Following through on its re-dedication to science fiction, Syfy took things to a whole new level by deciding to adapt Childhood’s End. It’s a bit like being a terrible pitcher that’s had no practice all season and being named the starter of the seventh game of the World Series: expectations are high, no one thinks you can meet them, and there’s a good chance that something beloved by millions is going to be ruined. And that’s why it’s a tremendous surprise that the first part of the three night miniseries Childhood’s End manages to be decently enthralling effort. It’s not Masterpiece Theater, but it’s a positive effort all around.
Don’t kid yourself, the fact that we got a Childhood’s End project that falls somewhere between “okay” and “pretty good” is something of a minor miracle on par with benevolent aliens curing all the ills that plague life on Earth. For years, a veritable army of screenwriters have tried to adapt the book for the screen, before and after the premiere of the screen version of that other seminal work based on an Arthur C. Clarke tale, 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s a difficult story to crack because it spans over 100 years, involves the complete philosophical, cultural and religious dissection of human nature, and has kind of a downer ending. Hardly material commonly associated with the people that brought us Sharnado and Deep South Paranormal.
So just adapting the novel was difficult enough, but Clarke wrote it in 1953, a very different world than the one we currently occupy. Could Matthew Graham, the creator of the original Life on Mars, find a way to make Childhood’s End both approachable and relevant at the same time? The answer is yes, and those are the biggest hurdles that Graham and company had to clear. The rest is just execution, which has its problems, but Childhood’s End the miniseries proves that Childhood’s End the book isn’t unfilmable.
The book unfolds in three movements, which seems to be reflected in the series’ three parts. This first part chronicles the arrival of alien ships around the world, and an alien race, who are christened the Overlords by a cynical press, announces its presence to mankind. Their leader, Karellen (Charles Dance), tells the people of Earth that there’s nothing to fear, and that the human race is about to be inducted into a golden age with their assistance: no violence, no want, no pollution, and no sickness. What they want from humans in return is unclear, why they won’t reveal themselves in the flesh is also a question many need answered.
One of the things that Graham changes is that the main character for this initial section of the story is an everyman, Ricky Stormgren (Mike Vogel), is a farmer from Missouri. In the book, Stormgren is the Secretary-General of the United Nations, which was probably seen in a more inspirational light in ’53 than it is in 2015. As the present political reality tells us, this is the age of the political novice, and Karellen agrees that presidents and popes come with too much baggage to bring the Overlords message to Earth. Vogel, best known for his part in three seasons of Under the Dome, definitely conveys an everyman sensibility, but its tough to see what the aliens see in the character. Maybe that’s the point.
Running counter to Ricky is the cable news blowhard Wainwright played by the artist formally known as Chief O’Brien, Colm Meaney. Much like he does weekly on Hell on Wheels, Meaney loves to chew the scenery, and who wouldn’t playing an alien-suspecting pastiche of Fox News. While it’s understandable and expected that there might be some humans that think that the no strings attached generosity of the Overlords is a smoke-screen, Wainwright’s maneuvers, including an association with the ominously named Freedom League, are kind of cartoonish. His character also doesn’t get a proper resolution, and seems purely constructed to antagonize rather than voice a legitimate viewpoint.
Graham also adds a character named Peretta Jones (Yael Stone) to the story. Peretta is the daughter of an ultra-religious Brazilian woman who kills herself when the Overlords arrive, and turns into a advocate for religion in the face of first contact. Those familiar with the book hit there head against the TV with a thud when Peretta arrives because we know that she’s going to take it the worst when the Overlords finally reveal themselves. There, at the end of the episode, Peretta freaks out on cue when Karellen leaves his ship and is revealed to be the spitting image of the Devil incarnate. I think the message would have landed without the extra hit of orthodoxy.
I still don’t know what to make of the make-up job on Dance. It’s no Tim Curry in Legend obviously, but it does the job adequately, and the final glimpse of Karellen in all his glory is rather fleeting. Perhaps seeing the character in full tomorrow night, and interacting with other characters will determine whether the make-up job is successful. Dance was definitely the right man for the part though as his Karellen shows great wisdom, compassion, and whimsy, which is an astounding feat given that Dance is required to use mostly his voice in these first two hours. Hearing Karellen say, “My bad,” goes a bit too far, but that line has become the lazy screenwriter’s trick to make play an alien’s attempt to assimilate human language. It’s hardly the worst crime.
Despite the hiccups in the script, including the Overlords not so subtle manipulation of Ricky by using the image of his dead wife, Childhood’s End is fairly provocative because at least it seems to have the courage of its convictions to stay dedicated to the broader themes of the story. Can the Overlords be taken in earnest, even if what they’re offering is all the things that can make mankind better? Is it right to sell our sense of self-determination so that outsiders can solve the problems we created? Karellen has a great line about how humanity’s trepidation about the Overlord’s arrival is uniting them, and that’s a good thing. There’s a bizarre sense of optimism in that the human race’s paranoia about the other is a positive quality, but Graham at least recognizes that there are a lot more thin lines between opposing forces in the human condition than we like to admit.
Childhood’s End at least has the fundamentals firmly grasped, and if they’ve worked out the kinks with part one, then so much the better because everything gets a whole lot stranger from here. As we see in the prologue, the miniseries promises to go to wonderfully melancholic places before the show draws the final curtain, and I for one have confidence in the filmmakers to deliver on the promise of the story. The long wait to see this powerful science fiction story has been realized, but can they stick the landing?