Netflix’s Biohackers Is Not the Tech Utopia You Might Expect

Netflix’s Biohackers Is Not the Tech Utopia You Might Expect
Image: Netflix

The German sci-fi series Biohackers has debuted on Netflix, ostensibly telling the story of a medical student who gets caught up in the world of biohacking. However, as we see in the first episode of this six-episode series, there’s a secret lurking underneath the surface. One that’s grabbed our attention.

This is the debut of a new feature from Gizmodo where we review the first episode of a recent series from Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Studios, or one of the other many, many streaming platforms. The majority of these services tend to release seasons in bulk, which can make things daunting for anyone. Sadly, that leaves many shows unappreciated.

So, much like a debut on a traditional network, we’re going to watch the first episode to see whether it starts off on a promising note and whether it’s inspiring us to continue watching. Let us know if there are other shows you’d like us to keep on our radar. We’re especially looking to feature international shows, like Biohackers here.

Illustration: Jim Cooke Illustration: Jim Cooke

Biohackers “Arrival” starts off with a bang — opening on a mass cardiac episode as dozens of people are collapsing on a bullet train from an unknown ailment. The only person who seems to be unaffected is Mia (Luna Wedler), a medical student who’s tasked with helping the passengers as she’s the closest thing they have to a doctor. Then we flash back to two weeks earlier and we see where it all began.

Mia Akerlund is starting her freshman year at a university in Freiburg, Germany. It’s an adorable, lovingly shot college town that makes me yearn for a semester abroad, but it also houses a school on the cutting edge of biological and medical research. Mia’s new roommates are each experimenting in different types of biohacking, which is a catch-all term for do-it-yourself biology. They’re injecting themselves with microchips, turning plants into musical instruments, and taking eyedrops that help them see in the dark. It’s hard to tell how much of this is based in real science and how much is sci-fi goofiness, but it’s all cool to look at. Mia gazes in wonder at this new frontier, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed about the silent disco raves and bioluminescent mice. That is, until she’s alone. That’s when we learn there’s something more to this young woman’s story.

Wedler is great in this performance, able to turn on a dime in a way that would put the Count of Monte Cristo himself to shame. When she’s out and about, she’s the epitome of a naïve freshman — but any moment she’s by herself, the veneer comes down. She’s got an agenda, and you can’t wait to find out what that agenda is. The first episode starts laying the breadcrumbs, but just barely. At one point we see her hide a series of newspaper clippings inside a speaker in her room, and every one of them is about a woman named Professor Tanja Lorenz (Jessica Schwarz). A series of flashbacks indicate that Mia has known about this woman for years, and she’s connected to something that happened to her twin brother.

Professor Lorenz is the Tony Stark of this world, giving impassioned speeches to freshmen students about the future of biomedical research (she goes so far as to say they’re going to make God obsolete). It’s all very silly and overdramatic but we’re not really watching for her, rather to see how Mia reacts to her. That’s where the show feels the most engaging, as we learn how she’s plotting to get into Lorenz’s good graces. She cozies up to her assistant, figuring out what kind of biomedical projects earn Lorenz’s favour, and eventually gets an invitation to become an assistant herself.

That’s where we leave things for now, with Mia watching Professor Lorenz through a window, embodying the silent threat Lorenz doesn’t even know is coming. However, we do get a small teaser at the end of the episode that returns us to the events on the train. A woman in a hazmat suit carefully walks through the area, which is littered with bodies, to discover one survivor: Mia, who reveals her real name is actually Emma.

This series opener was a bit slower on the techno gears than I was expecting, but that’s because the biohacking doesn’t seem to be the focus of the story, at least not yet. It’s more about the people than the technology. That’s what grabbed me for this first episode, and what I feel makes it a worthy show to continue watching. I went into this expecting to see a show about a young woman who gets caught up in the world of biohacking... only to find herself in the middle of a vast conspiracy. But this story gives the protagonist, played excellently by Wedler, a meatier role with more agency than tech thrillers normally give us. Compare it to, for example, Emma Watson’s The Circle. It’s a similar subject about modern technology run amok — but the difference there is Watson’s character was reacting to all of it. Mia is acting, and that makes for a more promising story.

The whole thing has a Revenge, Count of Monte Cristo vibe that makes it enticing. It’s no surprise that shows like this are built to be binge-watched in large chunks because I had trouble putting this one down. You might too.

Biohackers is currently available on Netflix.

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