“Charlie Jade” took me way too long to finish. The show is a joint Canadian-South African project, running for twenty episodes in 2005. This hardboiled detective-esque sci-fi mystery was short-lived, but a bold show that broke new ground for cerebral sci-fi.
The title character is a private investigator from Cape City, a dystopic version of Cape Town, South Africa with superior technology but a rigid caste structure. The Alphaverse’s environment so depleted, the ruling megacorp “Vexcor” is attempting to use a trans-universal link to siphon water from Gammaverse, a utopian parallel Earth.
From the Slice of Scifi podcast, I gathered that the show had a reputation of being very hard to follow – a “blink and you miss it” sort of thing. To some extent, I agree. The show is the very definition of a serialized story arc, and you have no hope of catching up if you jump in somewhere in the middle. There’s no monster-of-the-week or case-of-the-day, just Charlie slowly unraveling Vexcor’s web of corporate deception.
That being said, the showrunners made some weird editing decisions.
The show uses a color wash depending on what universe we’re observing. Green for dystopic Alpha, Blue for our Beta, and Red for utopic Gamma. It was part of what made the show so disappointing, honestly, because of how distracting the effect was. Add to that, even though the effect was obvious, each episode assumed we’d forgotten what universe we were looking at, and had to specify it with text in the corner.
Halfway through the season, the editing decisions got even weirder. Perhaps to address concerns of the show being hard to follow, later episodes used dozens of mini flashbacks to previous scenes to remind people of what they might have missed. For someone who actually paid attention this was frustrating and a little belittling.
I can’t fault all the editing decisions, as they showed a willingness to take risks – something missing from a lot of mainstream sci-fi. The showrunners weren’t afraid to play with unconventional camera angles and (in a hit-and-miss technique) would use multiple takes of a single line or multiple takes of the same scene from different locations.
Besides its unconventional storytelling, a popular theory on why the show wasn’t more popular stateside is because of it offers a sympathetic depiction of a terrorist. A young woman, Reena, blew up the Vexcor facility in Gammaverse to keep them from draining the water, which set off the chain reaction that brought her and Charlie to Cape Town. The show also offered interesting social commentary, particularly on class, crime, and race relations in post-Apartheid South Africa.
Charlie (played marvelously by Jeffrey Pierce) is a fascinating character, and much of his personal development revolves around his failure to protect the women in his life (a somewhat popular hardboiled detective trope). I wish the show had gone on longer, because it had great potential for growth, and if it had been given a chance to mature, I think it could have been spectacular.
Many of the themes in “Charlie Jade” live on in my favorite show “Fringe.” Now that I’ve seen both, I wouldn’t be surprised if J.J. Abrams had been a fan, or at least an admirer, of “Charlie Jade,” and wanted to continue to explore the consequences of punching holes into parallel universes.
Marathonability: Meh. It has a high corniness factor which can make mainlining difficult.
You’ll like it if you like: Blade Runner, Fringe, The Dresden Files, cerebral sci-fi, brooding hardboiled detectives