Created by Adam Nussdorf and produced by Nussdorf, David Eick (Battlestar Galactica) and Tim Kring (Heroes), Beyond arrived on Netflix not long ago. It’s already been picked up for a second season in the US, where it airs on Freeform, what used to be the ABC Family channel. We know, most of the time no one reads these credits but in this instance Freeform and Netflix having the show is important. The latter because it’s clearly intended to align with the likes of Stranger Things, 3% and Travelers. The first because, well, it really doesn’t.
Beyond is the story of Holden Matthews, a boy in the mid-noughties who loves astronomy, his dirt bike and his family. Holden’s mom and dad are great, his little brother is a willing accomplice and his best friend Kevin shares his love of the sky. One night, Holden sneaks out to watch a meteor shower with Kevin. Kevin’s older brother Jeff finds them, a fight and chase ensue and before long Holden is alone in the woods as a bright light surrounds him…
Then it’s 2016. And Holden has awoken from a year-long coma with no ill effects and no memory of his time unconscious. His younger brother is now his older brother, his parents are separated and Holden keeps having mysterious visions of an old man and flames…
Setting off to find out what happened to him, Holden is aided by the mysterious Willa (Dilan Gwyn) who tells him the truth; during his coma he was transported to the Realm, a place where he spent years with Willa honing his psychic abilities. The Realm is where we go before the afterlife and Willa’s grandfather Arthur (Alex Diakun) and Isaac Frost (Martin Donovan) have been at war over control of it for years. Arthur wants humanity to leave the Realm forever. Frost wants to use it to cross the barrier between the living and the dead. Holden is the key to both their plans.
Beyond should work. It’s got a great central concept that plays like a network TV version of The OA, some excellent cast members and a rock solid production pedigree. Yes, we know, some of you are going, “But Tim Kring! Heroes! Everything past the good season!” That’s fair enough but Kring when he’s on form is still good. Likewise, Eick’s past is littered with great shows and together with Nussdorf they should be able to produce something great.
Instead, they produce something which is rarely less than competent but never much more than it.
The fault, and this is where it being a Netflix show really causes damage, is the pacing. This is a 10-episode season, under half the usual US order and there’s at least one episode which does absolutely nothing that couldn’t be accomplished in two minutes in another. Worse still, after the interesting set-up the show grinds to a juddering halt as it tries to balance “Holden, Psychic Warrior!” with “Holden, Newly-Hot 20 Something”. The episode “Fancy Meeting You Here” in particular focuses on the latter at the worst possible time and feeds into the show’s other big problem: the Realm.
Again, Netflix hurts it here. Where shows like The OA, 3% and Stranger Things all have remarkably clean, carefully chosen special effects Beyond is loaded down with good but ephemeral CGI. The Realm never once feels real. Instead every scene there feels like actors acting against green screen and it throws you out of the episode every time. Holden’s psychic abilities are, to be fair, very nicely handled in practical effects but that only makes the Realm look worse.
Worse still, the pacing encourages the sort of enigmatic conspiracy, “You already know what you must do” storytelling that killed so many TVs during The X-Files. In fact, much like The X-Files revival, the show mistakes withholding information from the audience for puzzle solving and it’s even less successful here. Worse still, the attitude towards the Realm is so badly explained that it renders the conflict between Arthur and Frost nonsensical. The clash between discovery and conservation is incredible dramatic fuel and here it falls utterly flat. Even worse it’s contradictory. Arthur builds a bridge to the Realm even though he wants it destroyed? Then rebuilds it once he knows Frost’s version was destroyed? The show throws spectacle at you without context and it rarely works.
It’s inherently divided nature works against it too. The plot with Holden’s family is genuinely good, and Jonathan Whitesell is especially great as his newly “older” brother. The season’s best scene is the moment where the polite lie they’ve been telling Holden collapses and it feels untidy and bitter and real in a way absolutely nothing else does here. Likewise, “Last Action Hero” is one of the season highlights and introduces a wonderful new character. Who then disappears and the episode itself is rendered essentially moot.
The cast, at least, impress. Peter Kelamis in particular is great as the yellow-jacketed family man/killer sent after Holden and deserved more screen time. Roberta Valderrama is wonderful in “Last Action Hero” and Jeff Pierre is fantastic as the newly mature, newly zen Jeff McArdle. Burkely Duffield and Jonathan Whitesell do great work too, Duffield constantly balancing the wide eyed charm the character needs with the feral energy inside him.
But for all this, Beyond is a show that crosses two worlds but is master of none. Its lumpen paced, toothless and saddled with an aesthetic that damages more than it builds. There’s good stuff here, make no mistake, season two needs to make a lot of changes to lure us back.
Directed by Lee Toland Krieger
Written by Adam Nussdorf
This is a pretty rock-solid opening hour. Holden is a teenager who loves his bike and astronomy. He sneaks out of the house to watch a meteorite shower, falls fowl of his best friend’s brother, is chased and bangs his head. He gets up, sees a bright light and…
12 years later, Holden wakes up. With no cognitive or physical problems, no memory of the last 12 years and the brain of a teenager in a mid-20s body.
The set-up is really nicely handled with Jonathan Whitesell on especially good form as Holden’s younger, now older, brother. There’s a hint of Stranger Things sure but when the episode gets to the big reveal it becomes clear this is a very, very different kind of show. The special effects on Holden’s first Hulk-out are nicely handled, Burkely Duffield brings the right dazed horror to the role and the set-up is great.
Directed by Steven A Adelson
Written by Adam Nussdorf
The second episode picks up from the next day and does… well… there’s good news and bad news. The bad news is the hilariously pointless sequence where Holden’s best friend thinks basically recreating the accident that put him the coma is the best way to get his attention.
It’s a ludicrously fake piece of action and completely throws the middle third of the episode.
The gear change out of it is pretty jarring too, Holden attending his first party and immediately flashing back to a mysterious, pseudo medieval realm he can apparently only see in his mind. The effects aren’t bad but the show aims for something complex and interesting and honestly, pretty much misses with Holden and Willa’s reactions. Willa’s reticence, which we know is explained later, still feels weird here and Holden is already settling into the, “I’m a normal boy!”/“I’m psychic doom personified!” seesaw he’ll spend most of the rest of the series trapped in. Although the fact he finishes the episode basically asking “WHAT THE HELL JUST HAPPENED TO ME?!” is incredibly welcome.
“Ties That Bind”
Directed by Steven A Adelson
Written by Marc Dube
As is the start of “Ties That Bind”. Willa basically tells Holden, and us, the entire premise of the show – that she and Holden met in “The Realm”. Basically, the afterlife. Willa clearly remembers what they did there, Holden doesn’t. It’s a really smart idea and one that, judging by The Discovery and The OA, Netflix iz especially fond of right now. Their exploration of the Realm is also nicely handled and Willa’s conversations with the mysterious Arthur, via text message and touch, are smartly handled and sweet. Elsewhere, Yellow Jacket comes into his own having kidnapped and tortured Kevin. Peter Kelamis is best known for his stand-up comedy and his memorable turn on Stargate: Universe but here he’s straight-up terrifying. The reveal, or non-reveal, of Kevin’s fate is deeply disturbing and very well done.
But the best scene here is a family dinner which slides sideways so fast it feels desperately real and uncomfortable. Jonathan Whitesell’s Luke is especially great, a calm, gentle smart-ass trying to hold a family together that fell apart a long time ago.
If there’s a problem with the episode it’s the depiction of Jeff. In the same episode one black character is killed off-screen another is played as a gun-toting criminal. Not a good look, even if the show does pay it off in the next episode.
“The Man in the Yellow Jacket”
Directed by Sam Hill
Written by Hillary Benefiel
Pretty much straight away in fact. Jeff, played by Jeff Pierre, is one of the characters who holds the show together. Focused, calm and completely driven he’s absolutely believable as the older, calmer version of the bully we saw in episode one. The episode follows him as he finds out about Holden, returns home and explains his presence in the show. He’s fun, smart, tough and has much more agency than Holden. Likewise the always great Peter Kelamis who’s front and centre here a good deal. His combination of suburban dad and black ops killer is chillingly realised and Kelamis remains one of the best parts of the show.
Unfortunately our hero spends the first of several episodes vacillating between needing to know more and not wanting to know anything. And going to parties. It’s untidy and realistic but, unfortunately, it’s not very interesting. Worse still the closing more of bone crunching violence, while visually arresting plays like blood for the sake of it.
“Fancy Meeting You Here”
Directed by Nick Copus
Written by Jim Galasso
“Fancy Meeting You Here” brings the series to a screeching halt. Horrified by what he did last episode, Holden runs away to university with Luke. This means yet more, “Oh a party!“/“I’m sad now’ place-marking and a longer visit to the Realm. And the second, oddly, is the problem. The good news is we get the secret origin of Willa and Holden’s relationship and he finally remembers their time together. The bad news is that the Realm looks very, very, very like an average special effect. Worse still, the episode gives us chapter one of their story and then jumps back to the present where Holden is introduced to Arthur. Or to put it another way, Willa explains the plot to him over an unconscious man in excellent pyjamas lying in bed.
Then the show jumps if not the shark, then certainly the Realm. It turns out Arthur had developed a bridge that would allow direct passage between The Realm and the real world. It’s in his house (and we see Willa try and fire it up to rescue him in an earlier episode). It turns out Holden may be the only one strong enough to open it.
Suddenly, Holden can see the future as well as throw psychic death punches. He imagines himself standing in the middle of another pretty average special effect, this time of an ice bridge high in the air. He sees Willa there, she falls, he can’t save her and…
He smashes the bridge. Straight up Hulks out.When Willa, not unreasonably, asks him what the Hell he thinks he’s doing she’s told he won’t risk losing her again. Or, perhaps, talking to her about what he’s planning.
Still, we do get Charlie introduced this episode. A fellow Realm survivor, she came back with an incredible gift for maths and a very low boredom threshold. Played by Eden Brolin, Charlie is sparky, sarcastic and FUN. She’s got none of the po-faced angst of basically the entire rest of the cast and she lifts every scene she’s in. Which in this episode is not enough.
Directed by Darnell Martin
Written by Mimi Won Techentin
“Celeste” opens with Holden talking to Willa in the exact way that he maybe should have BEFORE DESTROYING THE MACHINE. He’s disgusted to find out that the training was to help save Arthur and they break up. Again. Sort of. More angst ensues.
Thankfully, Jeff and Charlie show up to save the episode. In Jeff’s case to continue his investigation into Hollow Sky and actually move the plot along. He ends up teaming up with dad as they discover mom’s pastor boyfriend is NOT what he seems… It’s a fun plot, and a desperately needed one given that all dad and mom have done for five episodes at this point is stand around and look worried.
Charlie, meanwhile, helps Holden out on his driving test and charms her way into his life in a wonderfully belligerent way. In stark contrast, Willa boxes and bonds with Daniel, Arthur’s carer. She also digs into the truth behind the project and its connection to Hollow Sky. These scenes are the first time the background of the show has felt real or interesting, thanks in no small part to a well-played familial reveal and a vital part of the show’s mythos locking into place. Make no mistake “Celeste” is a very leisurely episode but after the idiocy of “Fancy Meeting You Here” it’s a definite step up
“Hour of the Wolf”
Directed by Nick Copus
Written by Ryan Mottesheard
“The Hour of the Wolf” continues the show’s improvement. Charlie and Holden aren’t quite on the run, more on an extended holiday that allows Holden’s astronomical nerd tendencies to finally come out. After almost a full half season of him being either a blank slate or a psychic death machine it’s really refreshing to see him be so passionate about something. Plus Duffield’s performance this episode is better than any previous one, proving the issue is with the writing rather than the performance.
There’s actual plot too! Things actually happen! Dad confirms that Mom’s creepy boyfriend is in with Hollow Sky and tries to reach out to her in a very sweet way. The Man in the Yellow Jacket makes another attempt on Holden and gets his ass even more kicked this time and Luke meets Willa. She’s newly energised by what she discovered last episode and works much better as a protagonist than just waiting for Holden to do anything. Charlie’s on top form this episode too, clearly relishing her newfound ability to have fun and paying a hefty price for that.
“Last Action Hero”
Directed by Guy Norman Bee
Written by Elias Benavidez
“Last Action Hero” is simultaneously one of the show’s best episodes and arguably the absolute worst. It’s complicated but we’ll try to explain. Injured in the gunfight from the previous episode, Holden needs surgery. So, Jeff goes to the nearest pharmacy, gets the supplies and, briefly forgetting presumably the entirety of his military training, accidentally shows the pharmacist that he’s holding a gun. A standoff ensues, Jeff talks her down and they patch Holden up.
So far so there, right? Here’s the thing, the pharmacist, Lydia, is BRILLIANT. Played by Roberta Valderrama she’s an action movie nerd who hides inside old action movies because they’re more predictable and comforting than life. She’s spiky and nervous and tough and funny and she and Jeff instantly hit it off. So much so that you happily spend the majority of the episode with the pair of them happily bantering at one another.
Then the rot sets in. Holden is back in the Realm where he meets Arthur, even though Arthur has already woken up as a result of Holden’s injuries. It’s unclear whether or not this is a flashback but it certainly seems to be. It’s equally unclear just what the blue Hell Arthur wants Holden to do other than, oddly, stop humanity progressing. There’s yet more pseudo-Yoda moments in old castle corridors (although Holden does finally give Arthur some episodes-overdue sass for his constant wibbling) while Jeff and Lydia have a gunfight with The Man in Yellow’s men back in the world.
And then Holden wakes up. And stumbles out of the backdoor. And is instantly tranqued by the Man in the Yellow Jacket.
God. DAMN IT.
So this episode is the best because Jeff and Lydia (who we never see again) are adorable and you kind of want to watch a show about them instead. And it’s the worst because the entire bloody thing is a place-keeper. There are minor developments on the home front with Holden’s family but aside from that the episode does absolutely nothing but mark time. Which, in a 10-episode season, is pretty close to unforgivable.
“Out of Darkness”
Directed by Steven A.Adelson
Written by Adam Nussdorf
After that ending, this episode has a lot to do. Thankfully, it partially steps up thanks in no small part to Martin Donovan and Dilan Gwyn. Donovan’s an asset to every series he’s in and his work here as the precise, plausible Frost is some of the most fun you’ll have this season. He also, FINALLY, in episode nine of 10, makes explicit just what Holden is supposed to do. Short version; Arthur wants to stop humanity exploring the afterlife, which is a third area connected to the Realm by a bridge because he feels we’re not ready. Frost wants us to go to the afterlife because his wife, Willa’s mother, died telling him he’ll wait for her there. Holden, for no reason anyone can quite figure out, thrived in the Realm. Therefore, he’s the one to open the bridge from the physical world.
Quick as you can say, “But didn’t Holden destroy that bridge? For no reason?” we’re in the barn where Frost keeps his version. A barn that looks so much like the site the director downloads into in Travelers that it’s slightly alarming. Plus Frost’s bridge spins on a gyro proving a) he has cooler toys than Arthur and b) he’s maybe seen Event Horizon a few too many times.
It’s smart, compelling stuff. Unfortunately, even with the emotive confrontation between Willa and dad and the big idea FINALLY on the table, it’s just kind of there. There are some high spots, most of which come from Luke asking the questions we’ve all been asking for a while now but as a big reveal goes this is all a bit muted. Even the ending, and the Faustian bargain first Wila then Holden makes, feel like boxes being ticked. It’s not the cast either, they’re all doing good work, especially Jonathan Whitesell and Burkley Duffield but the script never takes off. The episode finishes with three people venturing into the Realm to find the bridge to the afterlife and it’s presented with the urgency and drama of a takeout order.
“Into The Light”
Directed by Steven A.Adelson
Written by Adam Nussdorf
Where to begin? It is very difficult to not see patterns where there are none. It’s almost impossible to look at development schedules and see where they link up, unless you go through each crew list line by line. Parallel narrative evolution is a thing that does happen and people who don’t believe that still think The Raid ripped off Dredd, or that 28 Days Later ripped off the opening of The Walking Dead comic.
That being said…
This is a Netflix show in the UK. Stranger Things is a Netflix show. There is an action beat in the closing stages of this episode that is, hand on a stack of bibles, the exact same as one in the closing episodes of Stranger Things. Note. For. Note. The only difference is there it’s a jaw-dropping moment of amazement. Here it just kind of happens. Whether it’s a deliberate call-out is impossible to say; if it is it’s a failure and unfortunately the least of this episode’s failures.
This is just a mess, from start to finish. The escape, during which the world’s most cursory van flip happens, is bad but the rest is much, much worse. The much-vaunted trip to the Realm isn’t just crushingly dull it’s wilfully cruel and completely unearned. The revelation that there are maggot-infested corpses massing on the other side of the bridge makes no sense. Is it a bridge to Hell? Are they zombies? Are they the massed forces of Frost’s voluntary coma victims? We get no answers about what the Realm is or what they are, just cheap effects and a cruel end for Frost who at least flirted with nuance and context and was certainly way more fun than Arthur.
Worst of all, though, is the nonsensical stuff with Holden’s vision of Willa falling off the bridge being revealed to be a premonition. Except it wasn’t because he falls. Except he wakes up because she gives him the compass she was given by her mother. It’s jeopardy so false that you actually don’t mind the monotone way the show presents it which is a relief because the special effects have never been as unimpressive as they are in that moment.
Then there’s the ending. After the single van of security guards gets flipped by Holden’s powers, he returns home and… well… everything’s fine. To the show’s credit they hang a lantern on this by him openly admitting he doesn’t know if they’re safe and he’s just hoping for the best. It’s not a remotely smart plan but when you remember Holden’s a kid in a 20-something body it at least makes sense. Plus, the family scenes are sweet and honest in a way the show has forgotten to be for the last four episodes so that’s a welcome change of pace and injection of energy.
And then there’s the vision. Holden sees the Realm in ruins and his younger self explains it’s all his fault because he built the bridge.
The bridge we just saw him destroy? That bridge?
Oh, and Arthur, who expressly did not want humanity to go to the Realm is painstakingly repairing his version of the bridge to the Realm after a pep talk from X, the only character in this show less well utilised than Willa.
This is the worst episode of the season by a mile, and given “Fancy Meeting You Here” happens this season that’s saying something. But hey, at least Charlie’s sort of back and looks to be a big part of next season.
Beyond should work. It has a great cast, occasionally great writing and a really chewy and interesting central concept. But this is the first show Netflix has bought for the UK that clearly does not fit their format in the slightest. It’s leisurely and conservative where it should be frantic and weird, careful where it should be daring. There’s a good show in here and we’re hopeful season one was the shakedown cruise. But season two has a lot of work to do.