Last night we got our first proper extended look at Paramount+’s long-awaited Halo: The Series, the latest in a long line of attempts to bring the Master Chief out of video games and into live-action. But not only is the new show about to be the biggest attempt to do just that, it’s also going to be diving into Halo lore that’s barely been touched upon in the games themselves.
The Halo games, the first three in particular, largely focus on topics that will of course also be important to Halo: The Series, including Master Chief’ existence as a “Spartan,” the product of a superhuman genetic engineering project; humanity’s war with the alien faction known as the Covenant; and the titular Halos. But even in the brief glimpses we’ve had of the show so far, it’s clear that Halo: The Series is going to explore beyond those elements, even prefaced with the idea of it being in a “similar-but-different” alternate timeline to decades of Halo games, books, and comics (meaning some things noted here might not play out identically in the TV show). Here’s the basics of what you need to know coming into the show, whether you’ve never touch a Halo game in your life, or are a diehard fan who hasn’t dipped their toes into the plethora of Halo tie-in content over the past 20 years.
What Is a Spartan?
The Master Chief — or John-117 to his friends, played by American Gods’ Pablo Schrieber in the show — is not a single supersoldier, but one of many made in a secretive black-ops science and military research experiment known as the Spartan-II program. The program was created by Dr. Catherine Halsey (Jen Taylor in the show, who also voiced both Halsey and her digital counterpart paired with Master Chief, the A.I. Cortana, in the games), a scientist attached to the United Nation Space Command’s spy agency ONI (the Office of Naval Intelligence). It began by inducting abducted young children who were replaced by quick-ageing clones to avoid their disappearances being spotted. Those abducted children were then trained and indoctrinated for years at secret military facilities to become the next generation of the UNSC’s specialised fighting forces.
In all, 75 children were inducted into the Spartan-II program, but less than half of that number made it out. At the age of 14 after years of their training, every Spartan-II candidate underwent biochemical and biomechanical augmentation, made to radically improve their strength, reflexes, sight, bone density, and myriad other physical enhancements to a superhuman level. But the augmentations were wildly experimental: just 33 candidates responded to the enhancements as intended. Thirty more died during the surgeries, and the remaining 12 were left horrifically injured, physically and mentally, forcing them to be washed out of the process.
Eventually paired with a likewise experimental research project, the MJOLNIR enhanced armour system — designed to work in tandem with the superhuman augmentations given to Spartans, amplifying them even further — the surviving Spartans were some of the most powerful human soldiers ever put into combat. Although later Halo games would see the development of new generations of Spartans — the latest being the Spartan-IV program — Halo: The Series looks to be following just the early days of the Spartan-II program, and Master Chief’s rise in particular.
Why Were the Spartans Made?
The Spartan-IIs weren’t developed as a response to Halo’s infamous alien antagonists, the Covenant (more on them in a bit), although they played a vital role in providing humankind a viable counter to the advanced technologies of their eventual alien foes. Instead, the Spartan-IIs were designed to give the UNSC the upper hand against their own people.
In the 26th century setting Halo takes place in, humanity and its Unified Earth Government have gone beyond Earth and their own solar system to colonise the stars — over 800 colony worlds existed by the time of the games, divided into “Inner” and “Outer” regions, based on their relative proximity to the Sol system. But those “Outer” colonies grew increasingly frustrated at the bureaucracy of being controlled by the United Earth Government. Underfunded and under-supported in comparison to the more prestigious Inner Colonies, one by one frustrated systems rebelled against the rule of Earth, first through peaceful protests and civil disobedience. Then, violent responses from the UEG and USNC’s colonial administrations fomented the rise of the Insurrection, a loosely unified secessionist faction that openly waged war with the UNSC.
The Insurrection battled the UNSC through guerrilla tactics and terrorist attacks for decades before the Spartan-II program was approved, in part due to Dr. Halsey’s belief that drastic military action was the only solution to avoid full-scale war between Earth and the Inner and Outer Colonies. While the surviving Spartan-II’s first official operations were against Insurrectionist leaders and other rebellious targets, as intended, they were quickly and publicly drafted in to face the emergence of a new, horrifying threat: first contact with an alien empire known as the Covenant.
What is the Covenant?
A religious hegemony established thousands of years before human civilisation in stars far beyond those reached by the UNSC in the early 26th century, the Covenant was an alliance between eight alien species. It began with the San’Shyuum and the Sangheili (better known by their human nicknames in the eventual conflict between the Covenant and humankind, the Prophets and the Elites, respectively), who founded the Covenant and eventually inducted six more races:
- The Huragok (Engineers, tentacled biomechanical beings with profound expertise in ancient technology)
- The Mgalekgolo (Hunters, massive colonies of worms bound in giant suits of armour)
- The Unggoy (Grunts, the diminutive disposable front line soldiers)
- The Kig-Yar (Jackals, raptor-like avian beings trained as long-range specialists)
- The Yanme’e (Drones, flying swarms of insectoid creatures)
- The Jiralhanae (Brutes, bulky, hairy creatures who vied for the status of the Elites in the eyes of their rulers)
The show appears to be adding at least one more, or at least a representative of one more entirely new species: a mysterious blonde humanoid is seen attacking UNSC soldiers with snake-like aliens, and asking them to surrender to the Covenant, but little is known about them currently.
The Covenant’s religious beliefs revolved around worship of a precursor species known as the Forerunners, and the massive technological superstructures those beings left behind in the wake of their extinction. Leveraging that technology themselves to massive gain, the Covenant rapidly expanded its empire, converting new member species along the way or wiping out resistance. Encountering humanity first on the colony world Harvest — which Covenant forces promptly bombarded from orbit, using plasma weaponry to superheat the surface in a process that would come to be known as “glassing” a world — war quickly broke out between the UNSC and the Covenant, with hundreds and hundreds of human colonies falling in the process.
What Happened to the Insurrection When the Covenant Attacked?
One thing Halo: The Series appears to be doing that the games largely left to tie-in fiction — the original Halo trilogy depicting the Covenant-Human war doesn’t mention the Insurrection at all — is exploring the moral dubiousness of the UNSC’s response to the Insurrection, and how those factions of rebellion and secession continue to exist in the face of alien invasion and the seemingly inevitable extinction of humanity. As previously mentioned, the first few games don’t touch upon the Insurrection at all, and in various tie-in books and comics over the years it’s established that Insurrection forces across various worlds either begrudgingly teamed up with the UNSC to face the Covenant threat, or were left by the latter to be wiped out by their alien foes.
With the surviving Spartans quickly redeployed against the Covenant during the war, most notably the Master Chief, the Insurrection wasn’t exactly anyone’s top priority — even if, after the conclusion of the UNSC/Covenant conflict by the end of Halo 3, myriad tie-in stories laid the groundwork for the fact that the Colonies’ issues with the UEG’s rule over them didn’t go away just because humanity at large survived being wiped out. We already know that Halo: The Series will adapt a character from some of those tie-in stories, Soren-066 — played by Bokeem Woodbine — who was a Spartan-II candidate washed out after the augmentation process left him severely physically malformed, frustrated by his treatment to the point that he defected to the Insurrection. Time will tell how important a role he has in the show, but it seems like it’s not going to immediately make humanity’s rebel factions disappear the moment the Covenant shows up.
What Is a Halo?
So important that it’s the name of the franchise, the Halo Array was a series of ring-shaped superstructures created by the aforementioned precursor species known as the Forerunners. The Halos housed their own habitable biomes, and the Covenant religiously revered them as the apex of their gods’ technological prowess. In actuality, the Halo Array was designed as a massive, galaxy-spanning superweapon that could eradicate all organic life in a single instant, in order to spread the event of the Flood: a parasitic alien species that nearly wiped out the Forerunner’s massive empire a hundred thousand years before the earliest development of human civilisation.
In the Halo games, the Halo array is first encountered by humanity by accident, when the Master Chief’s ship encounters one of the ring worlds after performing a random FTL jump to avoid Covenant forces who had invaded the human colony world Reach, putting into motion the entire gaming franchise. One of the few details we know about how Halo: The Series’ newly established “Silver” timeline differs from the games’ continuity, however is the teaser that this discovery will not be framed as being accidental in the show, but a deliberate discovery by Master Chief and the UNSC. Just what impact that tweak will have on the series’ narrative as it goes ahead is currently unknown, but we’ll find out more when Halo: The Series begins streaming on Paramount+ on March 24.
Editor’s Note: Release dates within this article are based in the U.S., but will be updated with local Australian dates as soon as we know more.