Friday, 10 June 2016

Review - 'Cleverman', Episode 1 - 'First Contact'

Drawing on the varied mythologies of Indigenous Australia for its inspiration, Cleverman offers something that has always seemed to be depressingly rare, to me – a science-fiction/fantasy series from my own country which might actually be worth watching. With it's largely Indigenous cast, it also directly addresses issues of representation by creating great roles specifically for Aboriginal actors, of course – but, as a life-long fan of science-fiction and fantasy, I'm comfortable with my own priorities.

Taking place in the near future, Cleverman tells a story of a world in which mythological beings have recently re-emerged, only to find themselves caught up in a world that hates and fears them. Finding themselves forced to endure increasingly harsh treatment from both the Australian government, and the Australian people, these 'hairypeople', as they're called (due, obviously, to their appearance), soon find themselves rounded up and forced into a sort of internment camp – which they are not allowed to leave, and where they receive very little in terms of support.

While the government goes out of its way to impose harsh measures of control on the 'hairypeople', the media also goes out of its way to label them as sub-human savages, responsible for a recent string of murders – thus, ensuring that public opinion is firmly set against them.

At the center of all of this, we also meet two brothers – each of whom has very different ideas about how to live in this strange new world. Waruu (Rob Collins) works within the internment zone, where he devotes his time toward doing whatever he can to ensure peaceful co-existence between the 'hairypeople' and humans. Koen (Hunter Page-Lochard), on the other hand, has built a small business around smuggling 'hairypeople' out of the 'Zone' – setting them up in new locations, where they might be able to live peacefully. It would be a noble endeavour, if not for the fact that he almost immediately reports the ones he 'helps' to the authorities, in return for another reward.

There is more to these two brothers than it seems, at first, though. There is supernatural power in their family's blood-line – and, with each generation, one of their family is chosen to become a 'cleverman'. Their Uncle Jimmy (Jack Charles) is the current Cleverman of their family, but he has recently come to realise that it is time to choose a successor. Against the expectations of both brothers, though, he chooses to pass on the role, and the supernatural abilities that come with it, to Koen – setting the stage for a tense rivalry between the two brothers.

Along with the story of these two brothers, the opening episode of Cleverman also tells the story of a family of 'hairypeople' who find themselves betrayed by Koen – leading to an altercation with the police, in which the youngest daughter of the family is killed. Taken into custody, the surviving family-members find themselves separated – while the eldest daughter manages to avoid capture.

Looking at this first episode from a broader 'science-fiction/fantasy series' perspective, their are already a variety of elements, here, that should feel instantly familiar to fans of either genre. With Koen, we have a reluctant hero (more of an 'anti-hero' at this point, to be fair) granted powers that he does not understand. With Waruu, we have the suggestion of a very traditional rivalry as the elder brother, who clearly views himself as more deserving, comes to resent his younger sibling. With the 'hairypeople', themselves, we have obvious suggestions of the same sort of 'real-world' allegory that we have had, elsewhere – such as the prejudice against mutants in X-Men, for example, or the harsh treatment of aliens in films like District 9.

The fact that so much of this new series would already feel somewhat familiar does not undermine its effectiveness, though. Cleverman is a series which is quickly able to establish itself with an impressive commitment to treating its subject matter very seriously. Beginning with a tense encounter on a bus, it isn't long at all until the series begins to move toward genuinely thematically complex territory. Interesting, despite early appearances, neither Koen or Waruu seem to fit into clearly defined 'hero' and 'villain' roles – and, the barely restrained anger in their interactions with each other, even before Koen's status as the new 'Cleverman' becomes a factor, hints at a long and troubled history. At this point, I honestly have no idea if the two are going to become allies, or adversaries, as the series progresses – and, that uncertainty makes the two of them genuinely fascinating, to me. It also doesn't hurt that Hunter Page-Lochard and Rob Collins each give fantastic performances in their respective roles.

With the 'hairypeople' family that we meet, though, things aren't quite so successful. If anything, I ended up thinking that this first episode might have gone a little over-board in its efforts to establish the awful treatment that these people are forced to endure – not because it was too shocking or confronting for me, but more due to the fact that it lacked any sort of broader context.

We learn, very quickly, that the 'hairypeople' are horribly mistreated by humans – and, that they suffer under harsh government policies. We also learn that they are viewed as sub-human by the general population. But, we don't receive any insight into how, or why, things got to this state. What we do see of these 'hairypeople' are individuals who, while they may be significantly stronger than ordinary humans, appear to be just as intelligent as anyone else – and who, quite honestly, don't even look all that different.

Obviously, we aren't supposed to approve of the way that these 'hairypeople' are treated – and, I'm also familiar enough (as an occasional sufferer of 'white liberal guilt') with how much damage has been caused by racism, both in the past and the present, to understand and appreciate the allegorical elements of the story. But, despite that, I still found that I had a hard time accepting that a modern society (which had, presumably, been making the same tentative steps toward overcoming issues of racial prejudice that we have been aiming for, in the real world) would come to treat a new species with the degree of exaggerated cruelty that we see, here. It feels like there are pieces of this particular puzzle that are still missing – like, perhaps, I just don't understand the rules of this fictional universe, yet.

Also, I have to admit that I'm struggling, a bit, with having terms like 'hairys' and 'hairypeople' being casually tossed around in otherwise serious scenes. I'm aware that this is likely a translation drawn directly from old myths and stories, but I still found myself wishing that there could have been another term used for this separate species.

Overall, though, the first episode of Cleverman still managed to get things off to a good start. There is definitely a lot of potential, here, for the series to grow into something genuinely fascinating – and, I'm very interested in seeing how it develops, over the course of the rest of the season.

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