The Fall TV season gets off to both an early and an inauspicious start with “Raised by Wolves” (HBO Max), which at first blush has the traits director Ridley Scott also brought to his recent films such as “Prometheus” and “The Martian” – more polished than his early work, but still with verve. But the first episode doesn’t build in intrigue or surprises; it stays pat, offering little to admire beyond how it looks. There’s not enough story or character here from the pen of Aaron Guzikowski, who is also the series’ creator. “Raised by Wolves” did not hook me at all.
The pilot episode plays like a nature documentary as we meet two skin-tight jumpsuited androids, Mother (Amanda Collin) and Father (Abubakar Salim). They space-jump to a remote planet to raise a gaggle of humans, as per their programming. They start with 12 in-vitro embryos, and six survive, but Campion (Winta McGrath) is our narrator and POV lad when we move forward a few years.
While it’s as languid as a nature doc, “RBW” does serve up some gee-wiz sci-fi, especially when Father carefully removes the babies from their artificial amniotic sacs. This is a very plausible version of the next century. It’s also post-racial, although – somewhat incongruously – distinct races still exist. Campion is white, but one of his sisters is black, one is Asian. The androids are white (Mother) and black (Father), but it’s clear these things don’t matter anymore.
Collin and Salim do good work, and bring a tinge of wry humor, as androids who are human in a lot of the ways that matter (it’s not at all unnatural that Campion loves Mother like a mother), but also have flaws. Mother is malfunctioning, something shown in spectacular horror-style fashion when her war programming is unleashed on visiting humans in the episode’s bloody conclusion.
Before that, some android-led family moments inch toward those Nathan W. Pyle cartoons that portray aliens raising offspring in the exact same style as humans, but with hyper-literal language. This fish-out-of-water brand of humor was also popularized by “Star Trek’s” Data and “Buffy’s” Anya. “RBW” isn’t going for outright laughs, but rather mild amusement. It’s in these moments when the show flirts with having characters worth liking and following.
Guzikowski is too bluntly interested in the problem of dogmatic teaching. Mother teaches her human kids about science, but ironically speaks of atheism and science with religious passion. The human visitors – led by Travis Fimmel’s Marcus — are of the Mithraic religion, and as far as we can tell here, their mistrust of Mother is not bigoted, but reasonable based on available evidence. So “RBW” is not intellectually empty by any means; it’s very consciously one of those thoughtful dystopian epics. But it is proof that you can present valid talking points and still be boring.
No doubt some twists are on the docket in the subsequent nine episodes. (Two of them are already available, and maybe I should’ve watched those before presenting this review. But on the other hand, one episode is enough time to engage a viewer, no matter how slow-burn the story is gonna be.) We also have more to learn about this planet, which is classically sparse – the Earthly stand-in is a barren-looking area of South Africa, with mountains on the horizon – but features bones of giant creatures, like when C-3PO and R2-D2 land on Tatooine.
Speaking of better SF properties, when Mother is damaged, she bleeds that white synthetic blood like in “Alien.” It might be cool if “Raised by Wolves” turned out to be a backdoor spinoff of Scott’s most famous fictional universe, but if it is, that would’ve leaked by now. Since it isn’t, I’m instead thinking about how much I’d rather be watching the next entry in Scott’s “Alien” prequel series.