In perhaps his biggest post-Downton Abbey role to date (at least until Beauty and the Beast hits cinemas), Dan Stevens has moved far away from Matthew Crawley. Gone is the cut-glass accent, puppy fat and dinner jacket in favour of a convincing American twang, a newly wiry frame and a burgundy tracksuit, as the British actor brings unstable mental patient David Haller to life for new US sci-fi series Legion.
But of course, David isn’t really ill. His “delusions” are actually powerful mental abilities that others have sought to hide from him, and the voices in his head genuinely are the overheard thoughts of others. Though he might not know it yet, David is a powerful super-powered mutant – and there are plenty of people who want to exploit his gifts.
So far, this probably sounds like your average superhero/sci-fi schlock (not that I have anything against sci-fi schlock), but that does the hugely imaginative Legion a disservice. Creator Noah Hawley (who also makes the TV version of Fargo) has taken a minor character from the X-Men comics and turned his story into a psychedelic, mind-bending story stuffed with gorgeous cinematography, trippy dream sequences and impromptu dance breaks, which has more aesthetic sensibility than you’d expect from a series about a man who moves things with his mind.
David’s mind can manipulate the world, and more than any series that’s featured mental superpowers before, Legion shows that onscreen. Characters are buried in walls, terrifying creatures burst into memories, and set and scenery explodes across the room as telekinetic energy tears it apart. Thank God for recent advancements in special effects, which finally seem to be letting TV shows match the imagination of their creators.
It’s not all whizz-bang though, with Hawley and his team constructing an interesting and sometimes touching story (particularly in scenes between Stevens and Fargo alum Rachel Kelly as fellow patient/love interest Syd) that nods towards the X-Men film series it spins off from without getting bogged down in its mythology (while it centres around the same basic idea of certain people in society being born with superpowers, and called “mutants”, Legion is set in its own continuity). It’s a fun and entertaining watch, and while in later episodes it gets a bit more formulaic it’s still a bit of a one-off.
Dan Stevens and Aubrey Plaza in Legion
It’s just a shame, then, that the series’ depiction of mental illness has such problematic overtones. While David’s issues are treated sympathetically, the basic premise of the character – a man’s mental problems are really superpowers – is inherently slightly uncomfortable, and possibly insulting to people with genuine mental health issues.
The original comic-book version of David Haller was created in the 80s when there was less awareness of mental health issues (the character genuinely did have psychiatric problems alongside his superpowers), but these days it seems less forgivable to be insensitive to such issues, with an early scene where Haller and his best friend Lenny (Aubrey Plaza) take bets on the drool of another patient making for a particularly uneasy watch in 2017.
It’s to Legion’s credit that your mind slides off these concerns when presented with its many other brilliant qualities (it is also, I should be clear, quite a small part of the series), and it may be that as the series goes on more nuance is given to David’s mental state.
Still, for now I can imagine certain parts of Legion will be a bitter pill to swallow for some viewers – and it might take more than David’s psychic abilities to change their minds.
Legion airs on FOX on Thursday 9th February at 9:00pm