A savage man ignites chaos in a seemingly perfect utopian society in Brave New World, the flagship original series on NBC’s Peacock streaming service, which launches today. It’s an adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s classic dystopian novel of the same name, suitably updated for these 21st century times. This Brave New World is a sleek, sexy, and ambitious series with strong performances and impressive CGI that feels more akin to Westworld than Huxley’s novel, particularly in its philosophical underpinnings. And ultimately it provides an engrossing story of the pain of love and the human condition.
(Some spoilers below, but no major reveals.)
The novel Brave New World is set in the year 2540, in the World State city of London, where people are born in artificial wombs and indoctrinated through “sleep-learning” to fit into their assigned predetermined caste. Citizens regularly consume a drug called soma (part anti-depressant, part hallucinogen) to keep them docile and help them conform to strict social laws. Promiscuity is encouraged, but pregnancy (for women) is a cause for shame. Needless to say, both art and science (albeit to a lesser extent) are viewed with suspicion.
“Every discovery in pure science is potentially subversive,” Resident World Controller of Western Europe Mustapha Mond tells the novel’s antihero protagonist, John the Savage. “Science is dangerous; we have to keep it most carefully chained and muzzled.”
John is the illegitimate son of a high-level government official, born and raised on the Savage Reservation, where people still give birth, age naturally, and generally represent the opposite of the World State’s carefully controlled ideals. His only education has been the complete works of Shakespeare. (The novel’s title references a line by Miranda in The Tempest.) When John and his mother, Linda, find their way back to the World State, he initially becomes a cause célèbre but struggles to adapt to the new social mores. Specifically, he falls in love with a young woman named Lenina Crowne but can’t deal with her promiscuity and sexual forwardness. He ultimately isolates himself from society in hopes of purging himself of “sin.” Things don’t end well for anyone.
There are some changes from the book, as one might expect when adapting a novel from 1932, but showrunner David Wiener strove to remain true to the heart and soul of the source material. “Huxley was afraid that people would become so sexually stimulated, so pharmacologically numbed, so distracted by media and entertainment that they wouldn’t look inside themselves, or at the world around them in any analytical way,” he told Ars. “It was really important to keep that at the core of the story.”
Some of the most significant changes pertain to science and technology. The citizens of New London are genetically tailored to their castes (nature), whereas in Huxley’s novel, they are carefully conditioned (nurture). Everyone still takes soma to cope, but they are also all inter-connected—via optical implants—to a central AI known as INDRA that regulates the society. “Huxley envisions bioengineering, IVF, contraception, all these things that were decades away,” said Wiener. “But he couldn’t possibly predict how computers and social media would evolve as part of our lives. Unlike a lot of speculative fiction, what Huxley was worried about has only become more true since he wrote the book. I think if you had told him about social media, he would’ve been, like, ‘Wow! Yeah, perfect.'”
Wiener chose to center his narrative arc on the love triangle of Bernard (Harry Lloyd, who frankly walks away with the whole series with his searing performance), Lenina (Jessica Brown Findlay), and John the Savage (Alden Ehrenreich), fleshing out Huxley’s original characters in some intriguing ways. For instance, rather than evincing an old-fashioned prudery, as in the novel, this John is much more open, almost enthusiastically so, to all the sex and soma—at least until he falls for Lenina and the inevitable jealousy sets in. And his love for Shakespeare has been replaced with a love for music. “The music really resonates in the show and becomes a part of the storytelling, and that was definitely a happy accident,” said Wiener.
Findlay’s Lenina is much more complex in the series—a welcome change from the book, where she is (to my mind) annoyingly under-developed. Book Lenina’s passivity is in keeping with her Beta Plus status, but it doesn’t make for a compelling character by 21st century standards. “She doesn’t change a lot in the book; her perspective and concerns are the same at the end as at the beginning,” said Wiener. “In our version, she’s our lens into the story, and is probably the character who changes the most over the course of the season.”
The populace of New London is more diverse, even though the class hierarchy is still strictly enforced. Most notably, the central characters of Mustafa Mond (Nina Sosanya) and Bernard’s best friend Wilhelmina “Helm” Watson (Hannah John-Kamen) have been gender-swapped. (In the book, Bernard’s BFF is Helmholtz Watson.) “I think it would have felt odd to have everybody in power be male or white,” said Wiener. “We wanted to make a utopia that looked like something we would envision as a better place than the one we have here.” Making Helm a woman, in particular, subtly shifts the character’s friendship with Bernard. “It’s a really interesting dynamic, given how New Londoners deal with sex,” said Wiener. “But that isn’t the vibe between Bernard and Helm. There’s a lot of sincere love there.”
So. Many. Orgies.
Helm is also not a writer and literary academic, as in the novel, but a kind of futuristic DJ whose job is to use haptics to simulate sensory experiences during the many (so many!) orgies. She calls them “feelies” and explains to John that she believes she is telling a sensory story with her art in one of the standout scenes. His response: “That’s not a story.” He then proceeds to tell her a scary old folk tale his mother, Linda (Demi Moore), used to tell him as a child in the Savagelands. Helm is enthralled—and ultimately transformed—particularly after she taps into John’s brain and allows herself to experience real, raw, complicated emotion for the first time, rather than dulling unpleasant emotions with soma.
“Every bush, every tree, every water fountain, every pane of glass is CGI.”
NBC clearly poured a lot of money into this series, and it shows in the stunning production values. For VFX supervisor Tom Horton, the biggest challenge was creating a sci-fi utopian world that was distinctive from the many, many futuristic depictions that have come before. As a touchstone, he focused on the lack of history in New London. “It’s a world of what I call spontaneous creation,” he told Ars. “Most worlds have evolved in some way: street systems, societies, social networks. That wasn’t the case here. Everyone in this world was created for a specific role.”
Because of that, Horton ruled out several architectural styles firmly rooted in the past and ended up adopting a brutalist aesthetic, offset with carefully manicured gardens and greenery. There are a lot of circles and curves, in stark contrast to our own emphasis on squares—a recurring visual theme throughout the series.
When it came to actually building the city, Horton took the unusual step of hiring an architect to handle the urban planning for their New London design. That meant thinking hard about apartment floor plans and how people might use the space—a level of detail not typical of most TV productions—as well as transport systems, public spaces, leisure and retail areas, gardens and so forth. Then Horton and his team took that plan (summarized in a massive 100-page document) and devoted their energies to rendering the 3D city. “The city is entirely CGI,” he said. “It’s not map painting. Every bush, every tree, every water fountain, every pane of glass is CGI.”
That meant employing a lot of blue screen, particularly for office sequences and scenes within New London’s Bureau of Stability. But for the first two episodes, Horton and his team relied on the same LED technology used on The Mandalorian. For instance, for the scene where actors take a train ride through the city, Horton’s crew mounted LED screens against the train window and digitally rendered the cityscapes viewed through that window as the train went from the station, into a tunnel, and out and around New London.
For all the technical wizardry, however, the emphasis was always on the characters and story. “Admittedly, there are some big visual effects, but we tried to make sure they didn’t overwhelm the narrative,” said Horton. “The constant mantra was that the visual effects had to be incidental, the better to reveal all of the great conflict arising from these really intimate relationships.”
Brave New World is now available on the newly launched Peacock streaming service.