Light spoilers for episodes 1-3. All imagery shown is owned by Warner Bros. Discovery and/or its affiliates and subsidiaries, and appears below for review purposes only.
Rohil here, logging in for All Ages of Geek, we survived…
I’ve awoken to an alluring landscape of lush vegetation and organic edifices, each with a pulse – some wreckage from our cargo ship, the Demeter 227, smokes up in the distance. Vivid, loving colors framed in sharp linework and striking lighting enrapture the soul as I try to make sense of a well-oiled, vicious machine simply going about its cycles. This is Vesta Minor – a hostile and nurturing place – connective and isolating.
To the untrained eye, one might assume it is a primitive land, BUT sophisticated technology surrounds us! Jello-like plants with fleshy levers and a sort of “UI” embedded within them… stingray-mushroomy air purifying masks? Massive sea creatures constructed like submarines through a storm!? Oh, and cute little fellas that operate like personal external hard drives– a memory dump with an endless capacity to recall and create… for a steep price.
My companions Ursula (played by Sunita Mani) and Sam (played by Bob Stephenson) seem to have this place figured out to an extent. I see the trials and errors etched into their skin, in their movements– every cautious breath, every exertion of strength. Ursula and Bob are learning to live all over again. We’re attempting to make our way to the rest of Demeter’s stranded passengers.
Season 1 Episode 1, Ursula secures her “breathing mask.”
Season 1 Episode 1, Ursula and Sam explore “contaminated” underground for spare parts.
As I chat with the creators, James Merrill (Executive Producer) references the bear attack scene from Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 2015 Oscar-winning film, “The Revenant,” as a template for the violence in the show. All of the Scavenger’s Reign characters’ knowledge and thoroughness feels earned. A first big battle between Ursula, Sam, and a crab-like creature encapsulates their creator intent perfectly.
Joe Bennett (Co-Creator and Executive Director) adds that it was important to the team that the “scars stay” – whether that be on the main cast or the creatures and the environment around them.
Benjy Brooke (Supervising Director) shares more insight into their approach to physicality in the animation; there is “excitement to awkwardness,” and the team didn’t want any of the violence to feel stylish. Ursula never stunts with ninja-like maneuvers; the combat is clunky and sweaty, with characters falling over terrain. It’s true and brutal– an “equality” of adversity, therefore more captivating.
Season 1 Episode 1, checking in with Azi and Levi.
Layered atmospheric inquisitive beats, gongs, and beneficent breezes teleport me through the sound design. Somewhere else (hopefully nearby, but probably not), also gazing at the skies of Vesta Minor’s living puzzle box is Azi (played by Wunmi Mosaku) and their wholesome droid Levi (played by Alia Shawkat).
On the same mission, and in the deeper caverns of Vesta is Kamen (played by Ted Travelstead) “bonding” with a creature named “Holo,” facing an even more intricately deadly escape.
In the beginning…
“Scavengers,” a stirring yet meditative Adult Swim animated short film, which also hit the internet in 2019, achieved “absolute gem” status. The cult hit was highly respected by online indie animators/creators, while also piquing the inquisitive minds of audiences desiring deeper, vigorously alive world-building. Fans of the “Scavengers” short were hugely hyped on the news of HBO ordering “Scavenger’s Reign,” a full series based on the O.G. ‘s promising, uniquely weird world and ethos.
Like many bright-light-mind-controlled fans, I was fiending to see how creators Joe Bennett (Co-Creator and Executive Director), Sean Buckelew (Executive Producer), James Merrill (Executive Producer), Benjy Brooke (Supervising Director) would adapt elements from the original short and scale them, both in terms of building out their fictional planet of Vesta Minor and a larger overarching narrative.
Warner Media/HBO sent me the screeners and set up a roundtable with the creators ahead of their Max premiere. I was utterly shattered by the attention to interconnectedness and functionality in the show’s world-building. Every lifeform had a role that impacted the next, each warmly showcasing a very acute awareness of self – emphasized through many moments of the characters and world shaping in parallel, presenting evolution in the form of raw ironies.
An example; Levi, a service droid, who finds itself slowly becoming more autonomous, compelled to create for expression and beauty. I’m gnawing on how Vesta Minor’s landscape brings out qualities we typically assign to humans from its animals, who also seem to serve as the planet’s technology. In parallel, Levi being a form of technology experiences a similar “human” awakening. The uncertainty of life on Vesta Minor triggers a desire in Levi to seek creation, really, a higher sense of spirituality even if not explicitly stated in their early “rock formation” attempts. Then you have human Azi, who must learn independence from Levi. As Levi becomes more human, Azi must embrace her animalistic side– we see this in a moment of triumph when the character gives in to the flow of a stampeding herd and feels true freedom for the first time in forever.
During our roundtable, Joe revealed that the advancement of the bots over at Boston Dynamics played a role in their Levi design process. The speed of real-world robotics development and the challenge of trying to come up with a timeless design for “future technology” was creatively stifling. Instead, the team made the smart play, to treat the human-tech designs (like Levi), in the same way they treat the planet Vesta Minor.
This principled approach to the design resulted in the very analogue, intentionally janky character design of Levi, that makes the droid’s spiritual awakening hit so much harder. There is a real sense of corporeality to Levi that is missing in a lot of modern depictions of AI. The character’s development, symbolism, and commentary simply wouldn’t work if they looked human – or more “chic.” The brilliance of Levi’s character is that, oddly enough, the man-made entity is more of a Vesta Minor creature in nature. Levi’s design is made timeless by the environment in which they thrive.
Joe revealed that Alia Shawkat also performed a version of Levi with a more robotic voice, but it ultimately felt out of place next to the naturalistic deliveries of the other stranded Demeter crew. Ben confirms that the casting process was firm on “real voices” with unique vocal qualities and no cartoon affects – they wanted a “guards down,” natural setting.
Sean adds that because there was no dialogue in the O.G. short, they were already fine-tuned to capturing and communicating characters’ thinking and intentions. The full series maintains this quality from the short film, where the core story can still be understood without the dialogue.
Season 1 Episode 1, Kamen makes a new friend.
Following Kamen, the character in the roughest shape when first introduced, we are forced to question the dynamics of his relationship with an animal named Holo; the runt of its litter who uses a kind of parasitic mind control to persuade Kamen to hunt for it. Holo’s mind control provides Kamen a high in the form of a glimpse into his memories, old and newly constructed– a pseudo “happy place” in exchange for the creature’s sustenance.
At first, Kamen seems the victim; the deeper he ventures into Holo’s abyss, the deeper he’s trapped in a prison of his past – holding him further back from making it to the Demeter, BUT as Holo continues to pilot Kamen’s body, the more the creature becomes violent and conquering on a human level – no longer operating out of survival, but domination. Holo seems more of a victim, tainted by man as their relationship progresses. Kamen now more aggressively pursuing his high. Holo perhaps forever altered in a way that might eventually displace it from Vesta Minor’s complex balance.
The characters in the original “Scavengers” short seem caught in a similar loop to Kamen satiating Holo in the Max show, performing tasks to unlock the high of their past. Joe tells me that the biggest overlap between the show and the short is the stuff that existed on Vesta Minor. “The characters— a lot of people have been like, ‘Oh, that’s Sam and Ursula’ — and It’s not actually, they’re just two random characters. The idea was that those characters from the get-go, understood the functionality of the planet. The means to get from A to B. They’ve got it down so well, they almost feel cavalier about it.”
Season 1 Episode 3, Ursula observes a creature engage with Vesta’s organic UI.
We got to chatting about human<>animal interactions throughout the show. I refer to the series as at times feeling a lot like a nature doc, in particular, a moment in Episode 3 where a creature deep within a cave’s stalagmite structures, engages in a process of “resetting” itself or transferring its energy – the comment prompts a discussion about “Good and Evil” and our human need to anthropomorphize.
Benjy Brooke: The thing about nature documentaries is that the predators aren’t evil.
Joe Bennett: We can’t help ourselves– there’s some kind of narrative music that makes it (a clash in a nature documentary) feel “Good vs Evil.”
Sean Buckelew: Humans impose the anthropomorphization of animals/creatures, saying, “Look, it’s got eyebrows, it reminds me of a person who is angry at me.” But it (the animal) was not feeling that feeling, that’s just how it looks.
Benjy: But then sometimes I have the opposite instinct, where there’s the humanist instinct to separate humans from the animal kingdom– BUT there is love in the animal kingdom. There’s every emotion you can see in a dog. There’s family.
Sean: That’s been tripping me up recently. That dogs are complex. It took the internet (to show me that) (jokingly).
James Merrill: I saw a video of a kitten and a baby fox playing together and was like, “Oh my god.” It blows your mind!
Benjy: That creature you’re talking about (in S1E3), it’s an animal but it has this sensitive understanding of its spiritual world, and I like that idea of re-inserting humanity back into the pantheon of animals.
The creators also reveal being inspired by the story of “Lucy, The Human Chimp” – an animal raised by humans before needing to be released back into the wild. The influence makes sense to me in how the show’s crash-landed passengers shift the behaviors of each biome’s inhabitants. How human quality aids and hinders life in the wild. (E.g. Kamen<>Holo, Azi/Levi farming). Gotta love how humans are accurately portrayed as an invasive species.
Hierarchy, symbiosis, and possession are richly discussed but are only a thread of the vast thought exploration the series offers. Visual metaphors like the repeated imagery of squeezing in and out of cracks and tight spaces, or the haunting yet inspiring way in which everything that dies sprouts a hopeful illuminating light, as if to say, “Learn from me.”
Scavenger’s Reign is a thoughtful uncovering and celebration of spirituality and interconnectedness, wrapped within a sci-fi narrative that breaks formulaic tropes for the more abstract, and explorative. Joe/James joke that if you printed DVDs of each episode and put them in a Blockbuster, each of the episodes could fit in a different genre. Pacing exactly as it needs to be, from tranquil to urgent, the show invites you to give in to Vesta Minor and understand your surroundings without entitlement or projection – a series that’ll make you look at Earth with a little more whimsy and appreciation. Highly recommended for both casual audiences and fellow creators looking to expand their approaches and ambitions with regards to world-building, storytelling, and reinvigorate the imagination.
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