One of the first spoken lines in the new HBO Max series Raised by Wolves serves as a pretty good indicator of whether or not the sci-fi drama, executive produced and initially directed by Ridley Scott, is for you. Two humanoid-looking androids, calling themselves Mother (Amanda Collin) and Father (Abubakar Salim), have just arrived on an distant planet, and after assembling a shelter they begin setting up equipment and plugging thin tubes into Mother’s exposed abdomen (which has six nipples).
“Initiating trimester one,” Father says, and that’s more than likely when you sit straight up — either to pay better attention, or start looking for the remote. Those who don’t click away, intrigued by the sci-fi weirdness on the screen, will find a hodgepodge of semi-familiar tropes brought together in very unexpected ways; one with a lot of chaos to its storytelling, but in ways deliberately designed to keep us on our toes.
I personally always want to praise instances when studios and networks and streamers eschew pre-established IP for original concepts, and Raised by Wolves is definitely that, though it does cover several topics familiar to fans of Scott’s work: Robots, space, women in action, and religious conflicts. That last aspect is perhaps what makes Wolves feel fresh in comparison to other shows of its ilk — religion is always a sensitive topic on television, especially one as complex as this. But the series also benefits from the complete freedom to build a world from the ground up, with production design full of fresh details and new takes on concepts like space travel and robots.
This is the very definition of kitchen sink genre storytelling, with some additional edge provided by everything we slowly but surely begin to understand about the future into which creator Aaron Guzikowski has catapulted us. To explain in detail what’s happening would detract from the experience of puzzling it out on one’s own, but central to the circumstances is a religious war along the bluntest of schisms: atheists versus believers, one which led to infinitely bloody consequences.
Understanding the nuances and details of this future is at times a major factor in driving interest, to be honest, especially later on in the season when the momentum begins to drag. This isn’t true of the first two episodes, which burn through a lot of plot and action — and it may or may not be a coincidence that these two episodes are the ones directed by Scott, who has produced a ton of TV over the last several years through his Scott Free Productions company but hasn’t actually helmed an episode of TV since the 1960s.
Thankfully, his first two episodes feel genuinely episodic (dear creators, take pity on the critics, please spare us any more “XX-hour movies” talk), as does the rest of the series (with future episodes directed by Luke Scott, Sergio Mimica-Gezzan, Alex Gabassi, and James Hawes). However, as mentioned, later on the show starts to drag, with questions of how to survive on a planet as seemingly desolate and barren as this one, along with the complicated loyalties of its characters, leading to a lot of back-and-forths that lack drive. (This is a show that might greatly benefit from its staggered release schedule, though — the first three episodes are available today, while future episodes will be released weekly, allowing details from those later episodes to receive more appreciation.)
While the human component of the series, most clearly represented by Vikings alumni Travis Fimmel, Collin emerges as the breakout star of the series — in exchange for having to wear an unforgiving skintight jumpsuit (Voyager‘s Seven of Nine is looking at this costume and saying, “oooof, she’s got it worse than me”), she gets some of the meatiest material of the first six episodes, a character torn between forces latent in her programming and essential to her nature.
Salim is somewhat more on the sidelines (and is not the centerpiece of some stunning bits of ultra-violence), but he still ensures that the Mother and Father relationship, as artificial as it might be, is one of the show’s biggest emotional hooks. The one catch: It’s a bit of a shame that the human characters feel far less developed than the androids.
The pacing problems are a real issue, but when Raised by Wolves is delving into the more original aspects of its nature, its boldness shines through — boldness which means I’ll definitely want to revisit the season as a whole, to see just how the many conflicts set into place evolve. After all, one of the highest compliments I can give any new series is this: what a weird-ass show. And on that score, Wolves definitely delivers.
The first three episodes of Raised by Wolves are streaming now on HBO Max. Future episodes will debut Thursdays.