Overview: Alex Garland’s latest series is based around a tech-company, Amaya, that has developed a code to “hack” into the future, and the past, via quantum computing. This is orchestrated by Forest, who is the chief executive. The department that discovered the ability to do this is the development area of the business, called “DEVS”. All companies have one, only not quite like this. An analyst working for Amaya is invited into the DEVS compound, to be a part of it. That’s when things start to get messy. His girlfriend learns that he has disappeared. She suspects that all is not quite as it seems. What she discovers though is beyond anything she could have imagined. Sci-fi pulse take a look at aspects of the series and discusses why it worked, what went well and the ways it differed from so much on offer at the moment.
Central Premise: Plausibility and Impact
Relying on a “big” concept is something some shows, or stories, sometimes rely on as their story. This show doesn’t. Alex Garland has really gone and created a classic “what if”, for the modern age. He asks what if we could view the future? Should we? Would it mean that we can choose? Are things preordained or not? So much rides on getting things right in a series like this, to make the questions count and to make the viewers buy into it. Getting viewers to suspend their belief is no easy task for a writer, and sometimes where they succeed the ideas don’t quite come across as they are intended, due to the Director having their input, which may mean certain things aren’t quite as fluid as they might be. Fortunately, this issue is eradicated, as Alex Garland has total control over things. It shows, in a good way. What we see is his creative vision come to life, which is one that looks and feels realistic. More so than the likes of the worlds in The Matrix franchise or West World. This is due to the place that the “playing God” occurs being a secret in otherwise plain-sight. The world beyond the DEVS compound is otherwise like the world today.
Writing in the introduction to one of the stories in Philip K. Dick’s “Electric Dreams” anthology (the stories that inspired the modern series of the same name), Jack Thorne states that ‘there is always a difference between those writers that have ideas, and those who builds worlds. Philip K Dick builds universes’. In this show, Garland is very much in the latter category. Whilst his creation does not build fictional worlds in the same sense as Dick’s did, they do explore possibilities in a way that makes them feel genuine. Garland takes the “many worlds” concept, that is a theorized possibility within the field of quantum physics, and makes it a reality. He then explores the moral and philosophical implications of looking into the future. The oldest trope of morality based science fiction is made fresh, by his version of the man plays God myth. Not an easy thing to do at all. Surprisingly, the overtly morality-based Sci-fi story is not as common within mainstream sci-fi; certainly not on-screen, anyway. So much is all about the explosions now, action and trying to impress with special effects. Whilst those things are fun, they alone don’t tell a good tale. A tale is something quite different from a story. It is deeper and feels older. Almost always it has a moral attached. It’s a warning or an example of why we impose limits. But some have their reasons for trying to break these barriers . . .
Sonoya Mizuno’s Lily Chan is a wonderful creation. She has a basic motive, at least to begin with. What’s happened to the person she loves? Karl Glusman’s Sergei doesn’t feature prominently himself but does a great job of giving a reaction to discovering something utterly mind-blowing. Unlike some others, Lily isn’t willing to give up easily, in her quest to find this out. Whilst the performance of Mizuno is wonderful, that’s not what Sci-fi Pulse is interested in here (neither is it with any of the acting, in the contexts of a review). It’s the character herself and the way that Garland has written her. She is a force of love, and a symbol of the extent humans will go to when driven, to ensure those they care for are protected, or in her case their memories are. She’s the absolute driving force, and Garland absolutely nails wiring a modern screen hero, and he gets her to make a journey that only emotion could make possible. That journey involves realizations about herself, too, and whether she truly did love, Sergei. Garland’s take on a love-triangle. Choosing Jamie, played by Jin Ha, as the central-love interest in the story is an inspired choice if a little predictable. Jamie goes to great lengths to protect Lily, and that is deeply touching to see. It’s more evidence of what’s central to all of the story-telling here, emotion.
Forest, CEO and owner of Amaya, is a superb example of writing a character somewhere between good and bad. Nick Offerman captures this aspect impeccably; it’s the writing though that is responsible for this being possible. Again, Garland shows what he’s capable of. He gives a character the ultimate ambition, to bring back, or get back to, a child that’s died. Amaya was the name of his daughter, which is a simple but important touch to illustrate obsession; that he had Forest construct a huge (creepy) monument to his dead child is an additional building of this characters obsession and instability. Deep emotional ties to create believable arcs for his characters. Grief, loss, madness. All one and the same. Garland knows this and in giving Forest this back-story he also gives him a license to behave how he is driven to.
The rest of the people in the story are secondary, and perhaps Alison Pill plays the biggest role among them. She’s Katie, who is a brilliant scientist and also doubles as Forest’s carer/girlfriend all rolled into one. She has the important role of explaining things to outsiders (and therefore to viewers), too. Kenton, depicted with fierceness by Zach Grenier is an important element of the story but doesn’t really bring much to the show’s themes and concept. He’s the necessary bad-guy and least developed character. That said, he might be seen as someone who knows what’s going on, but chooses to ignore it. Having someone simply choosing to accept their version of reality, happily, does seem important. The rest of Katie’s top team is Cailee Spaeny’s Lyndon and Stephen McKinley Henderson’s Stewart. Their relationship is its own sub-plot, of a sort. Again, the bond between them is what shows it as nuanced. They are opposites, but when it comes down to it they easily cross the generational boundary. Stewart is the most interesting of the two and plays an important part in bridging the gap between exposition and action, as he recites passages by works of W.B Yeats with welcome surprise Philip Larkin (whose work Forest presumes is Shakespeare. This an absolute genius move by Garland, and offers something new. Yeats is often concerned with morality, and much-quoted in culture; Larkin, not so much. A lovely inclusion), whose “Aubade” is used to discuss death and the human condition of it.
Story and Visuals
There is careful consideration to make what has been created, essentially a next-level supercomputer, look just beyond the realms of possibility. It has an organic appearance, more like ancient devices that predated computers, than modern circuitry and microchips. It looks to be the product of something only possible due to breakthroughs in science. This is where Garland fuses the two elements of science and fiction so well. He takes what might be, and simply pretends that it has become possible. There is just enough research on the part of the writer to make his characters seem to understand aspects far beyond the understanding of most. Garland doesn’t need to be an expert on things, he just has to have a glimpse of what certain theories and postulations state may or may not be possible. Garland’s story takes place once the means to know whether these are simply theories or not is answered. The product of the equation is the view-screen that allows then to see what was, and what will be
It’s only a few episodes in that the coolest part of the show’s visual effects are seen. A cinema-sized flat-screen that can show images of the past and projections of the future. At first, they are fuzzy and blurred; once Lyndon fixes this problem (turns out he doesn’t quite do what Forest wants) then things look really impressive. The very real fear of this as a possibility is played out by the characters seeing themselves one second in the future. The cleverness of Garland is that rather than simply break all established laws of physics in order to write a story, he imagines that a way has been discovered via a natural progression of the path we’re on. The possibility is predicted based on the rate at which humanity has traveled, in so short a time. It has been disproportionate over the time of our species’ evolution and continues to accelerate. It’s really here that the whole morality of everything starts to be a central theme of the show. And at that point, Garland drops his masterstroke. It’s not DEVS, it’s Deus, the Latin for deity. Humanity is on the verge of becoming something more than it was, perhaps a new species. This idea, too, isn’t just the thread pulled on, by a writer with a vivid imagination. In his best-selling book, Sapiens (2014) Yuval Noah Harris postulates, following his study of the human story, that a new superhuman may indeed be the next stage, and make Homo Sapiens extinct. His second book explores this in more detail. The way that Garland presents this possibility makes for compelling viewing. It seems to be not very far away, and the excitement is only such because of the threat it brings, as well as the promise.
DEVS balances a great many things, and ends up as a polished, smart warning of a show. It’s in the vein of Black Mirror in terms of there being satirical elements and an at times seemingly prescient terror. A red-hot script, stunning visuals and effects that do so much more than just look cool, and delicately carved and beautifully flawed characters combine to make a great and important show. The elements of the show are cerebral and reach down into the base psychology of us and make us think about what we’re seeing. That’s why Stewart’s reciting of poetry is so powerful.
Like his excellent film Ex Machina (2014) Garland imagines that there may well be certain things that see us on the tipping point between being people and Gods. Possibly, he even hints that may be already happening. What he doesn’t do is simply say beware; he knows that things are much more complex than that. If the technology of the show were to happen there would be those who rallied against it and those who couldn’t resist. Just having the government demand to know what was happening, in the show, was enough to ask many questions. That’s what Garland does, he asks many more questions than he answers. That is the job of literature, and that’s what DEVS is. Literature, for and of the screen. A return to the very roots of what if?
The implications of discovery are manifold and maybe numerous as there are possibilities in the infinite world theory. That’s what’s at the heart of this tale. Where are we heading? Should we stop now? Can we stop now? Will we? In the future, the truth maybe none of these things, or an unequal combination of all. Science Fiction like this shows why the genre is so wonderful. It forces more than the cold science of discovery; suggests a religion, that may be available on our own terms. DEVS and Garland demand that the morality of certain topics be explored. They force the issue of asking what happens if they’re not. This has never been more relevant than in today’s world, one of ever-advancing technology. In his way perhaps Garland manages to make something that captures a rare middle-ground between science and religion. Maybe, just maybe he proves that Science Fiction has always been this all along and that it has to be. An age-old formula has new life breathed into it