“You can’t just bash it on the head. There’s cultural stuff.” That’s Koen (Hunter-Page Lochard) talking about the mysterious monster killing people in Australian sci-fi Cleverman. Koen, though, is the one foretold to beat it: he’s the Cleverman of the title, a moniker handed down to him by his Uncle Jimmy, right before Jimmy’s heart was torn out of his chest by the sinister creature. It’s a name brings with it special abilities, inspired by thousands of years of traditions and mythology – an Aboriginal legend turned into a superhero for modern TV audiences.
Koen, naturally, is a reluctant superhero, one who’s not ready to shoulder such responsibility, not least because his brother, Waruu (Rob Collins), expected to become the Cleverman. Both of them live in The Zone, a part of Sydney that has been set aside by the government for “Hairies”, a species that emerged six months ago, who are like humans, but have more physical strength and, of course, much more hair. Deemed dangerous by the authorities, they’re confined to that neighbourhood, leading to brewing tensions between the two groups.
Hairypeople? Segregation? Mythical creatures? Prophecies? Supernatural powers? It’s an impressively complex premise, and Cleverman’s hugely packed first episode does a fantastic job of juggling momentum with exposition – and that pace doesn’t let up for six episodes, as the series crafts a universe bursting with new ideas and topical resonance. The notion of a divided country with a “subhuman” population is one that boldly taps into Australia’s checkered national history, not just in the way that it updates and plays with Aboriginal concepts and tales. But there’s a modern pertinence too that stretches further afield, from Australia’s own asylum seeker policy to the refugee crisis in Europe and even to Donald Trump’s talk of building a wall.
Creator, Ryan Griffen, and his writing team of Michael Miller, Jon Bell and Jane Allen, do a superb job of balancing the fantastical elements of near-future dystopia with the social commentary, grounding everything in the grim reality of life in and outside of The Zone. There’s a fascinating plethora of shades of grey on the screen, as everyone uses that situation for personal gain or political advantage. Waruu uses it as a platform to campaign for equal rights – a fight that you suspect is more about him seeming worthy as a leader than actually believing in it. Koen, on the other hand, is no better, as he and his mates, Blair (Ryan Corr, of Holding the Man) and Ash, take money from Hairies looking for refuge, then take more money from the CA who are hunting them down.
In between them is Jarrod Slade (Iain Glen), a media tycoon who is finding the juiciest angle on the simmering conflict, while leveraging public perception to control politicians. At the same time, he’s trying to have a child with his wife, Charlotte, who works at a clinic The Zone, and also experimenting with Hairy DNA to find a way to inject humans with a serum that boosts their strengths.
It’s not hard to see in which direction the threads are all headed, but Cleverman’s strength lies in the nuance and substance given to each one. Within an hour, we see the violent costs of Koen’s grassing up to the police, while another subplot sees a female Hairy taken out of The Zone and sold into slavery, shaved and offered to one despicable politician as a sex object. All the while, Koen cuts his arm and shows it healing to his mates down the pub, in a display of exactly what a normal person would do in such a strange situation.
The cast do fantastically to make each scenario not just plausible but convincing – think Channel 4’s Humans, but with more prosthetics. Indeed, they’re backed up by some cracking creature effects by Weta Workshop, which skew closer to Teen Wolf than X-Men, but in the most endearing way possible.
The problem, though, is that Cleverman spends so long world-building that it forgets to move its plot along to somewhere satisfying. The pacing of the exposition is spot-on, but with only six hours on the table, the show is only halfway through dealing its climactic hand when the finale ends; it needs another two episodes to take the escalating conflicts to the next, bigger step. As a result, the appearance of the monster (a “Namorrodor”) is mildly underwhelming, with its inevitably confrontation with Koen (wielding the “Nulla Nulla” club of the Cleverman) feels somewhat rushed. If Season 1 of Cleverman feels like a prologue more than a complete story, though, the good news is that there’s already a Season 2, and with a larger war on the cards, there’s a real potential for this series to evolve into something unique and special. Until then, this is best treated as a box set to devour, rather than nibble and reflect on each mouthful. It’s a show too concerned with the cultural stuff to just bash it on the head – but dive in and you’ll find a world rich with enough culture to still pack a punch.
Season 1 of Cleverman is available to watch online and download on BBC iPlayer until 23rd September 2017.