When Ridley Scott calls, you answer, right? Or at least sit yourself down with alacrity – and a “Do not disturb” sign on the door – before his latest offering, the 10-part series Raised By Wolves (Sky Atlantic). While Scott directed only the first two, as executive producer his imprimatur is stamped throughout the tale of two androids (Mother, played by Amanda Collin, and Father, Abubakar Salim).
They escape a warring, brutalised Earth for the desolate-but-just-about-habitable planet Kepler-22b with 12 embryos, a dozen jars of nutrients in which to raise them to maturity and all the programming they need to keep them firmly set on the mission to save humanity. Six make it to jar-term, but they are gradually picked off over the next decade or so by accidents and sickness on the increasingly inhospitable planet until only Campion is left.
The war on Earth was between atheists and zealots – the Mithraic people who worship a deity called Sol. Mother and Father raise Campion as an atheist and discourage his growing urge to pray (“Peaceful. Technocratic. It is the only path to progress. Belief in the unreal can comfort human life, but also weaken it” – alas, none of the dinosaurs whose bones litter Kepler-22b died reading a copy of Syd Field’s Screenplay that could have been preserved for later generations).
The relationship between Mother and Father begins to fracture. When an arkful of Mithraic survivors approaches the planet, Father wants to signal their settlement’s location so that Campion will have them for support once his “parents” wear out. Mother is having none of it; as Mithraic scouting parties land over the opening episodes, she becomes increasingly violent, in an attempt to protect what they have created together.
It looks like a Scott creation – blue-grey palette, beautifully unforgiving landscapes filling the frame – and sets up his favourite themes: the clashes and connections between artificial intelligence and humans, the strengths and limitations of each, the religious impulse and the fact these rarely combine to produce a sunny vision of a future utopia. Plus, it is not long before some skittery, long-limbed monsters emerge from the darkness to wreak havoc.
Unfortunately, what seems a set up for a triumphant return by the master falls apart fairly quickly. The world-building becomes riddled with inconsistencies. The androids are meant to be purely rational beings, yet they bury their children’s bodies and seem to mourn the losses, keep mementoes and cry. Mother keeps discovering abilities more akin to superhero than AI powers, which seem to be either forged by or the expression of maternal instinct made monstrous by frustration.
It quickly comes to seem hysterical rather than noble or operatic, and forms part of the programme’s strangely reductive attitude to the female body and its workings (especially from within the ambit of the man who gave us Ripley). The pregnant teenage rape survivor of a church elder, Tempest, is given little to do beyond being an emblem of religious hypocrisy, feeling conflicted about her foetus and being assured by Mother that “the child is innocent”.
Not that any other characters fare much better. Children and adults alike are mere ciphers; there is no one to root for or invest in. The potential for commentary on and insight into the parallels and divergences between AI and human intelligence – raw computing power versus the higher brain functions that breed art and culture – or between religion and science goes unrealised (at least in the early episodes available for review).
Father’s effortful dad jokes aside, the tone is unrelentingly bleak. Much of the time is taken up with the survivors finding ways to avoid Mother’s wrath and subsist on Kepler-22b – presumably until they are old enough to start shagging (this ultimate point of the child cohort that Mother adds to the settlement adding an extra layer of disquieting ickiness to proceedings). These longueurs are occasionally relieved by well-done action sequences (especially during the flashbacks to the war on Earth), but these do little to deepen the story.
It is not the fact that there is nothing new on show. Delivered with enough panache, there will always be an appetite for traditional sci-fi tropes reassembled to bang home the usual messages. But Raised By Wolves does not have panache – and the thin, unsophisticated story it comprises stands naked, particularly cruelly so in a post-Westworld landscape. Humanity is not up to much, for sure, but we were ready for more than this.