Do you miss classic sci-fi TV, with its blend of heady ideas and almost laughable production value? Do you wish you could still roll out of bed on a Saturday and watch endless episodes of Farscape or Babylon 5? In other words, do you miss when sci-fi TV was fully batshit? Then it’s really time to start watching Raised By Wolves.
Created by Aaron Guzikowski and airing on HBO Max, Raised By Wolves is, essentially, an intense, escalating series of violent parenting disputes. Two androids named Mother and Father have been programmed by militant atheists to rebuild human civilization on the distant planet Kepler-22b, leading them to attempt to raise a group of human children. Meanwhile, remnants of a high-tech, zealous religious order that won a war against the atheists have also landed on Kepler-22b, and struggle to rebuild civilization by raising their children. Chaos ensues, as the planet’s denizens engage in theological clashes, kidnap each other’s children, and develop the foreboding sense that something has, in fact, been on Kepler-22b for a long, long time.
Raised By Wolves checks off plenty of classic sci-fi topics, starting with the planet itself. Unlike sci-fi planets that are presented as alien but ultimately just resemble deserts on Earth, Raised By Wolves’ version of Kepler-22b is truly bizarre. An acid sea covers some chunk of the planet’s mass, and not even the super-powered androids know much about what lives inside. The various relics the characters encounter make for excellent world-building (sorry), suggesting a rich and deep history that no one fully understands. And, of course, there’s the mysterious Entity that seemingly dwells deep within the planet.
Beyond Kepler-22b itself, Raised By Wolves looks fantastic. Much of the production design seems like it should be silly, original Star Trek-level—the androids are distinguished by their skin-tight silver bodysuits, while many of the most exciting sequences revolve around discoveries like “a big rock.” But the combination of lighting, directing, and overall tone makes these decisions work, and gives the entire show an elegiac, ghostly quality.
As the show goes on, Raised By Wolves asks some of the genre’s most foundational questions: Are machines capable of human emotion outside of their programming? At what point do mutation and adaptation make human beings cease to be human? How do people react to scarcity, and attempt to build new modes of togetherness and society in harsh conditions? And, perhaps most importantly, what if there was a big, gross snake that flew around and ate trees?
If a big freaky snake sounds good to you, strap in: More than anything, Raised By Wolves is a disgusting feast. Body horror has become increasingly central to the show. Characters grow and transform in response to Mother’s eyes, the source of her destructive power. Several characters have had their faces ripped off in some capacity. Others have experienced terrifying, torturous births — including Mother, who gives birth to the big snake.
Still, these moments are rarely, if ever, gratuitous — or, at least, they’re inflected with enough recognizable emotion to make Raised By Wolves feel oddly grounded for a show that’s so bizarre. A murderous android child might look like an absolute nightmare, but the show never lets you forget that she, too, is a child, suffering like everyone else from the misparenting of Kepler-22b. When the giant scary snake grows into its fully monstrous form, it seems to largely be motivated by jealousy that Mother likes the other children better.
By playing these scenarios completely straight, Raised By Wolves manages to have a light air of camp while still getting you invested in the relationship between a young boy and a murderous android girl. It helps that the cast, especially Amanda Collin and Abubakar Salim as Mother and Father, respectively, is stellar, and commits so strongly that even the most cliched bits become something new. For example: Father’s habit of attempting to tell jokes could, in the hands of a lesser actor, come across as hoary, well-trod territory of an artificial man struggling to understand the ineffable quality of human humor. Instead, he’s a real, specific character, one who embodies the hypothetical challenges of AI while remaining a distinct individual.
Above all, Raised By Wolves is full of classic themes and visual motifs from executive producer Ridley Scott, who directed the first two episodes of the series: the robots have milk-blood, people are constantly arguing about the origins of civilization and why we’re even, like, here man. Mother in particular evokes Michael Fassbender’s David in Prometheus. It’d be unfair to compare Raised By Wolves to Alien, one of the most acclaimed and influential movies in the history of the medium. But Raised By Wolves is doing its own thing, and with two full seasons available to watch, it’s a great time to find out just what that thing is. Also, there are big, weird-looking snakes that fly around and eat trees. You know, if you’re into that kind of thing.