, and finds herself also trapped in our world. Back in the Alphaverse, a B-plot has Charlie’s girlfriend/slave (her status is left intentionally blurry) left without his protection, and subject to the torments of her society.
Charlie Jade is a standard, almost cliched two-fisted hero, ruggedly handsome and improbably brave and capable. The terrorist Reena is a figure who inspires much empathy, trapped like Jade, but hunted by the authorities and less capable of finding her footing in a strange new world that both terrifies and horrifies her.
But the real star of Charlie Jade is the city of Capetown. Science fiction fans are used to cityscapes of New York, London, Los Angeles, San Francisco or anonymous US cities based on those familiar archetypes. Charlie Jade shows us an unfiltered, modern South African city, complete with its racial tensions, its crime, militancy, ugliness and occasionally its staggering beauty. A favourite vista of mine is the wide shot across the city, complete with its otherworldly cliffs and mountains.
The idea of a multiverse is introduced subtly, and we learn of it at pretty much the same pace as its heroes do. Unlike more formulaic shows, like later incarnations of Star Trek, this show knows better than to dazzle us with fake science that would ultimately innoculate us against the more organic perils of its characters. Instead, it recognizes that its narrative strength is in its politics, crustiness and criminality, and in the sympathy we must feel for characters trapped in nightmarish situations which, while clearly science-fictional, are presented in a realistic enough way to feel strangely plausible.
I’m five episodes into the show’s 21 episode run. I am pleased to recommend this very smart, very gritty show to those of you thirsty for smart, realistic science fiction.