There have now been four episodes of Sundance’s Aboriginal Australian mythology-based sci-fi drama Cleverman. The mythos is really foreign. Americans are familiar with traditional western mythology – Greco-Roman, Norse, Welsh – but we’re mostly unaware of other cultures’ myths and lore. Knowledge about Aboriginal mythology may not necessary to enjoy Cleverman, but knowing something certainly enriches the experience of watching.
The show’s title, Cleverman, derives from the name of a traditional Aboriginal shaman or medicine man. It’s been apparent since the first episode that the Cleverman is a mystic, but Australian shamans are associated with delivering ritual punishment and death unlike their more familiar western counterparts. It’s unclear whether mystical punishment or killing will have any relevance on Cleverman’s progression, but it adds to the dystopian feel of the show.
In episode one, a Cleverman summons a monster called a Namorrodor out of a river for ritual suicide. By episode four it’s killed at least 10 people. Creator Ryan Griffen talked about the Namorrodor mythology in an interview, explaining that it’s a monster that attacks the weak and vulnerable. While protecting the vulnerable is a major theme of the story, killing the Namorrodor will be a symbolic act. Koen, as the cleverman, choosing to kill it is choosing to protect vulnerable people from harm.
Cleverman is clearly not just a regurgitation of Aboriginal mythology. It’s a rebranding of the ancient in a modern sci-fi setting. To Australians who understand the mythology, that probably means a lot more than it does to Americans. We could take the straight mythology as something new and foreign. We can enjoy it as straight science fiction without understanding the mythology, but just the basic understanding enhances the experience. When I watched episode four with new albeit basic knowledge of Aboriginal mythology, it didn’t feel nearly as foreign. The Mythological and Sci-Fi put together make the series so much more alive.