Devs Episode 1 review
Que sera sera with quantum knobs on
Writer/director Alex Garland’s Ex Machina was one of the finest SF films of the past decade, totally gripping and deeply thought-provoking at the same time. So expectations for this mini-series, for which Garland has scripted and directed all eight episodes, were high indeed. From the first episode alone it’s difficult to judge whether the series will fully deliver as a whole, but the signs so far are very promising so far.
The series actually reaches its climax in the States this week, but for the sake of UK viewers – since the BBC has decided not to pump it onto iPlayer in one great job lot – let’s take a look at this first episode without foreknowledge of what’s to come.
It certainly feels like a companion piece to Ex Machina in tone, if not themes. Once again, despite the science fiction trappings and the New Scientist think-piece exposition, this isn’t so much hard SF as philosophical SF, exploring the human relationship to science. We’re sure Garland has run his techie dialogue past some sciencey mates, but you still get the feeling this isn’t actually how scientists really talk to each other. Not that it matters in the slightest. What matters is that those of us less versed in quantum computing get a vague handle on the broad strokes, so that Garland can explore more existential questions about how the science impacts on us as living, thinking beings.
In terms of plot, it’s a classic pulp sci-fi set up. A promising scientist is invited to join a top secret project and learns that the secret is mindblowingly scary. Complicating matters in this case is the fact that the promising scientist, Sergei, is also a corporate spy, and that the big secret project – which is being run by a high-tech company called Amaya – appears to involve using quantum computers to predict the future. Amaya’s boss, Forest, quickly reveals he knew Sergei was a spy all along, presumably because his secret project has predicted this turn of events, and has his security guard kill him.
At the heart of the story is the concept of determinism – that belief that the behaviour of the universe and everything in it, from the Big Bang to heat death, can, in theory, be calculated. That things are always destined to happen in a certain way, and there’s an insanely complex numerical logic governing it all.
What about free will? Well, since our brains can be considered biological computers, free will, some argue, doesn’t exist. The chemical impulses that govern a decision are just another link in a chain of cause and effect. You think you have made a choice, but it is not a choice at all; it was a predictable result of a certain set of influencing factors. Predictable if you have near infinite computing power, anyway.
So, what do reckon to the likelihood of the series going on to explore the nature of free will? We wouldn’t bet against it. Let’s just hope it’s not six episodes of Amaya outguessing Sergei’s girlfriend, Lily, at every move as she tries to uncover the truth about his death, only for her to become Free Will’s avenging angel in the finale. But then, Ex Machina managed to deliver an unexpected, satisfying climax, so we expect Garland has a few scripting tricks up his sleeve.
Weighty matters aside, the episode is very entertaining. It looks amazing, not just the slick SF images (especially the interior of the quantum machine) but also in terms of visual motifs; there are circles everywhere and Amaya’s boss, Forest, is even haloed by one of his own light fittings at one point, so you can bet this is a deliberate aesthetic choice. So, a circle of life vibe? Or something more religious? There’s certainly something Old Testamenty about Forest though we’d guess Katie has more God-like coding powers than we’ve seen so far.
Pacing-wise it’s actually quite sprightly compared to some modern US dramas, though it’s certainly not short of slow, deliberate camera moves and lingering looks. The cast put in some decent work, though some of the dialogue – even the non-techie stuff – does feel a little over-mannered. Katie and Forests’ conversation on the grass is basically, “Let’s see how we can say nothing in as many words as possible because that’s enigmatic, right?” while Jamie’s potted history of his failed relationship with Lily is like the dullest episode of Eating With My Ex.
But mostly, this is exquisite, thoroughly absorbing, visually elegant small screen sci-fi. We – ahem – predict good things from the next seven episodes.
• The name Amaya has a few meanings and different origins, but its Spanish roots originate from village of Amaya in Castile and León, which in turn derived its name from the Indo-European word “amma”, meaning mother. So is the company Amaya the “mother” of the freaky girl statue? Is Katie the company’s true “mother”?
• Anyone else seriously worried that the freaky girl statue would be magnet for pervs who would want to know if you could see up her skirt? Pass the brain bleach, please.
• Lily can be seen reading The Colossus and Other Poems by Synthia Plath. The poem “The Colossus” is (on the surface) about the writer addressing a giant statue – so there’s an obvious link there – but the themes of this multilayers, mercurial poem are more concerned with the poets’ relationship with her father.
• For a moment we thought Forest was going to reveal to Sergei that Devs was, in fact, the world’s largest Brutalist swimming pool complete with diving board.
• If you think the design of the machine in Devs is a little fanciful, it really isn’t. As you can see by comparing it to this real quantum computer in an IBM research centre in Zurich (left), the TV version is actually remarkably accurate.
• When Lily and a workmate throw a list a series of numbers back and forth they are reciting the Fibonacci sequence, which, counter to what Lily claims in the show, some scientists and potential University Challenge and Only Connect contestants do actually learn off by heart (well, the first few numbers anyway).
Devs Episode 1 written by: Alex Garland
Devs Episode 1 directed by: Alex Garland
Devs is currently airing in the UK on BBC Two and is available for a limited time on the BBC iPlayer
Review by Dave Golder