When even the orgies are dull, you know a television series is in trouble. The boredom sets in early on and never goes away in the splashy new adaptation of Brave New World, based on Aldous Huxley’s then-futuristic novel, published in 1932. Like the book, the series is set in a dystopia disguised as a utopia. Sameness reigns, in a world where babies are engineered in factories and assigned grades according to their status. Alphas are smart and privileged; Epsilons are dim-witted worker bees. Everyone is blissfully happy thanks to happiness pills called Soma. Huxley’s message, of course, was that sameness crushes free will and imagination, leading to even greater unhappiness than before.
Classic though it is, Brave New World has never had the cultural grip of that other anti-totalitarian warning from the era, George Orwell’s 1984. Orwell’s message of the government controlling thought and distorting facts through language resonates more potently than ever today. Huxley’s book does not, partly because the technology he envisioned as wild and improbable is already here in many ways. The idea of ‘test tube babies’, as they were once called, has morphed into the valuable process of in vitro fertilisation. Genetic engineering is quickly becoming more a matter of ethics than science.
The series’ creators clearly knew they’d have to update Huxley’s world, but seem to have been befuddled by what to do with the plot and its technology, and uninterested in developing the characters. The show is set in a city called New London, a place of high-rises and glossy minimalist furniture, with a sleeker version of the London Eye in the skyline. The design looks as appealing and soothing as it is meant to be, one of the show’s few effective elements.
The characters are not given much in the way of personalities, though. At the centre is Bernard Marx (Harry Lloyd), who is ever-so-slightly out of key with his role as a government official. When he first meets Lenina Crowne (Jessica Brown Findlay), he is officially scolding her for being monogamous, which is against all the rules. It is absolutely anti-social not to have sex often, with a variety of partners.
Many of those partners turn up at a club called The Pleasure Garden, a place we see more than once, where a throng of writhing and eventually naked bodies crowd the dance floor. We can only assume those scenes are meant to be titillating for viewers, but with their flaring lights they look like bad parodies of disco scenes from 1980s movies. Of course, the pre-orgy dance is meant to be part of ordinary life for the characters. Maybe that’s why even they look bored.
Trying to be a good, non-monogamous citizen, Lenina accepts Bernard’s offer to join him on a visit to the Savage Lands, a section of the American Southwest not taken over by technology, and open to tourists. They get there on a space shuttle from London. The show treats this concept with such misplaced wonder – look, Lenina floats because there’s no gravity! – it’s as if no one involved had ever heard of almost-realised real-life plans for commercial space travel.
In the Savage Lands, Bernard and especially Lenina seem to acquire a bit of free thinking, although not enough to make them vivid characters. And they encounter a man called John, who works at a theme park that allows tourists to visit exhibitions like House of Want, where they observe oddities such as shoppers stampeding into a discount store. John has rough edges in a world that wants to smooth them away. That role suits Alden Ehrenreich, who is at his best when playing down-to-earth, ordinary guys. He does the most he can with it here.
In a blonde wig, Demi Moore is almost unrecognisable as John’s mother, Linda, wearing a slip all day as she drunkenly staggers around their rundown little house. Linda remembers her old life in New London, where ‘mother’ is a filthy word because only the uncivilised actually give birth. No wonder she’s a mess. More than the other actors, Moore brings the series to life. Too bad hers is only a supporting role.
The attempts to ramp up drama feel desperate. In the Savage Lands there is a band of rebels, a shootout, even a car chase, none of it very suspenseful. Back in high-tech New London, a communications network called Indra uses contact lenses to plug into other people’s thoughts. Mustapha Mond (Nina Sosanya), a government official, can access everyone’s thoughts through Indra. The series signals that she is mysterious and important by dressing her in a flowing robe instead of the standard, tailored clothes. She is also given horrible dialogue like, “Virus. It’s an old word, from before.”
There have been powerful, eerily chilling, similarly-themed series lately, including The Handmaid’s Tale and last year’s brilliant Years and Years. But they are firmly set in dystopias, not would-be utopias. There was definitely space for a different approach, which makes Brave New World a particularly disappointing, wasted opportunity.
Brave New World premieres on 15 July on Peacock in the US and later in 2020 on Sky One in the UK.
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