TV: Raised by Wolves (Season 1)

July 30, 2021

If Prometheus taught us anything it’s that given enough rope, Ridley Scott is liable to hang himself. But it’s probably unfair to blame him for the failures of Raised by Wolves, a science fiction drama from HBO Max for which he directed the first two (and best) episodes. It’s a unique series and quite striking visually, but ultimately feels like an aesthetic in search of a purpose.

On the Earth-like world of Kepler 22-b, two fugitive androids — Mother (Amanda Collin) and Father (Abubakar Salim) — arrive, fleeing an Earth ravaged by catastrophic religious war. The androids have been programmed to raise human children, and to that end have brought  several embryos, in the hopes of establishing a new colony. Unfortunately, only one of them — the resilient Campion (Winta McGrath) — survives the inhospitable terrain of Kepler, which puts him in the thick of things as new human conflict arrives. When an ark from Earth full of religious fanatics descends on the planet, it triggers Mother’s military capabilities. As it turns out, Mother isn’t a mere service android; she’s a “necromancer,” a weapon of the Sol worshippers who possesses great destructive powers. She’s been reprogrammed by atheists to defend the colony. When Mother kidnaps several children from the ark to raise as her own, she pits her unlikely new family against arriving crusaders, instigating a new stage of the long-standing religious war.

If nothing else, Raised by Wolves is unconventional television, a tale of far future survival on a planet with no societal infrastructure. For all its initial intrigues, this lack of society immediately proves challenging for the writers to make interesting, especially since its chief characters are androids and children. Mother and Father, while sophisticated in design, are still androids, presenting somewhere between the creepy hubots of Real Humans and Star Trek’s Spock — at least until their emotions inexplicably start evolving. The children, meanwhile, are merely generic and difficult to get invested in. Meanwhile, the only adults on hand are the religious colonists — but more importantly, the two atheist impostors in their midst, Mary (Niamh Algar) and Caleb (Travis Fimmel), who fled Earth by assuming the identities of two believers. For a while, they’re the only relatable characters, but their adventures aren’t exactly gripping.

And therein lies the primary flaw of the series: there’s simply no there there. Raised by Wolves has cinematic setting and eyeball kicks galore, but no narrative purpose other than to show those assets. To be fair, the firepower of the visuals generates a reasonably tantalizing air of mystery at first, as Scott’s skillful direction guides us into literally alien territory. But the more story the show attempts to sustain, the less substance is seen, as the science fictional content grows increasingly nonsensical. Not even the survivalism aspect — something that carried the supernatural melodrama of Lost for several seasons, even when the ideas vanished — are executed with any urgency. It started to get yawn-inducing halfway through, the simplistic religious war backstory revealing itself as little more than a pro forma friction generator…and not even a convincing one, since there’s no nuance to its world-destroying, believers-versus-atheists dichotomy. (Seriously: fanatic atheists?)

It’s far from the worst thing I’ve ever seen on television, mind you, and there’s at least a certain panache to the style and visual sense of wonder. But ultimately it’s a slow, hollow grind that spends its length trying to dig beneath a shiny surface in the hopes of unearthing a meaning that doesn’t seem to exist.