Trippy sci-fi series Scavengers Reign is superb and intoxicatingly original

Survivors of a crashed spacecraft fight to survive on a bizarre alien planet in superb psychedelic sci-fi series Scavengers Reign. To call this show “otherwordly” is both the most appropriate use of that word ever, and a vast understatement, says Dominic Corry.

One of the most imaginative science fiction stories to come along in years—animated or otherwise—Scavengers Reign is an intoxicatingly original show that sometimes feels like it was made just for me. Many of you will feel the same.

The series is hung on a familiar science fiction premise, illustrated by the elegant opening sequence at the beginning of each episode: a massive interstellar cargo ship has crashed on a distant planet. While some passengers potentially remain in cryo-sleep aboard the downed ship, the series follows three disparate groups of survivors who managed to safely get to the planet’s surface via escape pods.

Spread apart across great distance, they all want to find their way back to the Demeter, the status of which is unknown. But the planet they are on is filled with all manner of weird plants and creatures, most of which are deadly and all of which are freaky. Really freaky.

The biodiversity of the world-building here is simply stunning—everything encountered has an organic boldness and unpredictability. Anything that looks innocuous could be deadly and vice versa. If you stand next to a plant too long, it might birth an egg that resembles you. You also may already be psychically enthralled to that vine in the distance. If a creature looks cute, it is most likely about to consume you whole. To call this show “otherwordly” is both the most appropriate use of that word ever, and a vast understatement.

As original as it all is, though, there are two major influences that I can discern, and I love the show even more for how it follows in these influences’ footsteps.

The first is the legendary French artist Jean Giraud (aka Moebius), whose lyrical sci-fi illustrations influenced everyone from George Lucas to Hayao Miyazaki. The organic softness he brought to alien landscapes and creatures is all over Scavengers Reign. And many others have also described it as evoking Miyazaki’s unique-yet-indefinable aesthetic.

The second clear influence is my all-time favourite animated series: Peter Chung’s Æon Flux, which leaned into the infinite possibilities of sci-fi animation in a way that Scavengers Reign also strives for.

As much as we live in an bountiful era for imaginative animated storytelling, it’s been surprising to me how few shows have tried to exist in Æon Flux‘s wake. One of its most haunting episodes “Reraizure” (the sixth episode of the show’s only half-hour episode season, technically its third) concerned a small creature known as a narghile which secretes a memory-wiping drug.

I thought about that episode a lot while watching Scavengers Reign, which is similarly concerned with bizarre animals that do weird things to people. But there is so much more to it, as well.

There’s an amazing robot named Levi, voiced by Alia Shawkat (Arrested Development, Search Party). Shawkat, like most of the voice cast here, possess the kinds of voices not traditionally heard in animation, which only further authenticates the characters.

And the characters are unique in their own right. For all the alien weirdness going down, a lot of the show takes places inside certain characters’ minds. It’s going for an emotional richness, and sometimes ambiguity, that very few animated stories attempt, let alone achieve. It’s like an indie sci-fi movie with an A-budget and the best imagination ever.

As the show progresses, flashbacks reveal why the Demeter went down, and who might be responsible. New characters show up, and there’s not really anything resembling a status quo. You’ll be kept on your toes by a woozy sense of unease, ever lulled into a false sense of security by the beautiful visions on display.

We are so spoiled for space-centric stories in popular media these days, but moment-to-moment, Scavengers Reign indicts all other similar movies and shows for their stark lack of imagination. Not a single encounter here could be described as generic.

At times, it reminds me of Raised By Wolves, a frustratingly overlooked (live-action) sci-fi drama that also focused on human survivors on a weird distant planet. That too tried to do something different with a traditional premise, and fans of it should definitely check out Scavengers Reign.

As should anyone who appreciates the value of squidgy ooziness in a science fiction setting.