Thursday, December 24, 2015

Television Review: Childhood's End

Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

Bottom Line: It sticks close to the spirit of the book while fleshing it out to deliver an excellent sci fi TV production.

Very early in Syfy's mini-series Childhood's End, based on the Arthur C. Clarke book, we see the iconic scene where the giant spaceships appear over many of Earth's major cities and some longtime fans of the genre might groan: "here we go again".  We have already seen that on television in the V mini-series from 1983 and then again in the 2009 revival and we also saw it in 1996 with the feature film Independence Day.  But then Clarke was the first to do it with his book back in 1953, so the mini-series adaptation can't be blamed for retreading and that sense of familiarity that you feel throughout the six-hour production comes in a large part because he introduced so many concepts that have since become science fiction tropes.

But give the mini-series credit for spinning the material in such a way that it does not feel like a hackneyed journey through sci fi cliches.  Instead, it updates this story about aliens arriving on Earth and wresting control from the humans that are on the verge of taking their destructive nature into space.  And while it takes plenty of liberties with the source material it still sticks close to the spirit and basic premise of the book.  The mini-series shortens the story from a multi-generational tale to a more compact timeframe, but that is done so that it plays better to a television audience and can maintain many of the same characters throughout its three night run. And since character development was not a strong point of Clarke's original book, the changes and merging of the lead players does not hamper the mini-series and perhaps makes it stronger.

I am not going into too many of the plot details because I believe Childhood's End is best experienced as spoiler free as possible, but I will give a warning that the first installment (the strongest of the three nights) sets up a story that does not play out quite the way you think it will.  That's the same in the book, though, because Clarke was interested in the bigger, more epic story that this eventually morphs into.  In my review of the audiobook, I made the following comments:

Quite a number of world shattering (literally) events occur in the novel, but Clarke never fully delves into all of the repercussions. Of course his aim is to tell the larger story of humanity’s next step in its cosmic evolution, so he is not as concerned with exploring the details of these various parts of his story. But there is more than one occasion in the book where I would have liked more instead of less.

I then went on to comment that a mini-series adaptation could "expand upon the original story and delve into some of the areas the Clarke just glossed over. The book is broken into three sections and I believe they could easily get a two hour segment or more out of each".  And that is exactly what this mini-series did as it filled in some of the blanks and fleshed out the story better.

Unfortunately, the last night of the mini-series was the weakest and may not have a given satisfactory explanation of the importance of the children.  I was following it okay because of my familiarity with the story, but from what I have heard from online discussions, those that did not read the book or did not remember it well were a little confused on that point.  And that final scene as the Overlords depart from the planet did not quite match up to the epic feel it had in the book when it tied everything together in a satisfying conclusion.  I don't believe that these aspects derailed the production, but I do think it could have wrapped up better.

And you should note that this mini-series was delivered on a budget, though they do make the best use of their money and I never felt it looked cheap.  But things like only seeing one Overlord until the very end (and then only a second one) were ways to keep costs down.  Still, I thought the production values were very good for television and it never lost its epic feel.

I should also note the first-rate acting job delivered by many of the main characters in the mini-series.  Mike Vogel (Under the Dome, Bates Motel) takes the lead role of Ricky Stormgren who is changed considerably from the character in the book, but I believe for the better.  The flashback sequences to his dead wife got a bit tired, though, and seemed almost pointless by the third night.  Then there is Charles Dance (Tywin Lannister from Game of Thrones) who should get Emmy consideration for his portrayal of Karellen, though will likely be ignored by that institution.  He plays the character as sympathetic and almost apologetic which ties well to the plight of the Overlords that we learn by the end of the story.

Unfortunately, Childhood's End did not deliver good ratings for Syfy, though I believe that is because many still reject the channel because it turned its back on its core audience when it rebranded in 2009.  The network is now trying to move back to its science fiction roots and this mini-series is a good example of that.  It is not designed to launch an ongoing series like the Battlestar: Galactica mini was, but I would like to see more adaptations of classic sci fi literature along these lines.  Childhood's End manages to respect the source material that it draws from while also updating it for a modern audience, and it delivers first-rate science fiction television.  But whether we see more along these lines from Syfy, especially taking into account the ratings, remains to be seen.

As an interesting final note, the 1983 V mini-series originated as an attempt to adapt Childhood's End, though it morphed into something very different by the time it made it to television.  There is a line very early in the Syfy production when the ships appear over the cities and one news person says "We're calling them the Visitors" which was a sly reference to what the aliens were originally called in V.  Colm Meaney's Wainwright immediately shuts that down, though, and says "No we're not" and types in the headline "The Overlords".  You can watch all three parts of Childhood's End online at Syfy's website at this link.

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