Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
<i>Raised By Wolves </i>lets Ridley Scott expand one of his strangest sci-fi ideas

Raised By Wolves lets Ridley Scott expand one of his strangest sci-fi ideas

Photo: Coco Van Oppens (HBO Max)

Infinite Scroll is a series about the increasingly blurry lines between the internet, pop culture, and the real world.

The first time you notice it is about 20 minutes into the first episode. Two androids, unambiguously named Mother and Father, have alighted upon a blue-tinted tundra planet, raising a crop of humanoid children with faltering success. Only one is left. Mother and Father are fighting—ostensibly about reprimanding their child, but the argument has also dilated, become existential, as arguments do. “I thought we were in sync, Father,” Mother seethes, “and we would remain in sync until we cease to operate.” When she barks at him to shut up, shortly after, spittle flecks her lips, and something seems off—tinted, like everything else in the show, perhaps. But beads of the fluid then appear on the back of her neck, also off. It is not until she impales Father on the tooth of some ancient monster that you confirm that these androids you have been watching are full of milk.

For a not-insignificant portion of Raised By Wolves’ viewership, this fact—androids, full of milk—will be enough intrigue to catapult them through the ensuing 10-episode season. The show’s main hook is not its plot but its pedigree: It’s the television directing debut of Ridley Scott, whose early-career one-two punch of Alien and Blade Runner still reverberates in sci-fi some four decades later. Those films were as much triumphs of production design as anything else, and one of the singular innovations of Alien, among a dozen or so, was that Ash, the secret-agent android interloper aboard the Nostromo, would reveal himself through beads of milk appearing on his brow, and that, once disassembled, he would appear not full of circuits or steam like pop culture androids previous but as part of a pearly, viscous slop full of noodles and orb lights and squid. Organic, but not. Milk instead of blood.

It’s as good an idea as, say, infiltration via face hugger, and perfectly in sync with the rest of Alien’s psychosexual horrors: the xenomorph’s phallic design; the threat of violent impregnation; the way Ash, sweating milk, attacks Ripley by shoving a rolled-up porno mag into her mouth. There’s probably a YouTube explainer’s worth of themes packed into the choice of milk as Ash’s bodily fluid, but part of the enduring appeal of Alien is the way it never belabors the point. Its legacy is its economy. As the series changed hands in ensuing films, it became a showcase for different directors, each extracting different elements from Scott’s ur-text: James Cameron expanded the theme of motherhood into an intergalactic cage match; David Fincher weaponized the industrial-chic aesthetic of deep space; Jean-Pierre Jeunet brought a sense of whimsy to the series’ potential for uncanny-valley body horror.

The series and its milky androids went dormant for 15 years thereafter, until Scott revived them for a pair of prequels. Prometheus and Alien: Covenant are not remembered particularly warmly, but I liked them both well enough in theaters, and liked them even more on a recent rewatch, in light of Raised By Wolves. They feel less like prequels to Alien and more like sequels as Scott would’ve made them, expanding on the latent themes from the 1979 film that he found most rich: the relationship between humans and the gods who made them; the relationship between androids and the humans who made them; and the tension between technology and religion. That the prequels turned the aquiline and mysterious Alien into something talky and mythic, more akin to Star Trek than The Texas Chain-Saw Massacre, miffed many long-time fans, and I sympathize. But Alien arrived fully evolved; it could only be expanded. And, still, both prequels make room for relentlessly present-tense set pieces that emerge organically from Scott’s big themes, like Prometheus’ deranged self-abortion scene or Covenant’s mid-film transformation into an android-on-android erotic thriller. Here I will remind you of the flute scene.

All of which brings us back to Raised By Wolves, which I spent at least one hour feverishly speculating was a covert installment in the Alien series, based solely on the splatter of milk that emerges from Father’s torso in the pilot. It isn’t, for what it’s worth—the timelines don’t match up, the technology isn’t quite right, and they celebrate Christmas on Prometheus, not whatever the strange meta-religion in Wolves would dictate. And yet it feels of a piece, undeniably threaded to Scott’s early sci-fi and his more recent successors. We are still being pointedly asked what androids dream of. (Mother claims she does not need to dream, and yet she keeps retiring to a simulation in which she can access her subconscious.) We are still contrasting an android’s faith in their human creator with a human’s faith in their unknowable god, in a way that challenges both. (Mother and Father, avowed atheists both, notice that their remaining human child is drawn more and more to religion as his siblings die.) And we are still struggling, relentlessly, with parenthood, which seems increasingly like the preoccupation animating all of Scott’s science fiction, from prodigal sons like Roy Batty and David to the sheltered seed-children of Covenant and Raised By Wolves. Scott launched his sci-fi career, after all, with a birthing scene unlike any other.

After Scott’s pair of big-budget and bigger-idea debut episodes, Raised By Wolves downshifts into something more familiarly TV-like in its pacing and plotting; there is much arguing over logistics between various parties, many blue-lit sets growing overly familiar, a prophecy of some sort. But the show remains alive in the relationship between Mother and Father, precisely because of the way they are framed: as parents. They may be full of milk, but they’re dealing with the same shit all parents deal with: infidelity, insecurity, fear of the future. Scott unveils all the fun production design himself—Mother’s transformation from ’93 Bowie to floating banshee crucifix is a pulp sci-fi fever dream—but his pet themes, once handed to other directors (including his son, Luke) prove strikingly relevant in 2020. There isn’t a parent alive who won’t wince as Mother relays how the religious Mithraic army on Earth thought it a sin to let androids raise children, particularly as, outside the show, we experience the ongoing collapse of the social support networks (like public school and extended family) that once made the burden of raising children in late capitalism manageable. Even the staunchest screen-time holdouts are panic-purchasing tablets in 2020.

Indeed, it’s this very conflict, at least in part, that precipitated the Terminator-like apocalypse on Wolves’ Earth, and that sent humans into space searching for a new home in the first place. Both the androids and the Mithraic army land on this barren planet in search of a future for humanity, but as the season continues, it becomes clear that both parties view human children as a proxy battle for their own belief systems. This turns into less whiz-bang people-popping and more cerebral variations on the show’s signature themes, including, most intriguingly, a lightly handled subplot about vegetarianism. (As Mr. Rogers once said, “I don’t want to eat anything that has a mother.”) If that seems didactic, fret not; Raised By Wolves seems to revel in complications and counterbalances, as good sci-fi tends to. And so of course it is not just the androids who are full of milk. Halfway through the third episode, a Mithraic soldier cranks open a pipe full of milk and howls a full-throated “milk” alert to all nearby soldiers, who then jog over with mugs outstretched. They drink the milk, offer the milk to each other, and carry on with their business, full of milk. It is not mentioned again. It is the strangest moment in the series, and also one of the best, an evolutionary abnormality borne of the anxieties Scott has been itching for decades.

Clayton Purdom is a writer and editor based in Columbus, Ohio.