Scavengers Reign's first season is over, and the well-deserved accolades can really start to roll in. I don't even have to read them to know what the talking points will be. They'll—correctly—praise its astonishing visual inventiveness, relish its originality in a world of extruded genre product, and admire its confidence the viewers' intelligence and attention. They will mostly talk about what happens in its story, and how it tells that story, so here's my take on those two things, just to get it out of the way.
What happens in Scavengers Reign: A bunch of absolutely wild shit goes down on an alien planet after some space truckers crash-land on its surface.
How does it tell the story of wild shit going down: With hand-drawn animation of tremendous artistry.
About halfway through the show's 12 episodes, after one or another character escaped or failed to escape their latest harrowing encounter with alien wildlife, I started thinking about theme, and I could not stop. Survival frequently came down to blind chance. The characters were all operating in an inscrutably hostile environment of which they had hopelessly limited knowledge. For a while, the only theme that seemed to emerge was "if you were stuck on a crazy alien planet with all kinds of fucked-up fungus and bugs and shit, that would be so bad." I felt deflated, worrying that all the work's intricate artistry might have so relatively little to say.
In the end I was not deflated, though, and I think the primary theme of Scavengers Reign is right there in plain sight. I think it’s trying to reckon with how we face the overwhelming power of the natural world and its implacable indifference to the individual organisms that make it up.
When I say “the natural world,” I mean the natural world. The real one. The one I’m writing this in and the world you’re reading it in. The only game in town.
One summer when I was in college I got a temp job pulling weeds at an electronics assembly plant in the outskirts of Albuquerque, NM. It was high summer and therefore very hot: I worked a 5 AM to noon shift with a pair of work gloves, a hoe, and a series of trash bags that I filled with weeds ripped from between cracks in the asphalt of the plant’s parking lot, from the dusty clay dirt that rimmed its prefab warehouses, and from the various shitty little nooks and crannies around the front office’s desultory landscaping.
The nature of the work meant that the natural world revealed itself to me largely via invertebrate drama. A specific memory leaps out: I'm squatting to examine an anthill, when I see a housefly-sized member of (presumably) the superfamily Ichneumonoidea hovering with perfect precision over the formic worksite. It vectored through several points with a particularly eerie precision before selecting an ant, descending upon it, and after a brief struggle in the fine dust, flying away with its prize.
To this day I don't know whether I witnessed predatory or parasitoid behavior, although given the prevalence of the latter in Ichneumonoidea, I have my suspicions. Whatever happened, it was inarguably bad news for the ant.
Life teems. The remorseless grind of natural selection has populated the planet with biology of exquisite sophistication and hardiness; systems within systems and patterns within patterns, a cacophony of gluttony, murder, and sex a billion years old and counting, starting with the first self-replicating molecule and leading all the way to an ant getting bad news in a sun-blasted parking lot in the outskirts of Albuquerque, NM.
From the moment their escape capsules enter the atmosphere of Vesta, the characters in Scavengers Reign become participants in its ecosystem. Sometimes—not often—they're able to turn it to their advantage. Sometimes they're hunted or parasitized. The greatest danger, always, is the illegibility of Vesta's life. It's tempting to call the creatures "bizarre", "fantastical", and so on, but the greater triumph of the show's design is that a given creature's threat is often impossible to estimate until it's too late.
Scavengers Reign's creatures are no more immune to being disrupted by alien encounters than its human cast is. A major subplot revolves around a darkly symbiotic bond between a one of the marooned humans and lumpy little predator with telepathic and telekinetic powers, and by the end of the series, this relationship has turned the creature into a hulking, lumbering horror, ravenous and miserable. The two organisms have destabilized each other. Vesta's nature is as indifferent to the well-being of its constituents as it is to that of its visitors.
Vesta’s inscrutable organisms are a reminder that the legibility of our own ecosystem is largely an illusion. Any biologist will tell you that for as much as we know about how life works, there's more that we don't. Most of us live in cities where the lie of a neutered ecology is most completely maintained, but it's still a lie. Nature cannot be unwilded. Nature is what is; we are part of it, we are made of its matter, we embody its processes, and there is only ever one way out.