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Moonhaven review: A promising sci-fi mystery

Moonhaven begins, like so many mysteries before it, with a murder. The violent act in question effectively kick-starts the series’ story, but Moonhaven doesn’t waste much time drawing out the mysteries of its opening killing. In fact, in the second scene of the Moonhaven pilot, not only has the victim’s identity been discovered by the proper authorities, but so has her killer’s. The series resolves many of the questions surrounding its inciting incident at a surprisingly brisk pace that its otherwise exposition-heavy pilot episode fails to maintain.

However, while Moonhaven’s first season rarely keeps up the economic pace of its opening moments, the subversive spirit of its second scene is present throughout all of the Peter Ocko-created sci-fi series. Across its first six episodes, Moonhaven constantly delivers a number of playful twists on familiar tropes and figures. The detectives at the center of the series’ story, for instance, are not obsessed with avenging those who have been killed, but with helping those who are still alive grapple with their grief.

In case that wasn’t subversive enough, Moonhaven also takes place in a distant future where the Earth is dying and humanity has invested in building a new settlement on the moon. The colony in question is run by an AI operating system that has the power to teach humans how to avoid their own destruction. When the series begins, the law that has kept those on the moon and those on Earth separate for over a century is about to be dissolved. The only problem is that the murder that opens Moonhaven takes place in the series’ utopian settlement, and there are reasons to believe that more problems exist within the colony than its leaders would like everyone to believe.

Trouble in paradise

Indira, Bella, Paul, and Arlo all stand outside together in Moonhaven.
Szymon Lazewski/AMC

Of course, many of the characters in Moonhaven don’t realize the danger they are in when the show begins. That’s certainly the case for Bella Sway (Emma McDonald), an Earth-based pilot and war veteran who takes a job in Moonhaven’s first episode to escort a powerful political envoy named Indira Mare (Amara Karan) to the show’s titular human settlement. In addition to escorting Indira and her bodyguard, Tomm (Joe Manganiello), Bella also secretly agrees to smuggle an experimental drug from the lunar settlement back to Earth.

Bella’s plan takes an unfortunate turn, however, when she is forced to enter the settlement after being informed that Chill Spen (Nina Barker-Francis), the girl who is mercilessly killed in Moonhaven’s opening scene, is the half-sister she never knew she had. While Bella initially shrugs off the discovery, she soon comes to realize that her arrival on the moon may not have been as accidental as she assumed. As a matter of fact, Bella quickly finds herself at the center of a conspiracy that has the power to permanently disrupt the already fragile relationship between the humans still stuck on Earth and those who have been allowed to live prosperous lives on the moon.

Investigating the conspiracy alongside Bella are two of the moon’s head detectives, Paul (Dominic Monaghan) and Arlo (Kadeem Hardison). As two men who haven’t ever truly had to exercise their detective skills, Paul and Arlo make for an unlikely pair of investigators. However, the more time goes on, the more that both men begin to emerge — much to their shared delight — as surprisingly capable detectives. The further they dive into the show’s central conspiracy, the more engrossed in their work they become, with Arlo even commissioning a special magnifying glass for himself so that he can live out his Sherlock Holmes-inspired dreams.

A capable crew

Arlo and Paul stand side by side in Moonhaven.
Szymon Lazewski/AMC

Paul and Arlo are a humorous and playful riff on TV’s usual buddy cop duo and their scenes together are among Moonhaven’s best and most memorable. Hardison’s delightful Arlo is rarely asked to carry the kind of emotional stakes on his back that Paul is, but the good news is that Monaghan is an experienced TV performer, one who is capable of adding compelling shades to Paul’s steadfast faith and resolve. That said, Moonhaven belongs to McDonald more than it does anyone else.

As Bella Sway, McDonald manages to remain physically confident while still portraying her character’s growing sense of uncertainty about herself and her place in the world. Ayelet Zurer, meanwhile, is perfectly cast as Maite Voss, the mysterious and morally ambiguous leader of Moonhaven’s lunar settlement. Unfortunately, several of the show’s other characters — namely, Manganiello’s tough but one-note Tomm and Paul’s estranged wife, Lone (Elaine Tan) — aren’t given quite as much depth as McDonald’s Bella and Monaghan’s Paul.

Moonhaven’s world-building efforts are similarly lackluster in certain ways. On the one hand, the show’s vision of the future feels visually well-realized and lived-in from the moment that viewers are invited into it. The series’ natural, wood-centric production design, in particular, helps sell its titular lunar colony as the peaceful and warm utopia that it’s meant to be. However, Moonhaven also has its moon-born characters foolishly speak with multiple made-up phrases and words, most of which just end up describing common human emotions.

A promising start

Joe Manganiello stands in a spaceship in Moonhaven.
Szymon Lazewski/AMC

Moonhaven never offers a real explanation for its linguistic eccentricities, and consequently, it’s hard not to smirk when certain characters are forced to throw out terms like “dreadfeel” and “Truelune” when words like “unnerved,” “trust,” or “faith” could have easily sufficed. While Moonhaven’s futuristic world is compelling in many ways, the show also contains more than its fair share of Wachowski-esque, “true-true” touches of laughably absurd sci-fi invention.

There are moments when Moonhaven’s ambitions far exceed its budgetary limits as well, which results in certain sequences featuring some truly questionable visual effects. Fortunately, there are also instances where Moonhaven’s cheesy VFX and DIY-esque costumes help imbue it with an endearingly homemade visual quality. In the moments when Moonhaven also manages to ditch its often lethargic pace, the show’s story usually becomes engrossing enough to the point where the spotty nature of its visual effects ceases to matter.

Moonhaven | Official Trailer | Premieres 7/7 on AMC+

While Moonhaven’s first six episodes are far from perfect, they feature enough moments of genuine ingenuity, playful subversion, and compelling world-building to ensure that watching the show’s debut season still feels like a worthwhile journey. Much like the futuristic civilization at the center of it, Moonhaven isn’t yet a total, knockout success, but its first season is promising enough to suggest that it could still become one someday.

Moonhaven begins streaming Thursday, July 7 on AMC+. For more sci-fi content to check out, click here.

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Alex Welch
Alex Welch is a TV and movies writer based out of Los Angeles. In addition to Digital Trends, his work has been published by…
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