|(Please note this post includes references to events that|
take place in episodes 1-6 of Circle: Two Worlds Connected.)
The best science fiction marries emotion with speculation. South Korean TV series Circle: Two Worlds Connected taps into one of humanity’s basic fears; that science will tamper with the parameters of personality.
Thematically, science fiction television transcends language barriers and cultural differences because every society is curious, if not concerned, about the future, and the unexplained.
An uncomfortable relationship between tech, emotions, and memory is a popular trope in science fiction. Stories exploring the use—or abuses—of advancements in technology are more successful if the audience is tied empathetically to the characters.
Circle: Two Worlds Connected has a winning formula with dominant themes of memory, identity, and family. That most erratic variable—love—usually ruins the equation at some point in scifi, because audiences like to see the warmth of humanity trumping the dispassion of science.
Circle: Two Worlds Connected utilizes the tricky narrative tool of a split timeline. The first half of each episode is set in 2017, the second in a dystopian 2037. The risk with this kind of storytelling structure is events in the present seem futile because viewers have a window into a bleak future.
Creating an immediate emotive link with the audience is paramount. We know what our leads are trying to do isn’t going to work, but we need to care enough to keep watching.
The pilot begins with a flashback to a childhood trauma experienced by two brothers in 2007, so the strength of their bond, even as children, is established. As adults, differing perspectives on that pivotal event creates an ever-widening rift, but their co-dependency persists.
Supernatural has shown a TV series can run for years on the fuel of dysfunctional familial relations. In Circle: Two Worlds Connected one brother studies neuroscience while the other investigates an alien conspiracy. The way the story unfolds aligns us firmly with the “sane” one: until it doesn’t anymore…
The present day timeline offers the possibility of an ageless alien and a number of associated mysteries, most notably the disappearance of our leads’ father. Clues also suggest experiments focusing on memory manipulation are causing student deaths on campus, till now viewed as suicides.
In the future storyline, aka 2037, Normal Earth is polluted and the rich live in Smart Earth, a city boasting no crime. Smart Earth citizens have chips inserted in their necks, and yes that sense of misgiving specific to mind-control storylines is probably kicking in about now. (Plus the Smart Earth law keepers wear a lot of white: if there’s one thing sci-fi has taught me, it’s never trust the clean!)
At first, we’re unclear as to how the characters from the past connect to those in the future: memories have been manipulated, a violation revealed by the hacker Bluebird. But why? And by whom? How exactly did the Smart B system evolve? We’re also told the brothers became Missing Persons at some point during the time jump, so with each episode, our dread intensifies.
The show feels claustrophobic, no matter how spacious the setting, because the narrative is taking us inside the minds of the characters. Most are lost, searching for a person or particular truths, or looking to hide from memories. The show is seeped in desperation, making each episode increasingly compelling.
A number of characters in Circle: Two Worlds Connected are focused on the tie-in between memory and self. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can transform memories into tools of self-harm that impinge on decision-making and a person’s ability to function. But this scenario wonders if the removal or suppression of harmful memories is potentially more problematic?
Memory is the recall of experiences, but how the mind stores them and how the present day self views them, impacts their power. Are you really “yourself” when pieces of the puzzle that make up your psyche have been removed?
You may be at peace… But are you truly whole?
Scientific knowledge can create a delusional, God-like mindset, and that problematic perspective lies at the heart of the conflicts here: those empowered by knowledge are abusing that power. Deciding the psychological needs of citizen is a slippery slope, especially when you don’t gain consent.
Smart Earth seems a metaphor for humanity’s timeless response to complex societal issues: use wealth to hide from them. The story shows a safe haven can prove to be a type of prison if those in control have no qualms tampering with your mind—for your own good.
The drama is only twelve episodes long. South Korean television generally opts for a single season series, and as a result shows achieve a level of sustained intensity often missing from Western dramas. No story elements are held over for future seasons; the production team throws everything into the shorter format.
South Korean television is also fabulous at capturing emotive moments; the camera documents myriad emotions flitting across the actors' faces. South Korean actors excel at communicating complex wave of feeling just with their eyes, so prepare to be enthralled.
At the drama’s halfway point I’d guessed some reveals, and missed others. Even now, there are a few directions the story could go, and the set-up makes many plot options viable. I’m equally curious about the past and the future: how did the brothers lose each other? What sequence of events brought them to this tragic situation?
And the big question: who is Byul? Is the woman who mysteriously appeared and doesn’t age, an alien? Or are we seeing a series of clones? Can we even trust the brothers’ childhood memories? Can we trust anyone’s recall at this point?
What is really going on?
Circle: Two Worlds Connected is what brilliant sci-fi is supposed to be, packed with complex characters, exploring many ideas related to our relationship with tech, seeping paranoia and subterfuge, engaging and enthralling the audience with intelligent storytelling. The plot is beautifully crafted, the acting is incredible, and the cinematography is stunning. What more could you ask for?