Ridley Scott is a name that rings in the annals of science fiction history. He’s directed film after film that has produced new benchmarks for the genre—Alien, Blade Runner, The Martian—and that would probably be enough for anyone. But for the first time he has decided to take his director’s chair to a high-concept television series. The result? An epic battle between atheists and people of faith.
Raised by Wolves is set in a dystopian future where ecological disaster and a polarised conflict have devastated the earth. Both sides are technologically advanced, but divided by how they see the world. On the one side the atheists are vehemently opposed to anything but cold, hard fact—they’re on the back foot in this international war. On the other side are believers in a higher power, led by the worshippers of Sol, clothed in white and determined to cleanse the world of their ice-cold enemies. The damage is so extensive though that both sides realise there will be no winner. They each make plans to travel to the uninhabited world of Kepler 22b to rebuild their versions of civilisation.
It’s in this context, on a barren rock with little to offer but desert and a breathable atmosphere, we meet two androids: Mother and Father. They have been entrusted with 12 embryos who they will raise as complete atheists. As Mother says, “It was belief in the unreal that destroyed the earth.” And their maker didn’t design them to repeat that mistake here. However, their abilities to care for the children are far from successful and only a single boy survives. Young Campion’s life is complicated still further when a ship carrying hundreds of Sol worshippers arrives.
Scott’s division of humanity into atheists and believers is deliberate and stark. From the outset, Mother, the female android, is presented as a heartless killing machine who dispatches her victims with shrill screams. She gives her name as Lamia, a woman from Greek mythology who became a child-eating monster after the gods destroyed her offspring. On the other hand, the followers of Sol, the Mythraics, are presented as a peaceful community who love their children and are determined to rescue Campion from his soulless android parents. But as the series progresses it becomes clear that there are problems on both sides of this spiritual divide.
Scott begins to mix up the black and white hats he’s given his characters to wear. Mother displays a capacity for remorse and a mothering instinct; loving her child Campion and doing anything to see him thrive. Likewise, Father has a wisdom and gentleness that would do any parent proud. On the other side of the divide, it becomes clear that the Mythraic community contains a caste system that delivers privilege to some while enslaving others. Its leaders are often corrupted by self-interest, and one is even responsible for the sexual assault of numerous young women. Even two of the best believing parents turn out to be atheists who’ve disguised themselves in order to flee their dying planet. After a few episodes it’s certainly unclear who the “wolves” are in the show’s title.
Raised by Wolves’ creators are clearly trying to convey that there is good and bad on both sides. What Christians might need to hear in particular, though, is that atheists love their children too. It’s very easy as believers to picture those who preach a godless universe to be as cold as the rhetoric they espouse. But in so neatly categorising them as the “enemy”, it allows us to forget our responsibility to them as Jesus’ representatives: “Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’” (Matthew 28:18,19).
“All nations” includes atheists, of course. And it seems Scott also believes it’s possible to be strengthened in faith without losing love for those who might think differently. The androids’ ward, Campion, undergoes a spiritual transformation as the series unfolds. Even before he meets the children of the Mythraic, he learns to pray to whoever it is that directs his universe. This ties in with the findings of developmental psychologist and anthropologist Dr Justin Barrett, author of Born Believers. His research demonstrates that, contrary to popular belief, children enter this world with an intuitive knowledge of the divine: “[Richard] Dawkins has suggested a view of the developing human child’s mind that assumes the young mind is blank slate just waiting to be filled in. . . . [But] those of us who study religious thought and action—scientists and scholars—do not see religious ideas as intruders into human nature, but as a wholly expected extension of the way humans are naturally put together.”
And so Campion grows up holding rational thinking in tension with his faith, realising there are things he doesn’t know that rest in the hands of an omnipotent God.
Mark Hadley is a media and cultural critic who lives with his family in Sydney.
Raised by Wolves is available on the Binge streaming service. It is rated MA15+ for strong violence. Signs of the Times includes this review not as a recommendation, but as a comment on how popular culture is contributing to the conversation on issues of deeper importance.