Gong Seung Yeon as Han Jung Yeon, Yeo Jin Goo as Kim Woo Jin, Lee Gi Kwang as Lee Ho Soo, and Kim Kang Woo as Kim Joon Hyuk
What is science fiction? Isaac Asimov, one of my favourite science fiction writers and one of the “Big Three” of 20th century science fiction, wrote in 1975, “Science fiction can be defined as that branch of literature that deals with the reaction of human beings to changes in science and technology.” In a later essay titled “The Name Of Our Field” (1978) he acknowledged that science fiction had, since 1960, tended to shift some of its emphasis from science to society, from gadgets to people. Many, if not most, of Asimov’s stories fall under the category of social science fiction (read more here), with a side-dish of suspense to keep the reader going.
Circle: Two Worlds Connected, a 12-episode series released in 2017, is probably the best kdrama example of a well-told science fiction story that I’ve watched to date. To be precise, Circle is a science fiction detective story, and I was particularly reminded of Asimov’s “The Caves of Steel” while watching the second arc. Circle keeps us on the edge of our seat just as 365: Repeat the Year and is able to deftly weave two different world story-arcs so expertly that it puts Sisyphus: The Myth to shame, what is, to be fair, not that difficult.
But how to review this show without spoiling it entirely? MDL already reveals a little about the two story-arcs present throughout the show. In the “Beta Project” arc, taking place in 2017, Kim Woo Jin and Han Jung Yeon investigate a string of suicides in a university campus. In the “Brave New World” arc, taking place in 2037, Detective Kim Joon Hyuk teams up with Lee Ho Soo to investigate a crime in the city of Smart Earth. Connecting these two arcs is a new technology that helps humans regulate their emotions, the Stable Care system. The show explores the origins of this technology as well as its impact on society.
Where can I watch this? 👉 Cereal YT Channel
Two worlds (well) connected
As I mentioned before, Circle is a science fiction detective story and, as such, some sleuthing is required. In the “Beta Project” arc, we have the investigation into the student suicides where Woo Jin and Jung Yeon form an uneasy alliance to search for the truth, with neither fully trusting the other’s intentions and suspecting they’re holding something back. Just what that is you’ll have to watch and find out. To my mind, the Woo Jin/Jung Yeon partnership is almost, if not just, as good as the Hyung Joo/Ga Hyun one from 365: Repeat the Year, what is quite impressive seeing they had half the runtime to make it work. It blows my mind that Jin Goo was only 19 years old when this show aired, and Seung Yeon isn’t half bad either. I honestly wish we could’ve seen more of them.
“And I noticed he was always looking at you”
The “Beta Project” arc does a good job of distracting us, of obscuring the truth, of making us distrust the different characters and their motivations. Is there more than meets the eye behind these suicides? Might there be aliens involved or is there a more human element? If so, what’s the motive? Who can and can’t be trusted in the search for the truth? These questions, as well as some spoilery others, keep us engaged, “turning the page” as it were, eager to find the answers, which are provided at a decent pace (something many shows fail at), in turn prompting more questions.
These answers link to “Brave New World,” where Detective Kim Joon Hyuk joins an ensemble cast that includes fellow police officers, one mysterious and one not-so-mysterious hacker, a doctor, and Lee Ho Soo, a government official from Smart Earth, as they look into the apparently paradoxical matter of a crime taking place in Smart Earth. After all, in a city where people’s (violent) emotions are suppressed, how can there be crime? Smart Earth takes particular pride in being the poster child for a 100% crime-free city and, as expected, many different political actors take a vested interest in Joon Hyuk’s investigation and, in particular, its outcome. As with the “Beta Project” arc, you can expect some cleverly-placed red herrings on top of the confusion that may surface from the fact that the viewer has an incomplete (what’s good!) picture of the “Beta Project” arc, not to mention one isn’t always certain where some characters’ loyalties lie.
I’m not saying you’ll end up like this… but I’m not saying you won’t either
Each episode is roughly split into two halves, one for each story-arc, what helps maintain the dramatic tension, the suspense, even if at the expense of the story’s momentum at times. You know the feeling, you’re finally getting the answers you wanted… and we’re suddenly back in 2037! I didn’t mind much because both story-arcs are so compelling and it’s remarkable that they’re able to slowly give us pieces of the overall puzzle without spoiling each other, although that does depend, to some degree, on the viewer’s own detective instincts. Clearly, care and thought was put into the script to achieve the best balance between the rate of questions and answers provided to the viewer with each episode, what is more effort than many shows often care to put.
What about the science fiction part? Are there questions that deal with the reaction of human beings to changes in science and technology? Most definitely. The Stable Care system itself raises the question of what freedoms people are willing to surrender in exchange for their security (i.e. control over their own emotions). Incidentally, those who agree with the trade-off live in the beautiful, pristine-like island of Smart Earth, whereas those who don’t live in the bleak, quasi-apocalyptic, almost Sisyphus-like, Normal Earth. Chip-off Joon Hyuk lives, of course, on Normal Earth, whereas chip-on Ho Soo lives on Smart Earth, what adds to the parallels I mentioned earlier to “The Caves of Steel” and the partnership between Detective Elijah Bayley and Robot Daneel Olivaw, a pair who likewise need to solve a paradoxically impossible case. Much like Jin Goo and Seung Yeon, Kang Woo and Gi Kwang also make it work, and the characters’ own personal journeys are a treat to watch.
Definitely recommend “The Caves of Steel” if you enjoyed this show
Of course, there’s a darker side to the Stable Care system, as is usually the case with these stories, that brings into the foray issues related to the pursuit of happiness, the essence of justice, and even personal identity. Characters throughout the show struggle with these issues and sometimes waver and revise their stance under the light of new evidence. What’s important is that there’s a smart conversation between parties with different viewpoints, raising thoughtful questions. Naturally, characters eventually need to make a choice for the resolution of the story and this may feel a bit rushed in the latter episodes but some clever dialogue and editing makes up for it. That’s as much as I can reveal without spoiling the plot. For those who have watched the show, or don’t particularly care about spoilers, you may read the next section. If not, skip to Conclusions.
Where science fiction and philosophy meet
The Stable Care system itself is a bit of red herring, even if it does what it’s supposed to do. The show doesn’t bother with the particulars of how it works, what could distract from the main point, and, perhaps surprisingly, was entirely or almost entirely developed by human beings. Yup, no V aliens, no SG-1 Aschen, that kindly give us technology to entrap us. However, at some (early) point during its development another system was integrated with it, one that had the ability to tamper with a person’s memories. Ironically, this was done out of a very human and heartwarming moment between Woo Jin and Byul, who wanted to help this kid who had been so nice to her, showing that sometimes the worst outcomes can come from the best intentions. In order to help Woo Jin recall the memories of his mom, Byul invented the memory download/review system. Similar examples can be found in Continuum’s CMR liquid chip or Remember Me’s Sensen brain implant, with the latter delving further into the subject of memory manipulation.
Ain’t that the truth
How can a society be truly free of crime? When no one remembers that a crime was committed. This is the underlying implication, that even if crime were to happen on Smart Earth, the memory-tampering component would sweep it under the rug by getting rid of the evidence, i.e. blocking the memory. But what happens to justice then, for instance, if a person were to recall the crime committed against them or others, as occurs when Lee Ho Soo confronts the abusive step-father of his late ex-girlfriend? The man doesn’t remember anything so he has no guilt over the event nor any reason to feel responsible over his actions or its consequences. How can Lee Ho Soo obtain justice for the crime that was committed? He can’t. In a society where crime is absent, ironically, so is justice.
What defines a person’s identity? Well, surely, our memories must be a part of it. They’re the only thing we can bring with us from the past and into the future and the only thing that are uniquely ours. Some of those memories might be painful, scary, terrifying even, perhaps enough to wish we could forget them entirely, and this exact same thing, erasing or blocking a person’s memories, is initially positively viewed as a way to treat patients suffering from PTSD. However, if our memories are manipulated, blocked, or erased, are we still the same person or someone else entirely? Is it worth losing part of our individuality, of our identity, if it leads to happiness? Is ignorance, as the saying goes, truly bliss?
I feel like I’ve barely skimmed the surface of the show with my review and missed several points. If I didn’t already mention it, performances were solid across the board and the show has a decent soundtrack that sadly never saw the light of day save for a couple of songs. There is some light romance (indeed, one of my favourite scenes hints at this relationship) but the keyword here is light, so don’t go into this show expecting a full-blown romance. You can however, expect a ton of emotional scenes that really come through. There’s one revelation in particular that hit me like a ton of bricks (it could’ve hit me like something else but that would be a spoiler). Even though I was more or less expecting it the timing kinda blindsided me and it was executed so damn well. Argh, I really want to spoil other great scenes but can’t! I kinda managed to sneak in part of one in this review though (see if you can find it).
At the end of the day, I wanted to put the spotlight on why I consider Circle to be such a good science fiction story. Good science fiction makes us think, it creates a sandbox where we can ask questions and explore possible answers. Yes, Circle doesn’t go deeper into certain interesting topics (e.g. memory manipulation) but that would probably strain the narrative a bit much, making the show stray from the key points it wants to make, so I can hardly fault it for knowing where to draw the line. If anything, Circle could’ve used a little more time to better flesh out certain dilemmas (e.g. the question of whether Circulate Three can be considered Woo Jin or not). Sadly, it’s one of those little gems that seems to have gone under the radar due to poor ratings (and the bad rep science fiction dramas already have) so it’s unlikely we’ll ever get to see a second season but, if any show deserves one, this is it.
So who is this show for?
- If you’ve recently finished watching Link: Eat, Love, Kill and are missing your Jin Goo fix, watch this show
- If you want to find that anomaly that is a well-told science fiction story in a kdrama, watch this show
- If you like solving puzzles, watch this show
- If you’ve nothing better to do, watch this show. I promise you they all lived happily ever after…
… or did they?