When was the last time a sci-fi show offered us something truly alien? For practical reasons, space dramas invariably center on human (or at least humanoid) characters. Unfamiliar settings can also be a hard sell, which is why Star Trek has long thrived as a workplace dramedy, and the Star Wars TV spin-offs echo Westerns and crime dramas. Their locations reflect our own reality, and genuinely alien aliens are hard to find.
Ostensibly a survival thriller, Scavengers Reign breaks this mold from its very first scenes. An intriguing crossover between Miyazaki's Nausicaä and the Valley of the Wind, Alex Garland's fungal horror movie Annihilation, and the art of legendary French cartoonist Mœbius, this animated series is a constant source of wonder. Its human characters drive the plot, but the real selling point is its depiction of an alien ecosystem: a gorgeous 2D animated world featuring an astonishing variety of bizarre and distinctive wildlife.
Scavengers Reign, which premiered on Max this October, offers an atypical approach to a familiar premise: A group of space travelers crash land on an unknown planet. We begin several weeks after their arrival, introducing a handful of disparate survivors.
Sam (Bob Stephenson) and Ursula (Sunita Mani) have developed ingenious ways to interact with the plants and animals of the surrounding jungle. They hook their machinery to bioelectric vines and use a local crustacean to filter the air in a poisonous cave. Traversing a more barren part of the landscape on her cool-as-hell futuristic motorbike, former cargo worker Azi (Wunmi Mosaku) tries to grow food with help from her lovable robot companion, Levi (Alia Shawkat). Meanwhile, the self-centered Kamen (Ted Travelstead) enters into a toxic relationship with a psychic predator, which feeds him blobs of hallucinatory gloop in exchange for fresh prey.
With its vivid setting and bold, occasionally gruesome survival narrative, Scavengers Reign feels like nothing else on TV. Over the past few years we've witnessed a long overdue boom in adult animation, with more original shows like Blue Eye Samurai joining the existing roster of sitcoms (Bob's Burgers; Big Mouth) and franchise spin-offs (Harley Quinn; Star Trek: Lower Decks). But it's still rare for an animated series to reflect the kind of mature storytelling and artistry we see in live-action prestige dramas — possibly because the TV industry still underestimates the scope and power of what animation can offer.
Originating as a characteristically offbeat short film on Adult Swim, Scavengers Reign is the brainchild of two first-time showrunners, Joe Bennett and Charles Huettner, and a team of first-time directors. It perfectly exemplifies the sort of sophisticated work we might see if more animators were given true creative freedom.
At the risk of focusing too much on the differing strengths of animation versus live-action, this show's visual imagination instantly outstrips the production values of megabudget genre hits like The Rings of Power. Each episode features ambitiously elaborate locations and a dazzling array of unique flora and fauna. Every shot deserves to be printed out and framed. Complementing this visual feast, the music (composed by Nicolas Snyder) slides effortlessly between epic blockbuster orchestration and a soundscape that weaves into the ecosystem itself.
In one way or another, most stories about space exploration are also about colonial anxieties. Hollywood's obsession with alien invasion echoes America's own history of colonization. Films like Interstellar examine the danger of seeking a new home in a distant land, while the more cynical Alien franchise shows humans perishing due to capitalist greed and hubris. In Scavengers Reign, the main characters work for a colonial transport company. They're presumably on their way to a more hospitable, Earthlike planet, and are ill-prepared to become interlopers within an alien foodchain.
Historically, this kind of scenario would focus on the idea of humans triumphing (or not) over nature. Here, the emphasis is more on curiosity and cooperation, highlighting the lack of traditional heroes and villains in a world of nonhuman organisms.
Sure, much of the local wildlife displays terrifying abilities to hurt, mimic, or control their human visitors. Kamen's carnivorous partner absorbs and regurgitates elements of his own personality, and at one point a parasite bewitches someone into performing disturbing ritualistic tasks. But these creatures aren't evil in the way that certain human characters choose to be selfish or cruel. They're driven by morally neutral instincts, attempting to feed, procreate, and protect themselves from harm. Humans are an outside contaminant, and while we root for characters like Azi, Sam, and Ursula, we also witness how they disrupt or misunderstand their new environment.
Many of the organisms we meet are charming, even awe-inspiring. A few wouldn't look out of place on a Pokémon lineup. In one memorable scene, Ursula stumbles upon a crucial moment in a plant's lifecycle, where a tiny creature awakens from its slumber to pollinate a constellation of glowing pods. Later on, she can't explain why she felt compelled to stay and watch. This moment encapsulates the magic of Scavengers Reign's worldbuilding, where virtually nothing is explained out loud. It doesn't need to be. Characters talk about their plans and feelings, but they don't rely on traditional exposition, because we can see what's happening for ourselves. If we don't understand something, we're clearly not meant to do so. We're alien to this planet as well.
Rich with both wonder and horror, this 12-episode series is an incredibly rewarding experience. Overshadowed by high-profile releases like Loki when it first came out, Scavengers Reign deserves far more hype: a must-watch title for anyone yearning for some truly original science fiction.
Season 1 of Scavengers Reign is now streaming on Max.