Have you heard of HBOMax's new show set on the planet Kepler 22b? It's called Raised by Wolves and here are my thoughts. *NO MAJOR SPOILERS*
HOSTED by Moiya McTier (@GoAstroMo), astrophysicist and folklorist
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Hello, and welcome to Exolore, the show that helps you imagine other worlds, but with facts and science! I’m your host, Moiya McTier, here to share my knowledge of astrophysics and folklore with you.
In today’s episode, we’re talking about HBOmax’s original series, Raised by Wolves. I say “we,” but it’s just me today, speaking into the dark void that is my microphone and reveling in the fact that no one can see the silly faces I make while I do it.
This episode isn’t a review of Raised by Wolves, because that sounds too critical and formal. Instead, think of it as more of a delayed and thought-out reaction episode. Because I sure had a lot of reactions while watching this show and I needed some time to make sense of them.
First, let me tell you about the show. Raised by Wolves is a science fiction show created by Aaron Guzikowsky and executive produced by Ridley Scott. Yes, the Ridley Scott who directed Alien, Blade Runner, and my favorite commercial ever, The Seven Worlds of Hennessy XO. You best believe I’ll be posting a link to that video in the episode description because it’s just… so beautiful.
But this episode isn’t about Ridley or his alcohol-themed masterpiece. It’s about Raised by Wolves, which is set some time in the 22nd century after Earth has been rendered pretty much uninhabitable by a war between atheists and a religious sect called the Mithraics. In a last-ditch effort to secure the future of humanity, an atheist rebel sent two androids named Mother and Father to the planet Kepler 22b with a bunch of frozen embryos and the means to incubate them. The events of the show mostly take place 10 years after Mother and Father have arrived on their destination planet, when a large ship full of Mithraics has crash landed on the surface. And of course, both sides continue to fight the religious war that they literally left Earth and traveled a quadrilion miles to escape.
The show explores the themes of what it means to be human, what it means to be a parent, and what it means to believe in something besides yourself. And I think the show does an okay job at that.
The show does not explore anything about science, at least not to my satisfaction. When I heard there was a scifi show set on an actual exoplanet -- Kepler 22b -- I got so excited! The science fiction novel I wrote in college was also set on a real exoplanet, one I studied, and I let the science inform my worldbuilding. I really wanted to see a high-budget scifi show do the same. But that’s not what this show is. Ridley Scott and the rest of the Raised by Wolves team treat science as a suggestion, which is a totally valid choice in fictional worldbuilding. (It’s absolutely not a choice in the real world. Please listen to scientists. Wear a damn mask.) I am going to talk about some of the worldbuilding choices that the showrunners did make, but first I have to do the work of separating fact from fiction in this imagined world.
It is my duty as a science communicator to make sure you know the truth, and it is my duty as a worldbuilder to help you appreciate the hard work that went into making this show.
Separating fact from fiction
I obviously have to start with the planet they chose for the show: Kepler 22b. I genuinely don’t understand why the showrunners decided to use an actual planet as the setting for their show if they didn’t also intend to accurately represent the planet. Did they think using the official name would trick viewers into thinking the show was more sciencey than it was? I don’t want to assume any shadiness on their part, but like, it’s literally free to make up your own alien world without bringing the NASA Exoplanet Archive into it.
And I want to make it clear that I’m not upset that they poorly represented the planet. I just think fiction is so much more satisfying when the plot and characters’ actions are informed by the planet’s physical characteristics.
So let me tell you some of Kepler 22b’s characteristics and how the show got it wrong.
Kepler 22b was discovered in 2011 and was the first planet found by Kepler in the habitable zone of its star. I really wish we called it something else, because being in the “habitable zone” doesn’t actually guarantee that a planet is habitable. Those calculations are just based on the star’s temperature and distance between the two objects. They don’t account for the planet’s atmosphere, how reflective its surface is, or any internal mechanisms like volcanism. In fact, with our current technology, we can’t learn enough about conditions on a planet’s surface to determine whether or not it’s habitable. So the next time you see a headline that claims to have found a habitable or Earth-like planet, I hope you hear my voice in the back of your mind saying, “But is it really habitable, tho?”
Okay, back to Kepler 22b. It orbits a star that’s just a bit smaller and dimmer than our Sun, but it’s not too different. The planet is about 2.4 times bigger than Earth. By that, I mean its radius is about 2.4 times Earth’s radius. The volume would be about 14 times Earth’s volume because volume increases with radius cubed. That’s the kind of fun math that I’ve had to do in more homework sets than I can count.
And remember, a planet’s radius is separate from its mass. Kepler 22b is about 36 times more massive than Earth, which puts it squarely in big boy planet territory.
So how does this compare to the planet in Raised by Wolves? Well, the biggest difference is that, based on its size and mass, the real Kepler 22b is probably more like Neptune than it is like Earth.
But even if Kepler 22b were actually rocky -- because sometimes surprising things happen -- gravity would feel 6 times stronger on its surface than it does here. And it really didn’t look like the characters in Raised by Wolves spent any time adjusting to the new gravity. Travis Fimmel, the absolute snack of a man who plays Marcus in Raised by Wolves, weighs about 190 pounds on Earth, so he would weigh 1140 pounds on Kepler 22b. And yes, Travis Fimmel could probably squat me on Earth without breaking a sweat and he would look damn fine doing it, but I have a hard time imagining that he could carry 1000 extra pounds across an alien desert.
Speaking of muscles, let’s talk about the 13 year journey the Mithraics took from Earth to Kepler 22b in the show. Astronauts on the International Space Station exercise for about 2 hours every day to prevent their muscles from atrophying. I’m assuming that if the Mithraics had the technology to create a shared virtual simulation, that they can keep a person’s muscles from deteriorating during the trip. I’m willing to suspend that disbelief. I’m also willing to suspend my disbelief of faster than light travel because the real Kepler 22b is more than 600 lightyears from Earth. But how did they do it? Did they use a warp drive? A wormhole? An infinite improbability drive that lets them choose a location from an infinite set of probable choices? Maaaaybe the showrunners know how the Mithraics’ Ark made the trip, but they haven’t shared that knowledge with us.
Once the travelers -- Mithraic and android alike -- arrived on Kepler 22b in the show, they seemed to encounter a world that was conveniently similar to Earth. It was an acceptable temperature with a breathable atmosphere. It had three moons that somehow were always visible together in the same part of the sky. And yeah, I’m sure they scoped this out with their obviously advanced technology before they left Earth, but it’s all just sooooo convenient. The days and nights on the show’s version of Kepler 22b even seem to align with the humans’ circadian rhythms. Seriously, what are the chances that this planet rotates at the same rate as Earth? I’ll tell you, the chances are extremely low. Just looking at our own solar system, you can see a huge range of rotation periods. Jupiter, the biggest beefiest planet in our solar system takes just 10 hours to rotate, which always blows my mind. And Venus takes nearly 150 Earth days to complete one rotation.
Okay, so let’s suspend even more disbelief -- that hanging basket in my mind is now filled to the brim with disbelief by the way -- but let’s say the show’s planet miraculously has a 24 hour day. Because the planet -- well, the real planet anyway -- is so much bigger than Earth, it has to rotate faster to travel the extra distance in the same amount of time. If you remember from the last episode, The World of Partying Birds, that increased rotation speed creates some issues, especially around the equator. So even if the characters in Raised by Wolves did make it to the tropical zone like they wanted, they’d be in for a rude awakening.
With all these examples of science being ignored -- not even just stretched -- it’s pretty clear that the worldbuilding in Raised by Wolves wasn’t based on science. I couldn’t even find mention of a science advisor working on the show. So what worldbuilding did they do?
My worldbuilding process is all based on facts. That’s why it’s important for me to know things like, “Centrifugal force can offset gravity at the equator of rotating sphere” and “Planets closer to their stars orbit faster to overcome the star’s gravity because the force gets weaker with increased distance.” If you want to learn those kinds of science and math concepts and how they relate to each other without memorizing equations, might I recommend Brilliant? Brilliant uses storytelling and interactive games to teach you the science and math concepts I use when I build worlds. And believe me, learning this stuff on Brilliant is way more fun than learning it in a classroom. They have more than 60 different courses in subjects like gravitational physics, chemical reactions, and logic! *Psst* That’s more classes than I took to graduate from Harvard. To up your facts-based worldbuilding game, go to brilliant.org/Exolore and sign up for free access to their educational games and puzzles. If you want more Brilliant features , the first 200 people that go to that link will get 20% off the annual Premium subscription.
Honestly, I think most of the worldbuilding for this show was spent imagining what Earth must have been like before the Mithraics left it. The show takes place “some time in the 22nd century,” so they had to imagine what a future religious war might look like. The special killer robots that the Mithraics developed and named “Necromancers” was a nice touch. But it goes deeper than that. The Raised by Wolves showrunners left several hints that the Earth in the show isn’t just our Earth with a scary apocalyptic future. They implied that it also had an alternate past.
One of the sacred relics that the Mithraics brought from apparently alternate Earth to the fake Kepler 22b is Romulus’ tooth. Now, they don’t explicitly say that the tooth in question is from the same Romulus who, according to legend, founded Rome. Scholars debate the accuracy of the myth, by the way. It’s possible that Romulus was a pretty common name, especially on this alternate Earth, and that the sacred tooth relic didn’t belong to the ancient mythical figure, but I think the title of the show gives us a clue here.
While I was watching it, I couldn’t figure out why the show was called Raised by Wolves. It wasn’t until I started preparing this episode and remembered Romulus’ tooth that I realized the connection. But first, I have to tell you the rest of Romulus’ story.
According to the oft-disputed myth, Romulus and Remus were the twin grandsons of an ancient dethroned King. In classic fashion, the usurper king demanded that the two boys be killed because they posed a threat to his rule, but their mother saved them by… leaving them next to a river. If this sounds familiar to you, it’s because this kind of thing happened ALL THE TIME in classical mythology. The titan Kronos ate his children to prevent them from overthrowing him until his sister/baby mama Rhea hid their son Zeus away. Moses’ mother hid him in a basket to save him from being killed by the Pharaoh's decree. Oedipus of Greek literary and 19th century psychoanalysis fame was cast from his home because of a prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother, which he eventually did do.
But back to Romulus and Remus. After being abandoned by the river, they were saved by a river god and nursed to health by a wolf. By the way, all the myths I read specified that it was a she-wolf who suckled the twins, but is that really necessary. Is there anyone out there who thinks a he-wolf suckled the tiny babies. That makes no sense. Those nipples would be useless. And that’s just science.
When the twins were older, they decided to build a city of their own, but couldn’t agree on which hill to build it on. So naturally, Romulus killed his brother and founded Rome on the hill he wanted, dammit!
Interestingly, archaeologists found a sarcophagus buried underneath the Roman Forum earlier this year that they think might be Romulus’ holy burial site. There was no body, though, which indicates that it was more of a symbolic site than an actual grave. And historians don’t even agree that Romulus and Remus were real. One archaeologist called the tomb “a place of memory where the cult of Romulus was celebrated.”
But still, that story of two boys being raised by a creature who isn’t supposed to know how to nurture… that’s the story of Raised by Wolves. But instead of a wolf, it’s a killer robot. And I think this is great worldbuilding! The seemingly small and insignificant decision to use Romulus’ tooth as the on-screen relic ties this futuristic scifi story to an ancient myth in a really satisfying way. It also gives us a peek into the alternative Earth’s history by implying that the Mithraic religion goes back to at least the 8th century BCE, which is when Rome was founded.
At the same time, harkening back to a popular, but potentially less familiar myth also provides clues about where the show might be going next.
Now, I’m just wildly speculating here, but Raised by Wolves does have two young orphan boys who could each fulfill the requirements of an old Mithraic prophecy about establishing a utopic city, so I would not be surprised to see Paul and Campion pitted against each other in a real gruesome way in future seasons.
The showrunners also did some worldbuilding to add a dangerous past to this fake Kepler 22b. They added in giant snake creatures who leave behind some very creepy skeletons. They imagined that there must have been some kind of rudimentary civilization that planted crops in intentional patterns. They even imagined a world where “devolution” exists. And while I don’t think it’s fair to assume that humans are the peak of the evolutionary journey and that any further developments are actually backwards progress, I do admire the showrunners’ boldness in introducing the possibility.
But it does seem like most of the worldbuilding effort went into building out the Mithraic religion, complete with beliefs, rituals, and historical figures. Because at the end of the day, good worldbuilding doesn’t have to mean imagining a whole world from scratch in vivid detail. Good worldbuilding can mean focusing on one new aspect of a world and really exploring all of the consequences of that one change. When I teach fictional worldbuilding, I describe this method of worldbuilding as “tracing the ripples” as if the one change is a pebble that creates waves on a pond’s surface.
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How did they expect a bunch of children raised together to overcome the sibling obstacle and populate the planet?
Many of the Mithraics wear their hair in a pseudo-mullet style. Is that a religious thing? Is it functional? Is that just the hairstyle that got popular during the war? I need to know.
Why did they make the holy site in the desert look like a butthole made out of hot rocks?
Why did the characters continue to kill each other when, as far as they knew, they were the last 20 humans alive in the universe? I know the answer is “religion” or “tribalism” or “old habits die hard” (pun intended), but it’s so frustrating that they didn’t even make an effort to adapt their morals to their new context.
Why are all the depictions of motherhood in the show so… painful and violent. Are the showrunners okay?
What is Tempest putting in her hair to make it look that good? Are they making conditioner and moisturizer out of the radioactive crops?
Aside: For those of you who don’t know what it takes to care for natural or textured or curly hair, please know that this is where the show really broke down for me. Natural curly hair requires more maintenance than straight hair for a couple of reasons. One, the curls make it easier for the hair to get tangled, and sometimes that’s what you want. But if it’s not what you’re going for, it can be painful and frustrating. Believe me, I’ve shed so many tears in the shower while trying to detangle my hair. Second, the kinks and curls in natural hair make it difficult for moisturizing oils from the scalp to make their way down the hair strand. Without moisture, hair gets weak and brittle, so people with natural hair have to manually provide moisture to our hair. Anyway, all of that is to say that natural hair is beautiful, but it requires maintenance to look as good as Tempest’s hair did on the show
This got me thinking about the show’s writers. Because any Black person could have pointed this out in the writers room and suggested realistic ways for people on this world to care for their natural hair. Without access to moisturizers, Tempest could have cut her hair short or put it in a protective style like braids or dreadlocks. But nooooo. Instead we’re left to suspend our disbelief and go along with the idea that Mother and Father were programmed to deal with any issue EXCEPT for dealing with Black hair? Naw, fuck that. Hair stylists who only know how to do white people’s hair shouldn’t get a pass at that here on Earth and nurturing androids shouldn’t get to ignore Black hair on a distant alien planet. Also, in case you were wondering: Yes, all the writers of this show are white.
So what do I think of Raised by Wolves? I think they did a good job of sneakily adapting an ancient myth to a new genre and environment. I’m impressed by how well thought-out the Mithraic religion is because I know how hard it can be to create a fictional religion without it feeling too similar to something that people already believe. I’m sure they have many documents outlining the Mithraic customs and I would love to see them. The show is also visually stunning, but I would expect nothing less from Ridley Scott and the South African countryside where most of the show was filmed.
But if you want to watch a sci-fi show that actually uses science to inspire its fiction, I would not recommend watching this show. If you’re anything like me, you’ll just spend 10 hours being annoyed that they clearly know nothing about the actual planet they claimed to set their story on.
What did you think of the show? Let me know by tweeting your thoughts at @ExolorePod
Do you want to start a creative project but need a little help getting the juices flowing? Here’s a prompt: What other sacred relics do you think the Mithraics would have taken with them to the fake Kepler 22b? Whether it’s through words, sketches, or song, tell the story of why that artifact is so important. If you’re comfortable, share your work on twitter or instagram and tag @ExolorePod or email it to email@example.com
If you want to support my worldbuilding work, the first way is to rate and review the show on apple podcasts. It’s free and it really does make a difference. Second, you can support me on patreon. Your monthly support would help me do things like pay my guests and hire an editor, which would be awesome because doing all this on my own is hard. So please head on over to patreon.com/goastromo if you’re able
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