It’s hard to talk about a series like Sense8. I know that, when I first heard about it — this original series coming to Netflix about people whose perceptions were linked with each other — I didn’t think much of it at the time. But in retrospect it makes sense that a series created by J. Michael Straczynski and the Wachowskis, creators of Babylon 5 and The Matrix respectively, would be nothing short of brilliant.
Still, it’d be very easy to write it off a product of vague and exaggerated hype on first glance: especially with a name that sounds like a spell from Final Fantasy or a deadly weapon from science fiction like Ice-Nine. The introduction scenes have a lot going on: with various human activities all over the world that seem to have almost nothing to do with each other aside from the fact that people are doing them. In fact, the only thing that seems to unify these montages are the overall dramatic tones of the music in the background.
Even the premise: of people being able to get into each other’s minds simultaneously felt like more like a vague idea than an actual compelling story: the kind of thing that a director, or writer would use as a guideline into making an actual plot and could just as easily get lost in a desk drawer gathering dust.
Perhaps it’s due to the medium in which the series has been presented. As a film or a once-a-week television show, Sense8 might not have even been considered: or the resources available might not have allowed it to live to even its inherent potential in the first season. Think of an epic story — of reading A Song of Ice and Fire and The Lord of the Rings — and having to wait once a week, or a few years just to read the next chapter. Whereas with Sense8‘s model in Netflix, by June 5 everyone was capable of watching all twelve episodes at once: giving you that feeling of staying up late into the night reading “just one more chapter” to a good and multi-layered story. This form allows you to pretty much follow what is going on and keep it relatable.
Despite what I said earlier, the premise of Sense8 is not just a creative novelty: something that many powers in Hollywood might have just kept at the level of mere spectacle. And it could have gone that route had it not been for J. Michael Straczynski, known for creating indepth characters and complex story lines stepped in mythology and the human experience, and the Wachowskis and their penchant to examine themes of philosophy, metaphysics, and human consciousness.
One of the challenges is that there is so much to explore with the theme of sharing one’s sense of self with other selves. Sense8 manages to look at what is to be human: to have your own individuality and privacy, but also being inherently alone for it. For instance, you live in your own body and no one else can do that for you. But what happens when someone else can not only see you, but read your thoughts, experience your physical state, and feel your emotions? And vice-versa.
And then take it a step further. Imagine you can not only draw on people’s knowledge, but their skill sets as well. For instance, Wolfgang Bogdanow is a safe-cracker who needs to bluff his way out of a situation and draws on Lito Rodriguez’s acting skills to do so, and when Lito needs to actually fight he either draws on Wolfgang’s skills in mayhem, Will Gorski’s self-defense skills as a policeman, or South Korean businesswoman Sun Bak’s martial arts. Or Capheus, a bus driver in Kenya, can draw on the research and skills of the hacker Nomi Marks, or Kala Dandekar’s knowledge to do something ad hoc with her knowledge of chemistry.
Being a Sensate — becoming “aware” in Sense8, is having access to a skills and knowledge pool of your cluster: of seven other people of various places, backgrounds, genders, ethnicities, and sexual orientations. But then there is the matter of memories and feelings to consider as part of the pool as well. Boundaries between individuals can blur in many ways. For instance, if Will gets injured on the job Wolfgang might feel it. The Icelander DJ Riley Blue could be taking some ecstasy and it could effect Kala at her job. And let’s not even go into what happens when the various Sensates in a cluster are having sex … or menstruating.
Season One of Sense8 mostly has the characters realizing just what they are, figuring out how they work, and how it’s played out is one of the most beautiful things of all. The whole Mary Sue moment of realizing that they are different is downplayed a lot by this intrinsic feeling of understanding: they are all interlinked after all. The hows and whys of it are almost secondary to that. Some of them accept it in a dream-like way, while others think they are suffering from hallucinations. But you can see it all coming together.
And Sense8 has a plot.
It’s hard to see and get a feel for it in the first episode. You still wonder where it is going but as you run with it you realize that there are people who knows that the Sensates exist: powerful people that want them dead, neutralized, or controlled. And the main antagonist is a cold and detached being that fits well into the story, even as a renegade Sensate helping the main characters explains that Sensates have existed throughout history: that they may not be the next evolution of humankind, but a throwback to how sentient life began: together instead of separate and isolated.
It leaves you with so many questions. Can Sensates block who sees or selectively reveal what in their minds? Can they control how they are perceived by others in the cluster? Just how far can they synchronize their movements and actions together? Are there ways to override one individual’s consciousness: to make someone into an extension of your will? And is there a danger in becoming too close: in becoming a melded together gestalt consciousness?
The implications and possibilities of Sense8 go much further than this. Imagine if Sensates had existed in history? If Alexander the Great and his inner circle had all been born in the same month and year? Or if there were clusters in the ranks of the Spartans? Or even if someone like Adolf Hitler was a Sensate? The point is, there are so many ways beyond even alternative fictional history to tell more stories with this idea.
Sense8 is also a tremendously geeky series. The concept of clusters some of the situations and events that occur on Sense8 are reminiscent of various polyamorous themes in Robert A. Heinlein stories, while you could make an argument that clusters are similar to the idea of the karass — a group of people linked together in a cosmic manner — in Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle.
But for me, it isn’t so much the fictional and dramatic possibilities of Sense8 that appeal to me. We live in the Information Age: an age of wireless Internet where we communicate with people all across the world. A lot of us have friends, family, and other relationships in Europe, or the Middle-East, Asia, the Americas, and other places. In many places, we are becoming a long-distance species in a world becoming much smaller. This is definitely one theme that Sense8 is bringing to the fore and tapping into: something with which many people can relate.
Certainly, there is a theme of loneliness in physically being around people while feeling more together with someone communicating with you halfway across the world. The best examples of this are when Riley Blue and Will Gorski are communing with each other while the latter is at a bar with his police friends. Will is a seemingly normal and straightforward police officer but it becomes apparent that he really doesn’t relate to most of his colleagues beyond a casual level while Riley, who is in another country can talk with him about the things with which he can actually begin to be himself. Or even how Sun, in one of the worst, most isolating situations of her life can have the seemingly physical and moral support of Riley as she herself is outside looking at the sun.
It’s these moments that really jive with me and they are captured well by the show. So, when all is said and done, if you are geeky in any way and you like diverse human stories and you have been that geeky person with someone you care for across a state line or another ocean — and you know this feeling — then Sense8 is the series for you: with some new seasons with which to look forward.
Also Freema Agyeman, who once played Doctor Who‘s Martha Jones, is an LGBTQ character and bad ass girlfriend of Nomi.