I enjoy franchises as much as anyone, but nothing compares to the thrill of an original concept deftly executed. That’s what HBO Max’s Raised by Wolves offers viewers—an original science fiction story focusing on family, religion, and survival, skillfully crafted and brimming with ideas.
Atheists Among the Stars
The show, executive produced by Ridley Scott (Alien, Gladiator) (who also directed its first two episodes), follows two androids—known only as Mother and Father—who are sent to the planet Kepler-22b (an actual, potentially habitable planet) with human embryos and the goal of establishing a new human colony amongst the stars. They are leaving behind a dying Earth which has been torn apart by war between two sects: a group of militant atheists and the religious order of the Mithraic.
While their time on Kepler-22b begins auspiciously enough, with Mother “giving birth” to six healthy human children, it does not take long for the androids’ fortunes to turn. Over the next several years all but one of their children dies, either from mishaps amongst Kepler-22b’s treacherous landscape or from inexplicable illnesses.
Their mission a failure and left with only one son, Campion, to raise, the androids attempt to eke out a meager existence on their new home.
Enter: the Mithraic, who have sent their own colony ship to Kepler-22b, arriving 13 years after Mother and Father (because their ship couldn’t travel as fast since it had human beings aboard). When the androids and their progeny encounter the religious fundamentalists, chaos ensues and puts all of the colonists’ lives at risk.
Stars in the Making
That’s the basic setup for Raised by Wolves through the first portion of the show’s premiere. While that may seem like a lot of ground for the show to cover so quickly—and, to be fair, it probably is—the series does so without too many hiccups. The basic premise is delivered efficiently, with the show spending the rest of the series building and adding depth to it.
However, the other cast members acquit themselves admirably, especially Amanda Collin and Abubakar Salim as Mother and Father, respectively.
Several younger actors are given prominent roles as well and, though I’m always wary of child performers, the casting department delivered, and basically all of them are able to handle the material they’re given.
But again, the real standouts here are Collin and Salim. Their work as the androids is a joy to behold as they balance the affection their reprogrammed minds feel for the children in their care with the logical and indifferent demeanor you’d expect from machines.
Collin’s Mother is the more volatile of the two, equipped to defend her “family” from danger, while Salim’s Father is a more domestic machine, intended to support Mother and help maintain the compound. Mother is humanized—if you’ll pardon the expression—by her fierce love for her children, while Father makes (not very funny) jokes and strives for opportunities to prove himself equally valuable to their colony.
One of my favorite things about the series has been the costume and production design. While science fiction—especially in film and television—has grown more concerned with cool outfits over the last few years, and prized sterile, graceful environments, Raised by Wolves does away with all of that.
The costumes are almost goofy, but in a way that harkens back to sci-fi pulp covers from 50 years ago. The androids wear only skin-tight grey leotards, their children are dressed in rags, and the Mithraic wear robes and armor that comes complete with helmets and pauldrons.
A prisoner is discovered in a later episode wearing what is, essentially, a block of metal crowned by a ring of spikes (without any holes for his eyes). The aesthetic is very much a cross between Game of Thrones and Star Trek—and all the better for it.
Their design of the dwellings and landscape is equally noteworthy—Mother and Father’s colony lives in stone huts and silos, as well as igloo-like domes they brought with them.
The landscape itself (replicated on location in South Africa) is relatively calm—scrubland interspersed with more densely forested areas in the zone our characters are in—but pockmarked with massive craters that play an important role in the story on more than one occasion.
Another area in which Raised by Wolves excels, and perhaps its greatest success, is the way in which it raises questions about humanity, family, and faith across its runtime.
Mother and Father, while not human themselves, experience feelings of love for their children, a desire to protect them, as well as anger, disappointment, and inadequacy. While the Mithraic regard androids as lesser-than tools, the actions of our two leads challenges this assumption and asks what it is that makes someone (or something) human. Is it flesh and blood or something more primal and ethereal?
To that end, their familial unit, as well as others that are created by the tragedy and violence of the show, is as real as any biological family’s and shows that genuine care and concern are more important than genetics.
Faith is central to the entire story, which is predicated on a war between atheists and the Mithraic (who worship the god Sol).
While Mother and Father have been tasked with creating an atheist colony on Kepler-22b that will be free of religious influence (seen by their creator, a former Mithraic, as the reason for Earth’s fall), their programming regularly comes into conflict with Campion’s struggle to understand and accept the hardships of his life.
Raised by Wolves asks viewers if it matters whether or not a god exists when the comfort believing in a higher power provides can ease human suffering, but juxtaposes this relief with the atrocities that can be committed in the name of the divine: war, rape, and dehumanization of non-believers.
Raised by Wolves is everything you want in science fiction—it’s smart, fun, and weird, with talent to spare in front of and behind the camera.
Ridley Scott’s fingerprints are definitely visible here (the androids “bleed” a white milk-like substance, almost certainly in homage to the androids from the Alien movies) and his work on the first two episodes set a tone that has carried the series successfully through the rest of Season 1.
If this were a movie, it would probably be watchable, but forgettable, forced to cover too much ground in too little time, but running this through an 8-episode season on HBO Max has elevated it and made it much more compelling, with room for real character moments and worldbuilding.
And I’ve barely scratched the surface of what makes the show great here; there are betrayals and monsters and religious awakenings aplenty awaiting you on Kepler-22b. While it hasn’t lit up the zeitgeist, that’s on us, not the show, which has surpassed my expectations and become one of my favorite first watches of 2020.
I’m calling Raised by Wolves, which has already been renewed for a second season, Must-Watch Sci-Fi. You can catch it on HBO Max—and if you act fast you can get caught up before the season finale drops on Thursday.
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