Tuesday 25 June 2024

A Review of Scavengers Reign

 Once again I am writing about something which I feel most of my readers will be aware, but in this case it’s a rare piece of popular art that I really liked so I want everyone to know about it.

The Science-Fiction animation 'Scavengers Reign', was made for HBO (and unavailable in the U.K.), and it looks like it has been cancelled there. BUT it has moved to Netflix where I can actually see it. This is my attempt to make sure we get a second series.

The series is based on this short, ‘Scavengers’;

Twelve 20+ minute episodes of western-style animation about the survivors of a crashed space ship trying to survive on an alien world with a fecund, bounteous, and incredibly dangerous biosphere.

As the "Demeter" suffers massive damage the waking crew escape to the planet below in survival pods while the majority are still asleep in cryo. On the surface, the ships Captain manages to jury-rig a signal to bring the Demeter down to the planet intact. 

Three groups of separated survivors see the Demeter come down. All they needs to do is reach the grounded ship and re-awaken the crew before something kills them or power runs out, and then use the ships lifeboat to leave the planet and go to summon help.

To get there they will have to cross a world of gorgeous bounty and cornucopic terrors. 

The incredible fecundity of invention in the environment of Vesta Minor, creates a sense-making baroque Speculative-Evolution Rhapsody which turns its hyper-complex environment of endless transformations and predation into a gorgeous problem to solve, and also a kind of Pilgrims-Progress hajj of transmutation of the identity and soul.

The environment of Vesta Minor is both alien and fecund but more beautiful than its general forms would be alone, (many Science Fiction stories can create mere visual rhapsodies), is the locking together of the logic of life in which every living thing seems to have its own coherent place, purpose, method and cycle of life. Curlicues of white spiral through the air and fasten to white spars, perfectly camouflaged, until a storm disturbs them and they cloud away, like grey petrels flocking in flight from a grey sea, Cambrian-radial megafauna wander across grasslands, ridden by scatterings of minor species. The hyperdeveloped environment is host to wild schemes of parasitism, symbiosis  and simulacra, and complex games of signalling and counter-signalling.


Transhumanism, Parasites, Symbioses and Identity

The story follows three groups of survivors; The first is Human/Human; the ships captain and natural history lady (now the most useful human alive), one human/robot and one human/weird frog thing.

By the end of the series the only one left we are sure is human is the lady with the robot. The captain has been parasitised by a mind-altering plant, the ships natural history lady may be a fungal simulacra, but we are not sure, the robot has been infected with a fungal strain and reborn as a new kind of cyborg, and the lone male survivor is rapidly brought into a symbiotic relationship with a mind-controlling predator.

Constant and unalterable transformation is a main theme of the story and the only periods or places of stability lie in accepting or negotiating some level of alteration rather than resisting all.

The Captain is poisoned by one plant, which steals some genes and grows a very rough simulacrum of him, the main purpose of which is just to get close to the herd, (it usually preys on cowlike animals), and explode, poisoning the rest of the group and fertilising the ground beneath for the plants seed, left behind in the pseudo-captains flesh.

Then he is saved by the bio-medical knowledge of a mute survivor left behind by a previous expedition, who it turns out is a symbiote herself, of a different cave-dwelling entity. Yet clearly this woman has some selfhood left, she can perform complex actions, still visits her husbands grave, but in other ways is entirely the creature and servant of the entity. She saves his life but infects him with this fresh form of life.

The Captain then watches his own behaviour change, only half realising as his basic urges and desires are subverted by the plantlike organism growing inside him, which is keeping him alive but, mutely and instinctively, is trying to turn him into an agent to create and sustain its preferred environment.

The lone male survivor is trapped in their pod, high up in trees and is slowly starving to death. He is retrieved by the 'Hollow', a somewhat intelligent froglike thing with limited psychokinetic and mind-altering powers.

Most Hollows walk around on branches peering at little bugs or mouselike entities. If they can fixate one, they can parasitise it, subverting its behaviour so that it brings the Hollow food.

One tries this on the lone survivor and it works. It speaks to him through memory, illusion and instinct, transforming him into a food-gatherer. It’s pretty clear that, at least to begin with, the Hollow doesn't understand much or anything about the buttons it is pressing. If it wants its Gatherer to get food, or to stay, or follow, or be happy, it just presses on the memory/emotion complex in the humans head and the human mind does the rest, creating complex dreams, hallucinations and desires to achieve these ends.

But this Gatherer is a sentient self-aware and quite intelligent human, and in order to gather ever-more food, he takes to tool-use, traps, ambush, throwing spears and persistence hunting, making this combination of Hollow and Human Gatherer an abnormally insanely successful system, and making the Hollow a FUCKING UNIT.

As this happens it seems that the Hollow itself is being poisoned, or altered by the infiltrating visions of its human Gatherer. We never know how much the Hollow understands of what it sees in the human mind, or of what emotions it shares, but it ends up making a pilgrimage to the Demeter itself and treats the place as a kind of preferred lair or hunting place, trying to kill or drive off whatever else turns up.

It’s possible that nothing on Vesta Minor is self-aware or intelligent in an way we can understand, but so many of its species can subvert, parasitise or enter symbiosis with humans, which we know are self-aware, we have to ask; what then is the nature of the soul which results?

Many of these effects are horrific but this is not a horror series. The tone and form of the storytelling accept these changes evenly and clearly, with a kind of acceptance similar to that of a Ballard story. What results might be called Environmental Horror, Speculative-Evolution Porn, Alien World Survival Show or Transmutation Drama. It has a little of the Tempest, a little Dougal Dixon, some David Attenborough and a dab of William Golding.

Is this planet actually more complex than earth, or just so strange that it seems so?

In a sense Vesta Minor is "Life-Horror/Wonder" or "Evolution Horror". All the systems and ideas of life’s interaction, transformation and evolution on Vesta Minor are drawn from or influenced by that of our world, but re-enchanted or make strange by their incredible new forms and the complexity and subtlety of their interactions.

If Vesta Minor causes us Awe, or Horror , or Wonder, this is in some sense only because those processes should cause such emotion, yet we are blind to their day-to-day nature here due to overfamiliarity. When recast on an alien world through a Wunderkammer of alien forms, the same processes and logic amaze and astound us.

(Nerd Shit - If Vesta Minor was real and people landed there, even if they could breathe, most likely the viruses and bacteria would infect them and eat them alive within a day. 

Possible reasons they might not include; not being adapted to live inside humans, the humans having some kind of sci-fi inbuilt auto-immune system either via genetic alteration or implant, or Vesta Minor microsphere for some magical reason, not being as incredibly hyper-complex as its macro-scale biosphere.)

It’s really a lovely non-stupid dream of a series so if you are a lover of Science Fiction or strange things and are very tired of fucking stupid stuff then please give it a go.

The ending does have slight Gaia-vibes, which is something it managed to avoid up until that point. It’s kind of boring if the planet has a Mind because that answers a lot of the complex moral questions to do with encountering an alien environment.


  1. I barely get any time to watch films or shows anymore. But this one went through the cracks, and oh boy. I agree with everything said here, it is brilliant.

  2. Had an idea which was this crossed with the Qu and Earth's role in the Hitchhiker series. The "puzzleworlds" are works of abstract art and/or sublime computation left in the wake of an ever cycling wave of post-singularity transformation. The underlying themes there beyond "evolutionary wonder and horror" would be "how can we transcend humanity without abandoning it?", picking through the strangeness left in the divine's wake is as good a strategy as any.

    What sort of possibilities does SR suggest to you? Doesn't seem like Minor-lite would be out of place among the Red Lands...

    1. It does seem so insanely hyper or over-complex that it almost speaks of some kind of post-singularity or biotech post-evolutionary development. But I keep thinking about earth in one if its bursts of massive biological development and wondering if aliens came down here then - would it seem to them more or less complex than Vesta?

      I also like the idea of it being very strange but purely evolutionary, it feels like it adds to to calm slightly horrific sometimes beautiful nature of... nature on Vesta. If it ends up being a hive mind or Pandora/Gaia planetary mind then it seems to sink back into the strictures of purely human drama to me.

      Will definitely be adding it to the background ideas for 'The Red Lands' though, good call.

    2. There's a sort of ecological uncanny valley at play for me. Since Vesta looks more terrestrial than some really out there spec evo stuff it's a little more jarring when the fantastic stuff shows up when viewing it through that lens. That said Mobius wasn't a biologist and he didn't need to be to catch a "sense" of the alien. From a more "realistic" point of view Earth would seem (and is) far more complex in a low-key way (though not an alien PoV I'd highly recommend the short story "Wang's Carpets").

      I'd agree that a guiding intelligence would be a letdown, that said I also like it when hyperintelligence doesn't especially value that aspect of itself. Going through periodic phases of brilliance is the same as growing and shedding wings for dispersal season. It being evolution alone which "just works differently here" fits nicely with the magical realism approach to biology.

      Red Lands wise the idea of atavism, Lamarkian selection and inbreeding are interesting when time fuckery's involved. There could be species which evolve into their own predators/prey/parasites intersecting across their natural histories. Perhaps there is even natural selection acting on different means of selection. Meta collapsing down into a mess same as everywhere else between time's end and rebirth.

    3. Those are some cool concepts

  3. Thank you for the recommendation. I've now watched this through, and thoroughly enjoyed it. One (rather niche) question for a fellow viewer -- what do you think about the Wall being potentially post-sapient? There doesn't seem to be inherently sapient life on Vesta; the white flower slime-mold achieves it through integration with (and modelling the connections of) complex circuitry, and Telekinetic Quagsire achieves a sort of nebulous semi-sapience thanks to its assimilated human symbiote, but nothing appears to have achieved sophoncy without Terran contamination. Except... the homunculus in the Wall seemed a little unique. Perhaps this is merely because its quasi-humanoid form made it seem more aware (and it's just a trick of my biased primate brain) -- and obviously the symbolism is intentional -- but there's more to it than that. The Wall seems very ordered and almost mechanical, more like architecture than anything. Biotech, as would seem to arise naturally in this environment (the human cast have rudimentary native biotech via exploitation of the native life having only been here a few weeks). I found a speculative backstory forming in my mind, that the homunculi are the remnant of a small but intelligent species that achieved sapience and civilization, constructing "cities" of the flora, and over time became so integrated that they became part of the city... and eventually, simply existed to propagate it. Now they are born only to fertilise the Wall components, a totally integrated symbiote absorbed into service of the larger lifeform (as we see in several other cases on Vesta, in multiple variations). Is this merely me unfortunately projecting onto the most humanoid creature in the show? Yet given how masterfully the animation conveys the varying degrees of non-sophont intelligence in the native life, I imagine it was anticipated and desired that I should have such ideas.

    (Obviously the thematic significance of that sequence can't be denied, so I assume it was supposed to register as human-esque to convey the plot in microcosm; transient humanity, humans as part of the larger cycle lost and integrated within the general biology of Vesta, etc. But the Wall seemed to suggest something more as well, a potential glimpse into a prior, native civilization). What do you think?

    1. I think I agree completely with your emotions and the intended meaning of the scene. The idea of humans ending up as.. who knows? Little Pygmy gatherers to a semi technological Hollow society? Or as just adjuncts to the murder-flowers, is deeply tempting and compelling. The concept of vestigal intelligence or post-intelligence brings to mind powerful and peculiar emotions of subdued terror, tragedy, sadness, acceptance and awe that match those of that scene.

      My cold rational brain says 'no its just the owl effect - forward-facing eyes and homunculus limbs means we see it as 'people', but if it was just a bug doing the same thing we wouldn't care'