Indigenous Sci-Fi: 3 Takes on ABC’s Cleverman

Hunter Page-Lochard as Koen West in Cleverman (Sundance TV 2016)

Cleverman is a new Australian sci-fi/fantasy series that draws upon indigenous Australian (aboriginal) mythology. Collider called it “District 9 with werewolves instead of aliens,” and The New York Times characterized it as “sci-fi with a social conscience.” The series  just premiered on ABC TV in Australia and Sundance TV in the US to favorable reviews not just for its concept, but for its execution behind the camera as well. It was created by a diverse team of people (two men and three women) and produced by an equally diverse group (six women and three men). Already renewed for season two, Jules, Jamie, and Kate watched and reviewed the first episode.

Spoiler Warning: This roundtable contains spoilers for the first episode of Cleverman.

The show begins with harassment on public transit—by four white men toward an unnamed WOC. The men scream “She’s a hairy!” when it’s revealed that she has body hair (we learn later this is a sign of her being a sub-human), and the woman uses her strength and long, sharp nails (other traits of the sub-human) to escape and maim her would be rapists in the process. Thoughts on this as the opening scene?

Jamie Kingston: That opening scene was powerful. I immediately felt the woman’s disgust for being sexually harassed by a bunch of drunken dudebros. It was kind of exciting to see her use her sharp nails to scratch one who didn’t keep his hands to himself and astonishing, but satisfying, to see her toss another one of these creeps the length of the bus. What woman doesn’t wish she could fight back successfully? These emotions were quickly replaced by dismay and disgust as it was obvious that “hairy” is a slur and that these people are considered “sub-human” when aside from the extra hair, they’re as human as anyone else. The woman just wanted to be left alone to read her book. She only fought back when they escalated. There was a certain visceral, vicarious pleasure in seeing her fight back and win, since we know in the real world a woman fighting back like that, without a Hairy’s strength, would be punished by them ganging up on her for daring to resist.

Kate Tanski: Totally in agreement with you that this was a powerful opening. It pulled one of my favorite “horror” tricks, which is to make the familiar, in this case, everyday harassment on public transit unfamiliar. This is something we’ve seen before in sci-fi/fantasy, with metaphors for systemic racism being made through visual metaphors, but what I find particularly clever about Cleverman is that the outsider marker is body hair, which is an ongoing battle in feminism. Even though the main characters are mostly men, that opening, with the woman being harassed, and the body hair reveal, made me sit up.

Jules Low: I’m with both of you on this one, without any question. It really was cathartic seeing this woman straight up take none of the crap hurled at her by the drunk guys, and she never backed down once. I also really liked the subtle indication of this being a not-too-distant-future setting and the way that was visually handled. A street like any other, in a city like all the others around the world, on a dingy little bus, yet here this woman has what can only be described as an augmented-reality book. And the best thing is that no one feels the need to describe or give exposition about that, because the writing trusts the audience to get it immediately; pointing it out would ruin the pacing and immersion, and they made the focus this very real and scary situation, which can happen to any marginalised person in public. Personally, it grabbed me so quickly because of that; it meant that despite this fitting into the sci-fi/fantasy genre, the show was going to focus on the people and the issues and not just gaze adoringly at tech concepts.

You have people classified as sub-humans, known colloquially as “Hairy,” who are legally supposed to stay in a walled-off zone inside an existing city. Mysticism and magic are part of this dystopia, but otherwise, Cleverman seems to take place in a world parallel to ours in terms of technology. How far from our own contemporary reality do you feel Cleverman is trying to be in terms of its dystopia?

Jamie: Sadly, I don’t think we’re that far from contemporary reality. There are slums and ghettos in the real world where PoC and the poor eke out an existence while those of better circumstances ignore them. They’re not forced by walls and authorities—yet. But in the U.S. at least, the racial and class divides are really a source of concern right now. The media don’t seem to care about journalistic respect for the truth as much as they do about scooping the others and sensationalizing the story. There was a story in NY just recently about a kid who died of an asthma attack, because he was chased by a bunch of racists waving guns and threatening to kill him. That’s very resonant with the way people gang up and gleefully attack the Hairies on the show.

Kate: Yeah, I was expecting the series to be a little more removed from contemporary, based on the descriptions I’d read. More like the distance we find in say The Hunger Games. But the closeness makes it feel more real and less like sci-fi, and that could be good too. As you said—the kinds of attacks we’re seeing on the Hairies are all too real. Also, living as close as I do to the U.S.-Mexico border, the kind of exploitative scam that Koen runs smuggling a family across the border seems like something I’d see on Criminal Minds or CSI.

Jules: Not very far at all. Living here in Australia, in a capital city, this was so close to home, which made it all the more entertaining yet visceral and brutal. I will just point out that while “Hairy” is treated like a slur or misguided nickname by the more ignorant and bigoted characters in the show, it is also the actual term for the mythological people from Dreamtime stories. The most interesting fact about them, beyond their appearance and superhuman physical capabilities, is that they can live for over two-hundred years. That means that in this world, where they exist, some of the older Hairy people who are in the show would have been around to see the entirety of white colonisation in Australia. It adds a horrifying and depressing layer to the fact that atrocities and harm done to the Indigenous people here are still a recent thing, despite what some may say. It’s nice that Cleverman doesn’t hypothesise about some distant horror, in the future or past, but something very real that’s still happening this second.

One of the reasons the show has garnered international attention is due to the diverse cast. Based on the pilot, it seems to be an ensemble cast, with the narrative spending a substantial amount of time with a variety of people representative of a variety of experiences. We have the TV producer, Jarod. We have the Hairy girl, Latani, who escaped detection in the raid and is now on the run. We have the Hairy brother, Djukara, in prison. We have Waruu, who passes in and out of the Zone, but whose allegiance is to the Zone and equality, and we have Koen, who turned his back on his heritage, but who is now the new Cleverman. Do you have a favorite storyline so far?

Jamie: I think I’m most curious about the elder sister who didn’t get apprehended, and about Waruu and Koen, since Waruu apparently expected to become Cleverman, and his fuckboy brother ended up with it (and who at present doesn’t really deserve it given he is willing to sell the Hairies out for a buck). I’m curious to see if he stays a selfish punk or if his friend, girlfriend, and the Cleverman’s powers influence him to be a better man. I wish Uncle Jimmy himself hadn’t have to die to pass on the power. I liked him a lot.

Kate: I was totally drawn to Waruu’s story. This might be an older sibling thing. He also seems like a genuinely good person—he helps people inside the Zone, he’s respectful of his heritage, and he’s a community leader. Obviously, he’s not a golden boy, though, since he just lets Koen get hurt. I’m a sucker for stories about brothers, and I’m really interested in how this is going to play out.

Jules: I really can’t pick a favourite; this show has me hook, line, and sinker with all of these characters and their individual plots. I will admit that while Koen’s journey fascinates me, I am so glad they’re not just focusing on him. Probably Latani and Djukara are ranking at the top for me; Indigenous families being split up is no fantastical premise and I’m curious as to how the show will handle this, but I’m also interested to see the paths each of them takes. Latani is obviously very resourceful, but at the moment passive; she wants to hide and wait, and it’s clear she’s going to have that philosophy shaken up even more so. With Djukara, he obviously wants to fight and rebel, but I’m curious to see if his goals end up being myopic or if there’s more going on with him and his thought process than has been let on so far.

The pilot sets up Koen as an anti-hero. Koen (played by Hunter Page-Lochard) smuggles people out of the zone and sets them up in apartments outside—for what we assume is an exploitative amount of money. He then calls in an anonymous tip to the authorities about the family for a reward. Koen’s turned his back on the people in the Zone, having escaped it himself. Initial thoughts about Koen as our supposed protagonist?

Jamie: As I said above, Koen is a fuckboy, and at present, I neither like nor sympathize with him. He is clearly very young, as when his brash defiance of his brother gets him hurt, he collapses in tears. So, hopefully there’s room for change and growth there, but will he make the choices that allow him to change and grow? That remains to be seen. So far, I’m not terribly hopeful, since he caught on to the healing factor quickly, but seems altogether too pleased with himself for having it now. I’m not sure I sympathize with Waruu either; he seems a little self-aggrandizing to me.

Kate: I love that you call Koen a fuckboy. It totally fits, though. I think it’s really interesting that the series is named after an initially unlikeable protagonist. They’re usually not my thing, but the other characters have hooked me. And I’m curious about Koen’s journey this season.

Jules: Koen is … I almost hate that I get Koen. Not too long ago I had a cultural identity crisis with my race and heritage; for a while I had shunned a lot of what made me Chinese for so many reasons. I thought that discarding that and rising above it, above my own people, would get me farther in life and make me happier, and I see a lot of that in Koen’s character. I want this to be his wake-up call, and I’m sure it will be. What I do hope is that he doesn’t necessarily become a saviour of his own or the Hairy people, but that he finds some redemption for his past actions and beliefs.

James appears to commit suicide by a mystical creature, passing down his abilities to his nephew Koen and not to Koen’s older brother Waruu. Waruu (played by Rob Collins) is the opposite of his brother. He lives inside the zone, he smuggles in much needed medical supplies, and is a community leader. Initial thoughts about Waruu and James passing him over?

Jamie: It seems like Uncle Jimmy considered choosing Waruu for a moment during the fight, or it could’ve just been him coming to tell Waruu that he’d gone with Koen. Waruu is already doing good in the world, with mundane abilities and resources. Maybe this was Jimmy’s way of trying to get Koen doing the same and to force him to become closer to his heritage again. I’m not sure Waruu has grasped that rationale yet. He’s still a bit wounded that he wasn’t the one picked, clearly, and that may obstruct him from thinking bigger for a little while.

Kate: This again might be an older sibling thing, but I found it extremely unfair. Like, here you are—you’re the older sibling. You’ve done everything you’re supposed to be doing. You’re helping people. You care about people. But you get passed over because your Uncle likes your younger screw-off sibling better? Where’s the fairness in that?

Jules: I’m really curious about Jimmy’s motives. We know that Jarod Slade was using him and that there was immense guilt involved, since Jimmy quit being his Cleverman. While it may seem unfair to Waruu, there’s definitely a lot of arrogance in him that I think Jimmy saw. Even after he dies, Waruu is more concerned about him deserving the title of Cleverman. The way he reacts to the story of the Sun and the Moon, of one brother being given a gift over the other, says a lot. He can’t even accept that he may be the Moon in that regard, the brother left in the dark, ignoring that just because you’re not the biggest celestial body doesn’t mean you don’t have a very important role to play in life.

Now having seen the pilot, will you be watching the rest of the series?

Jamie: Definitely. I was on the TV Tropes page for it moments after the credits rolled, and it is already a series recording on my DVR! I’ve talked the show up to some of my friends already.  

Kate: Absolutely. I’ve also been talking up the series, because it’s a really good story in addition to being really aware of social issues and trying to respectfully bring aboriginal mythology onscreen. And I’m really excited for season two! Even though I’ve only just seen the first episode, I know six episodes isn’t long enough!

Jules: Yes, without a doubt. I’m so excited that this has been renewed for a second season, and I’ve been so totally drawn in. It’s definitely a show I’m going to recommend to others as much as possible, too.

Kate Tanski

Kate Tanski

Recovering academic. Fangirl. Geek knitter.

One thought on “Indigenous Sci-Fi: 3 Takes on ABC’s Cleverman

  1. Would love to see this same crew’s conversation about the series now that all of the first season’s aired. Any chance of reconvening to chat?

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