Who would have guessed that the final evolution of the human race would have been such a downer? For those aware of the plot of Arthur C. Clarke‘s classic novel, the outcome of Childhood’s End came as no surprise, but what was surprising was that the adaptation followed through with the bittersweet finale and allowed the miniseries to end as naturally, and as beautifully, as possible. Childhood’s End hasn’t been consistent in its delivery, but watching tonight’s final third it seemed as though it was just consistent enough to deliver an emotional pay-off. Who knew that watching the end of the world could be so rewarding.
After some teasing last night, we finally got to go to New Athens, the last vestige of real human culture. The Greggsons get worried when all the neighbor kids show up outside their door and start chanting for Jennifer, now four years old and starting to realize her psychic gifts. The Greggsons hope that New Athens will be a place where they can hide from the craziness of the Earth in its present form, but what they don’t realize is that the Earth’s fate has been sealed, and that they, like the whole of New Athens’ existence, are only going to delay the inevitable.
New Athens is an interesting idea that, I think, could have been explored further and not just in the series’ final two hours. It was already in Jake’s head to go there in part two, but the Greggsons’ arrival in the city might have been more powerful if we knew what they were going to, and not just what they were running from. What we heard about the city in advanced from its founder and spokesperson Gerry comes across as kind of paranoid and xenophobic, like they’re some kind of militia movement. The reality though is an almost bohemian paradise where culture lives, and you get a house just by showing up. The Overlords promote order through unity; New Athens promotes order by embracing the chaos.
The idea that the miniseries dances around but never really deals with is that while human faults have dire consequences like war and greed, these extremes also give rise to great beauty like art, poetry and music. it’s not an original thought, but one that’s worth exploring in a story that aims to suggest that human beings as a race are still relatively young in our thoughts, feelings and aspirations. Much like the digressions into religion in episodes one and two, the issue is teed up but there aren’t too many swings in its general direction. At least none that are terribly interesting.
It’s understandable though because this final part of the miniseries was jam-packed with plot. Much of it is about Milo, who we knew from the beginning was going to be the last man on Earth, but that doesn’t mean seeing how his story played out wasn’t engrossing. Milo’s story has been the most complete by far in Childhood’s End, probably because he had an actual character arc in his quest to keep science alive. and in the finale, Milo uses all the qualities of a scientist – curiosity, boldness, fearlessness – to finally find the answers to why the Overlords came here, and he doesn’t like what he finds.
There’s a kind of freakiness in the method by which Milo has to stowaway on the Overlords ship. He vacuum packs himself with a shipment of Earth animals with the help of his girlfriend Rachel, who says, if he’s lucky, he won’t have a 40-year nightmare about suffocating as he travels to the Overlord’s homeworld. Milo makes it, and learns of the existence of the Overmind, the collective consciousness of the universe, which will soon include the final generation of children from Earth. This is the fate of the human race, and its a fate that’s been repeated amongst sentient races across the universe.
It was perhaps a smart idea to make the whole Overmind conversation a brief one, something like that is almost too heady for the general audience, and it accentuates Milo’s horror that the human race is about to be gone and that it’s being turned into this thing that’s quite intangible. The script did miss the moment of clarity though, the reason why the Overlords look like demons from the “Good Book” is because of humanity’s psychic foresight, understanding on a universal subconscious level that these creatures would be here at the end of the world. What was misunderstood is that they would shepherd us to some small measure of survival, not be the cause of our doom. The miniseries reveled in the religious imagery, but it doesn’t try and hit the nail on the head when the time comes.
The stunning denouement unfolds as advertised with Milo returning back to Eath, long after the last humans have gone and after the children have joined the Overmind. Karellen says that they can save Milo, and he can travel with the Overlords to learn all that is knowable, and it’s only in this moment that Milo can reconcile both the analytical scientist and the emotional human. He remains on Earth to witness its final destruction as a record for the Overlords, but before the Earth dies, Milo makes one request: save something that let’s people know that the human race existed. Karellen saves a piece of music from Milo’s mind, and he leaves it as a memorial to Earth so that anyone passing by might know humans were once there.
I had always assumed that one of the things that held Childhood’s End back was the fact that it ended with the destruction of Earth and the passing of the human race. I was concerned that since this script had so much trouble trying to be linear, and kept dropping some of the characters to keep the plot flowing, that the emotional weight of the finale would be lost. It was a pleasant surprise though that the end of the Earth was as weepy as it deserved to be, and a lot of credit goes to Osy Ikhile for playing a whole spectrum of reaction from defiance, to curious, to grieved, to fearful, and, eventually, acceptance.
Childhood’s End wasn’t perfect, but it always seems to engage, and made me want to see the next chapter. Although it wasn’t dramatic and structurally tense, it kept many of the big ideas from Clarke’s book intact, and really, that was the big challenge of any adaptation attempt for this novel. There was a promise that was once Sci-Fi, and Syfy hasn’t had much occasion to live up to it lately, but with Childhood’s End it has! Ambition pays off, and there’s an earnestness and reverence for the material that is recognized and appreciated. In the end, Childhood’s End ended up being filmable after all, and more than that, it was a satisfying film.