A corrupt man wreaks havoc in a seemingly perfect utopian society Brave New World, the flagship original series on NBC’s Peacock streaming service, which launches today. It is 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 beautiful, engaging, and romantic series with strong performances and stunning CGI that feels more like Westworld than Huxley’s novel, especially in its scientific foundations. And finally it provides a wonderful story of the pain of love and the human condition.
(Some spoilers below, but no major revelations.)
The novel Brave New World is set in the year 2540, in the Commonwealth of London, where humans are born in artificial wombs and have been taught by “sleep-learning” to fit into a predetermined group. Citizens often take a drug called soma (part anti-depressant, part hallucinogen) to make them docile and help them conform to strict social rules. Prostitution 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 liable to backfire,” said Western European leader Mustapha Mond to the novel’s heroic hero, John the Savage. “Science is dangerous; we have to keep it very cautious and muzzled.”
John is the illegitimate son of a high-ranking official, born and raised on the Savage Reservation, where people are still born, age naturally, and generally represent the opposition to the World State’s controlling agenda. His only education is the complete works of Shakespeare. (The title of the novel refers to a line by Miranda The summer.) When John and his mother, Linda, find their way back to the World State, he first becomes a celebrity but struggles to adapt to the new social activities. In particular, he falls in love with a young woman named Lenina Crowne but cannot resist her promiscuity and sexual advances. He eventually isolated himself from society in hopes of cleansing himself of “sin.” Things don’t end well for anyone.
There are a few changes from the book, as one might expect when adapting a novel from 1932, but showrunner David Wiener strives to be true to the heart and soul of the source material. “Huxley feared that people would be so sexually motivated, so drugged up, so distracted by media and entertainment that they wouldn’t look at themselves, or the world around them in an analytical way,” he told Ars. “It’s really important to keep that at the core of the story.”
Some of the most important changes are scientific and technological. The citizens of New London are self-adjusted to their castes (nature), whereas in Huxley’s novel, they are carefully opposed (right). Everyone also receives a soma to fight, but they are all also interconnected—via optical implants—to the central AI known as INDRA that regulates society. “Huxley considered bioengineering, IVF, contraception, all these things that have been going on for ten years,” said Wiener. “But he could not predict how computers and social media will act as part of our lives. Unlike many fictional stories, Huxley’s concern has only become more true since he wrote the book. I think if you have said. him about social media, he would have been, like, ‘Wow! Yes, perfect.'”
Wiener chose to focus his story arc on the love triangle of Bernard (Harry Lloyd, who truly walked the entire series with his performance), Lenina (Jessica Brown Findlay), and John the Savage (Alden Ehrenreich), who emerges from Huxley’s original characters in some surprising ways. For example, instead of evincing an old-fashioned prudery, as in the novels, this John is much more open, almost passionate, to all sexes and soma-at least until he falls for Lenina and those who are jealous set in . his love for Shakespeare was replaced with a love for music. “The song really got into the show and became part of the story, and that was definitely a happy accident,” Wiener said.
Findlay’s Lenina is much more complex in the series—a welcome change from the book, where she was (to my mind) an angry under-developer. Lenina’s book passivity is consistent with her Beta Plus status, but it doesn’t make for a strong character by 21st century standards. “It doesn’t change much in the book; its perspective and concerns are the same at the end as at the beginning,” said Wiener. “In our version, he’s our lens into the story, and he’s the character that changes the most over the course of the season.”
The people of New London were different, although class hierarchy was 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 transgender. (In the book, Bernard’s BFF is Helmholtz Watson.) “I think it would have felt good to have everyone in power be male or white,” Wiener said. “We want to make a utopia that looks like what we will consider as a better place than what we have here.” Making a female helm, in particular, subtly changes the character’s friendship with Bernard. “It’s a really interesting dynamic, given how New Londoners deal with sex,” Wiener says. “But that’s not the vibe between Bernard and Helm. There’s a lot of true love there.”
Therefore. Many. Orgies.
Helm is also not a writer and literary academic, as in the novel, but a kind of DJ of the future whose job is to use haptics to simulate sensory experiences during many (many!) orgies. He calls them “feelings” and explains to John that he believes he is telling a lie with his picture in one of the stand-up scenes. His response: “That’s not a story.” He then proceeds to tell her an old tale of terror that his mother, Linda (Demi Moore), used to tell him as a child in the Savagelands. Helm is excited—and ultimately transformed—especially after he taps into John’s brain and allows himself to experience real, raw, complex emotion for the first time, rather than suppressing unpleasant emotions with soma.
“Every forest, every tree, every fountain, every pane of glass is CGI.”
NBC clearly poured a lot of money into this series, and it shows in the incredible production values. For VFX supervisor Tom Horton, the biggest challenge was creating a sci-fi utopian world that was different from the many, many futuristic shows that had come before. As a touchstone, he focused on the lack of history in New London. “It’s a world of what I call accidental creation,” he told Ars. “There are many opportunities in some ways: street, societies, social networks. This is not the case here. Everyone in this world was created for a specific role.”
Because of that, Horton managed many architectural styles rooted in the past and ended up receiving a brutal, unconventional aesthetic with well-kept gardens and greenery. There are lots of circles and manipulations, as opposed to our 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 oversee the urban planning for their New London design. That means thinking hard about floor plans and how people can use the space—a level of detail not typical of most TV productions—like transportation, public spaces, leisure and retail areas, gardens and so on. Then Horton and his team took that idea (summarized in a massive 100 page document) and devoted their energies to making the 3D city. “The city is completely CGI,” he said. “It’s not art, every forest, every tree, every fountain, every pane of glass is CGI.”
That means using a lot of blue screen, especially for office procedures and scenes within the London-based firm. But for the first two events, Horton and his team relied on the same LED technology used on The Mandalorian. For example, for the scene where the actors are riding a train through the city, Horton’s crew placed LED screens on the train window and digitally rendered views of the city viewed through that window as the train passed. go from the station, into a tunnel, and out and around. New London.
For all the technical wizardry, however, the emphasis is always on the characters and the story. “Certainly, there are some great visual effects, but we try to make sure they don’t overpower the story,” Horton said. “The constant mantra is that the visual effects must be eventful, the better to show all the great conflict that arises from really intimate relationships.”
Brave New World now available on the newly launched Peacock streaming service.