This review contains very mild spoilers for Beacon 23.
Watching Beacon 23 made me think that maybe it’s actually okay if some projects don’t have queer people in them.
On paper, this show has all the ingredients to make me love it. First and foremost, it stars Lena Headey. Honestly that’s all I knew about it before going in and it was enough for me to give it a shot. I love Lena Headey. Second, Lena Headey plays a bisexual badass. Third, it is based on source material written by the same author who provided the source material for Silo, an Apple TV+ show that I enjoyed very much. And fourth, it’s on MGM+, the same network that brought us FROM, one of my favorite sci-fi shows of the year.
Alas, despite having all the right ingredients, Beacon 23 did not end up appetizing.
The titular Beacon 23 is a sort of lighthouse, floating in the far reaches of space, scanning for dark matter, and telling passing spaceships whether or not the passage is safe. The show is, ultimately, more about Beacon 23, and its AI Bartholomew, than it is about any human character. To its credit, the show does a great job of impressing upon its audience the stifling nature of living in Beacon 23. Each episode feeling like a bottle episode; some episodes feeling like a home invasion movie. The show imagines a future where humanity has expanded across the universe, colonizing many planets in many solar systems throughout the galaxy, but we never see these other planets and colonies.
We never leave the Beacon.
The show takes its time, unraveling the present and past of the Beacon, while also unveiling a mystery that connects it all. And when I say unveiling I do mean just unveiling, not explaining. The audience is as in the dark as the characters, if not more so, about this mystery Some parts of it felt a little like reading the book Annihilation, purposefully vague, purposefully without explanation or clarity, occasionally to the point of being disorienting.
And yes, Lena Headey’s character, Aster, is queer.
We briefly encounter someone Aster is sort of dating, Coley, played by Sandrine Holt. Their relationship is contentious and volatile and considering Coley is only in the one episode, and Aster’s queerness has no more bearing on her character or the story at all, I’m not sure it was worth it. I am a strong believer that a person’s queerness does not have to be inherently tied to a relationship, so it’s not that I wish Coley had stayed longer (though I do). It’s just that the queerness felt more like someone deciding they needed a character to be queer and picking Aster and Coley at random, instead of considering the implications, based on the dialogue and plot lines planned for these two characters. It’s sort of nice, in theory, to be included at all, and wardrobe definitely got the memo. But if Coley hadn’t been in that one episode, we never would have known Aster was queer, and I think that’s a miss.
I loved Aster. She’s snarky as hell and has so much charm and swagger! I could spend the rest of my life watching Lena Headey play queer. But, at the end of the day, I’m not sure we can add this one to the “win” column. I have more egregious reasons, including more than one bad queer trope playing out, but they’re extremely spoilery, so I’ll have to bite my tongue for now.
There were things I did like about Beacon 23, though. For example, the casting; Lena Headey is brilliant, of course, with Natasha Mumba acting up a storm at her side. Plus, Barbara Hershey features heavily, and glamorously, in an episode. They also did a great job world-building; they managed to express the vastness of space in the confines of one building. Without too much exposition, but also without being too confusing, they clue the audience in on different companies, factions, and communities. I also was a big fan of the wardrobe. Even in the first two episodes, I suspected Aster was queer because of her whole look. And finally, I really enjoyed the Beacon’s AI Bartholomew. He was very funny, and I’m always impressed when sci-fi shows can make a spaceship sentient enough to invest you in them as a character even though they’ve never had human form. All told though, it wasn’t enough to balance the aforementioned bad tropes, nor the slow and confusing pace.
If you don’t have expectations for positive representation, and just want to hear Lena Headey joking about passing time in quarantine “wanking,” and see Lena Headey’s hair in braids and Lena Headey’s arms in a tank top, maybe you’ll enjoy Beacon 23 more than I did. But if you want to watch Lena Headey as a queer character worth celebrating, maybe just watch Imagine Me & You again instead.
The first two episodes of Beacon 23 are now streaming on MGM+.