Childhood’s End (Part One of Three)
A Three-Night Television Event on SyFy
I am about to write down words that I never thought I would say much less put into print: SyFy has finally arrived.
When I was not quite 12 years old I had grown into a voracious reading habit and had started to zero in on Science Fiction, much to my father’s delight. I started myself off with Jules Vern and HG Wells, after seeing the old Disney version of “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”, and my father, who had been an enormous science fiction fan growing up, wanted to help steer me towards his favorite writers. So one day out of the blue he gave me three short Science Fiction novels, two by Robert A Heinlein, and Sir Arthur C Clarke’s “Childhood’s End”. I read that book at least a dozen times and, along with the works of Heinlein and Isaac Asimov, Sir Arthur C Clarke became one of the touchstones of my taste in Science Fiction.
So imagine my joy/ horror when I saw that SyFy was planning to adapt Childhood’s End into a television movie. Not that SyFy, the one that had killed off two of the most imaginative science fiction television shows in decades, Eureka and Warehouse 13!?! Ever since July 7, 2009 (a date burned into my pop culture consciousness), when the SciFi Channel became Syfy, they have slowly killed off any good science fiction shows that they had and pumped out ‘reality television” crap like “Marcel’s Quantum Kitchen”, “Fangasm”, a bunch of crappy ghost hunting shows, the idiotic and inexplicable “Viral Video Showdown”, and those are just the ones off the top of my head.
There was also the whole series of “SyFy Original Films”, like the campy Sharknado, Sharktopus, Mansquito and others. Hell, it became the home of “WWE SmackDown”! Ok, “Face Off” has been pretty decent overall, and of course there were exceptions during this period, like the aforementioned Eureka and Warehouse 13, as well as Caprica, Haven and a handful of others, but overall there was very little Sci-Fi on SyFy.
But somewhere over the last couple of years, after crashing ratings for the channel and rumors that the channel was going to be completely scrapped, leading eventually to a change at the top of the food chain over at SyFy (shudder), we started to see a shift, a quantum shift if you will, with surprising (because they were mostly pretty good) new shows popping up that started to take us back to what we had always hoped the channel could be. First it was series like “Defiance”, then the all too short-lived “Helix” (with Galactica showrunner Ron Moore), the “Ascension” miniseries with Galactica’s Tricia Helfer, and finally the surprising overachiever in the television adaptation of Terry Gilliam’s Oscar winning “12 Monkeys”.
There was still junk like “Haunted Collector”, “Ghost Mine”, and the truly awful “Deep South Paranormal”, but there were indications from the network that these kinds of shows would be phased out in favor of new shows that were actually science fiction, such as “Killoys” and “Dark Matter”. With the premiere last night of “Childhood”s End” and “The Expanse”, and upcoming shows like “The Magicians” (from the novel by Lev Grossman), Sir Arthur C Clarke’s “3001:The Final Odyssey”, “Hyperion” (from the Dan Simmons novels), and other adaptations rumored to be in development of works by Asimov, Heinlein and more, we really, finally, have something to look forward to.
“Childhood’s End Part 1: The Overlords”, is the first of a three night television event based on Sir Arthur C Clarke’s 1953 novel and adapted by Matthew Graham, who has previously written episodes of Dr. Who and other BBC Television productions. It opens with a man (Osy Ikhile) walking through a seemingly abandoned city, who is going to give his testimonial, to tell his story, to a glowing, floating, orb. His name is Milo Rodricks, an astrophysicist, and he tells us that he is the last human. As he begins, he tells the story of a seemingly peaceful Alien race (voiced by Charles Dance), who simply show up one day in the skies over most of Earth’s major cities and change our world forever. Every single man-made object in the skies is simultaneously lowered to the ground as if on an elevator. Airliners are brought down in the middle of city streets to a soft and safe landing. Next, every single human on earth is simultaneously visited by an apparition, and avatar if you will, taking the voice and appearance of a deceased loved one, with the message, “There’s no need to be afraid. My name is Karellen, the Supervisor for Earth. I know that this is frightening and bewildering. Please try to understand that we’ve come a long, long, way to help you”. With their arrival they say they bring “The Golden Age of Man.” A promise to end war, famine, injustice, inequality, sickness and disease, and state that they are also here to end all hatred and sadness. “No tears, only happiness and safety.”
There is of course dissent and cynicism, with the aliens being given the name “The Overlords” by a cynical and powerful newspaper publisher/media mogul (Colm Meaney). We start to meet more of our ensemble cast for the show including dashing everyman and widower Ricky Stormgren (played by Mike Vogel from ”NBC’s Under the Dome”), his fiancé Ellie (Daisy Betts from Chicago Fire), Milo as a young boy (I could not find an IMDB credit for this fine young man), his mom Bridget (newcomer Zahra Newman ), Don Hany as a nameless but powerful Government Official, and others.
Karellen chooses Ricky, out of the 7 billion humans on earth, to be his representative and go between to all the people of earth. He is taken to the mothership and finds himself in an exact copy of the honeymoon suite at the Four Seasons Hotel in New York City, where he had stayed some years earlier with his late wife. Karellen seems benevolent and appears to truly want to help.
There is, of course, conflict between several of the main players in all of this, especially because no one is allowed to see what Karellen actually looks like, not even Ricky. Karellen tells Ricky that humanity just would not be able to handle his appearance and won’t be for many years to come. Earth is not the first time that they have helped a planet and they apparently have learned from previous mistakes. We do not actually get to see Karellen until the final few minutes of the first two-hour episode, and if you have not read the book, the reveal can be quite startling.
The show makes great use of our social and political climate: coming out of commercial breaks there are very clever “attack ads” by a group calling itself the “Freedom League” that is against the Alien presence and interference here on Earth. They even have a hashtag, #freedomleague. The first time that one of those ran I actually had to go back and rewind because I thought that it was an actual political ad of some kind.
Overall I was fairly pleased with the first episode, directed by Nick Hurran, who has previously directed The Day of the Doctor and Angels Take Manhattan on Doctor Who as well as episodes of Sherlock and the television adaptation of Minority Report. While it could not stick too closely to the original material due to changes over the years in our world and in technology I felt that it was fairly true to the tone and message of the novel. The writers and director do a fine job of creating the atmosphere of hope, wonder, doubt, and mistrust, all running together in this New World that our protagonists must come to terms with. You feel a sense of frustration in Ricky’s desire to know more about what is going on and the weight of suddenly becoming the single most famous person in the world. If anything was lacking I feel it was the trial of the attention that is thrown upon him upon his selection. Even though he lives out in the middle of nowhere Missouri, there still would’ve been far more people that would’ve gathered outside of his home. One would think that there would’ve been tent cities that would’ve popped up in the fields around his home.
I have read the book so I understood what was happening, but my wife, who is very clever and generally has no problem understanding plot points of any show, felt a little bit lost at moments. There was a sense that some part of the story was missing. Since they were already doing this as a three night event, I think that they probably could have, and maybe should have, stretched this first two hour episode into a third, or even fourth, hour and put more time into some character development and exposition. They should have shown more of the changing world over time, and compressing the time between the Aliens arrival and the first reveal of Karellen from 50, like in the novel, to 15 years seemed a little hard for me to swallow. A lot can happen in 15 years but that just seems too quick. You would need that generational change that 50 years would allow to make it possible for humanity to accept such an enormous and impactful event. That being said, I am looking forward to the next two episodes so make sure that you check back here as I will have a postmortem sometime after Wednesday night’s episode has aired.
I give this show 4 Motherships out of 5