Sir Ridley Scott has been a mainstay of the cinema for forty years now. He himself is 82. So we are left with the disturbing possibility that over the course of making Raised By Wolves, some hapless millennial on the sound crew had to go up to him and explain he’s got his mad killer robot going around T-posing (they will, of course, first have to explain what T-posing is and why it matters).
But when the robots aren’t flipping on God-mode and becoming creatures of pure CGI – which, to be fair, is most of the time – they’ve got some incredibly good performances bringing them to life. Despite those kitschy, Astounding Stories-style silver jumpsuits, Amanda Collin and Abubakar Salim genuinely seem like they’re part-machine, like the hosts from Westworld before that show degenerated into ‘robot’ being a colourful euphemism for ‘is magic’. Only part-machine, though. Some of their best moments come when they’re having an all-too-human argument in wholly mechanical language.
It’s never overwhelming, but as this suggests there are nods to the wider sci-fi realm, not least to Scott’s own previous work. Even when you take the convincingly human-like androids out of Mega-City 1 and put them on a desolate planet – as Raised By Wolves does – you will, inevitably, think of Blade Runner. And, when they end up bleeding milk, that is of course the industry standard which all kicked off with Alien.
(To take a more recent reference, the public address system back on Earth sounds remarkably like the constant, dystopian background ramblings from Half-Life – according to the credits it can’t have been Ellen McLain, but it certainly sounded like it.)
There’s also a running thread about the clash of civilisations between religion and atheism – but the reason that zinger about T-posing in the intro didn’t lead straight into a comparison with Christianity is because the religion present isn’t Christianity, or at least not in name. If you were to call it Christianity with the serial numbers filed off you wouldn’t be far wrong, but it appears to have taken a sideways path into some kind of sun worship, with adherents praying to ‘Sol’ (which I misheard as ‘Saul’ for longer than I care to admit).
However, Raised By Wolves neatly leapfrogs the usual tedious issues with a religion v. atheism narrative. There’s no clunky message about one side being obviously right. Both sides have sympathetic characters, but more crucially, any kind of grander issues must take a back seat to simple survival, and neither side is particularly well-adapted to survival on Kepler 22B – or Earth 2, as nobody’s calling it. There’s a bit of we’re-not-so-different, but it’s never forced, and when it is raised makes a certain amount of sense, not least because robots, by definition, have a creator.
Still, the Christian-except-not faith present does have the advantage of being quite familiar – nobody in the audience is going to need things spelled out. It’s the same thing with a lot of those sci-fi references. Collin, in particular, is visually very familiar, conjuring an image somewhere between David Bowie falling to earth and Sting insisting that the spice must flow. But in a broader sense than that, the focus on fundamental concepts (mainly family and survival) means nobody, no matter how unfamiliar with sci-fi they might be, will have any trouble getting a handle on the basics of Raised By Wolves.
This is for the best. Once it gets started there’s enough to take in, between the non-specific-future tech, the alien world – not quite actively hostile, but certainly not the friendliest place – and the little sidenote about humanity having finally screwed up the Earth.
From this kind of background you may have formed a certain image, and yes, I can confirm Raised By Wolves tends towards being incredibly bleak. The best reference point there isn’t even sci-fi, but rather tales of the American frontier from about the time of year winter rolls around and the food starts to run low. Plus, while it’s not exactly action-packed, things do get lively now and again, and it’s very often the child characters in mortal peril.
Speaking of the child cast, though – there’s nothing strictly wrong with Winta McGrath’s performance, but therein lies the problem. Every time he opens his mouth, it can’t help but leave you wondering how, born on a faraway planet, he’s ended up with a cut-glass RADA accent – especially having been raised by robots, who themselves sound suitably neutral and non-threatening. The rest of the child actors are a bit of a mish-mash of accents, but none are quite so incongruous as his.
Will this take you out of the story? Probably not that badly, given sci-fi’s long history of commanders, star-fighters, and evil, charismatic alien overlords who are all so clearly capital-A Acting. Little Winta McGrath’s not a dreadful offender in that respect, at worst a 2 or 3 on the grand scale of sci-fi overacting, where the 10 is of course shoutin’ William Shatner. He’s only an outlier as compared to everyone else present, who stay relatively understated unless they’re actually in physical distress or going mad with power.
It says something, though, that in critiquing a work of sci-fi I’m having to reach down to the level of the acting to find even a vague negative. The atmosphere, the storytelling, even the indulgent dream sequences, there’s little to fault in any of these – Ridley Scott’s been at this for over forty years, he knows his craft. While he’s a major presence on the creative side, he only directed the first two episodes, and the first in particular rattles along at a pace more like a film than a TV show. But honestly, if you’re not looking for the joins, you won’t notice the difference.
There’s an overriding theme of the bonds of family not necessarily needing to be drawn in blood, hence ‘Raised By Wolves’, a nod to the myth of Romulus and Remus (which the show actually says out loud, in a sliiightly on-the-nose way). Most every character present is a surrogate parent or child of some kind – so what higher praise could there be than to say that you too will end up worrying for their well-being?
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A straightforward, unflinching tale of survival, which just happens to have spaceships and killer robots in it as well.
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