Why Recasting Cortana Is the Right Choice for the Halo TV Series

Veteran Cortana actor Jen Taylor has replaced Natascha McElhone as the AI character in the Halo TV series. Here's why Taylor's casting is good for the show.

Halo TV Series Cortana
Photo: Xbox Game Studios

Jen Taylor will reprise her role as Cortana in the nine-episode Halo TV series being produced for Showtime, IGN reports. Natascha McElhone (Designated Survivor, Solaris) was originally signed on to play both Cortana and Dr. Catherine Halsey, her creator and template, but she’s no longer playing the famous Halo AI character due to scheduling conflicts caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Fortunately, she’s still set to play Dr. Halsey, one of the franchise’s more controversial characters.

While it’s unclear whether Taylor will play the role in-person or will bring a CGI version of Cortana to life through motion capture, the voice actor’s return is good news nonetheless for the almost 20-year-old shooter franchise. Her casting brings nostalgia, believability, and clout to the show. This is not to discredit what would have likely been a great performance from the talented McElhone, but casting Taylor in the role means keeping a key part of what’s made this pivotal Halo character so beloved through the years: her voice.

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With the show now back in production after months of pandemic-related shutdowns, the Halo TV series can only benefit from having a franchise veteran on set. After two decades of playing Cortana, there’s no doubt that Taylor understands her character deeply. At a time when the powers that be are interested in taking the Halo video game series back to its roots with the nostalgia-heavy Halo Infinite, Taylor’s experience should help the show do the same. Judging from the show’s official description and cast, which includes Pablo Schreiber as Master Chief, that seems to be exactly what Showtime is aiming to do.

The Chief and Cortana dynamic has been the emotional center of the series since day one. Master Chief is a man of few words, while Cortana provides the commentary. Even though she’s an AI construct, she often shows more emotion than her stolid human counterpart. Where the Chief is armored up, Cortana manifests as a human silhouette. They’re opposites that complement each other perfectly, and the bond between them has always been just as important to the Halo series as shooting aliens.

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Cortana’s importance to the series, as arguably its other main character, can’t be overstated. It’s partially because her character is so memorable that Taylor is still one of the most popular actors involved with Halo, evoking both nostalgia for the early days of the series as well as how the character has grown beyond the franchise that made her a gaming legend. Even people who aren’t gamers but own a Windows 10 PC with Cortana voice commands enabled know Taylor’s voice well.

But what will be Cortana’s role on the show itself? We don’t know for sure. The series’ official description teases “an epic 26th-century conflict between humanity and an alien threat known as the Covenant” and that the show “will weave deeply drawn personal stories with action, adventure and a richly imagined vision of the future.” That could mean anything in this franchise, which has built up quite an ensemble of super-soldiers, marines, scientists, and enemy factions over years. Master Chief and Cortana will star alongside established characters like Jacob and Miranda Keyes, as well as new Spartans.

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Cortana’s connection to Dr. Halsey in particular is a key part of the franchise’s world-building, and it might provide some clues as to the show’s plot. As well as making Cortana, Halsey also essentially enslaved hundreds of children as test subjects for the SPARTAN super soldier program that birthed Master Chief. Both Cortana and the Chief were essentially created to be part of the military, and the Halo franchise has both played this straight and critiqued it throughout its run. With Halsey set as a key player on the show despite being a background character for much of the video game series, the show seems positioned to ask some tough questions about Halsey’s experiments as well as explore how Cortana and Master Chief feel about them.

Unsurprisingly, Cortana is also the character through whom the series looks most closely at the nature of artificial intelligence. Halo‘s AI are sapient machines based on human brain templates, and the presence of an AI with their own motivations and perspectives on humanity is key to the hard sci-fi storytelling woven throughout the series. (Maybe let’s not talk about where this artificial intelligence plotline goes in the much-maligned Halo 5.)

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We still don’t know when fans will actually be able to watch this show, as production continues to trudge along amid a real-world crisis. Meanwhile, Xbox Series X players are also waiting on the delayed Halo Infinite, which won’t hit shelves until some point in 2021. Yet, even if it’s one piece of news in a flurry of delays, it’s still nice to see a fan-favorite actor return. We look forward to seeing more of Taylor in the future.

More Halo news as we learn it!