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Syfy’s CHILDHOOD’S END review (spoilers)

Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End has always been one of my favorite books. I still have my first copy of the book, the 1973 Del Rey edition. So I was nervous when I heard that Syfy was doing a miniseries adaptation of the book. The initial reports and promos were discouraging. They suggested that the emphasis would be on the early “Are they invaders?” stuff that the book got out of the way quickly. And the casting news was disheartening. The book was incredibly progressive for 1953 in that perhaps its most central human character, Jan Rodricks, was a biracial Afro-Scottish man. Yet the miniseries over 60 years later had reportedly promoted the supporting character of Rikki Stormgren to the lead role and reinterpreted him as a Middle-American farmer (Ricky Stormgren, played by Mike Vogel), with no hint that Rodricks was being included at all. I was very disturbed by the implied whitewashing. Later on, it became evident that Rodricks (renamed Milo, played by Osy Ikhile) would be included after all, but it was unclear how prominent he would be. The first advance reviews seemed to suggest it was closer to the book than I feared it would be, so I went in with hope, but I still had my concerns. The following reviews reprint the comments I posted at Tor.com in their review threads.

Part 1: “The Overlords”

Well, it’s better than I feared, and truer to the book than I feared, but still imperfect. Mike Vogel was less bland and boring than he seemed in the trailers, and I suppose there was merit to the idea that a spokesperson from outside the existing authority structures would have less “baggage” than, say, a UN Secretary-General. Still, I’m hoping that now the focus will shift away from Stormgren and more toward Rodricks as in the book.

And I could wish for a more global focus. We hear about the international impact of the Overlords, but almost all the featured characters are Americans, except for Peretta, who’s supposedly Brazilian but has an American accent.

Colm Meaney’s character was way too one-dimensional. The Wainwright of the book was described as an honest man, even if his followers weren’t, and Stormgren’s abduction was by an extremist subsect of the Freedom League. I can understand the need to conflate characters, but even so, it would’ve been nice for the voice on the side of human freedom to be less obnoxious and hateful.

I also found the Overlords’ technology a bit too magical in its portrayal. Why erase the photos of the dead people used as illusory messengers? And while I suppose Karellen’s appearance fits the intent of the text and other artists’ renderings I’ve seen, I’ll always prefer Wayne Barlowe’s version from Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials, which was more plausibly alien and not quite as literal an interpretation. (It’s included among some other artists’ interpretations in this article from io9.)

Still, it hit a lot of the high notes of the first portion of the book, and the directing and script were reasonably good overall. They rode a bit too heavily on alien-abduction scare tropes when the pod came to Ricky’s house, but in retrospect, it seems like maybe the Overlords played it that way intentionally to attract coverage of the “abduction” so that the world would be watching when Ricky was returned safe and sound.

(Speaking of callbacks to earlier tropes, when Wainwright’s subordinate suggested calling the aliens Visitors, was that an intentional nod to V?)

Part 2: “The Deceivers”

Man… I thought part 1 was okay, but part 2 was awful. It had hardly anything to do with the book, and the parts that were used from the book were handled poorly. As I always feared would happen, the novel’s black main character (Rodricks) was marginalized in favor of a bunch of white characters, including Stormgren, whose role in the book was over by this point and whose inclusion here seemed to be mostly padding until late in the episode.

(I’m also not crazy about the way the miniseries perpetuates the tendency of American fiction to treat “Africa” as a single undifferentiated place that’s defined mostly by wildlife and/or poverty.)

Peretta, like Wainwright in part 1, was too broad and fanatical to be an effective antagonist. The miniseries can’t seem to make up its mind; it keeps trying to make the Overlords ominous and suggest they’re up to no good, but the characters who believe they’re up to no good are such crazy, unlikeable extremists that they have no credibility. I also don’t like the suggestion that Karellen drove Peretta to kill herself by using the image of her dead mother to lead her out the open door. In the book, the Overlords had far subtler methods to neutralize threats without the need for violence.

The worst part was the Ouija board sequence and what came after. In the book, the Ouija scene was a hint that humans were starting to develop telepathy, and Rodricks was present when someone asked the location of the Overlords’ home planet and the board spelled out an answer. Here, the board seems to have been some Overlord communication device, so there was no reason for it to be a Ouija board at all. And there was no reason why the Overlords would ask the magic baby to tell them the location of their own homeworld. And the way Milo figured that out was unconscionably stupid. Why would a communications beam between the ground and the ship have visible letters flying through it? Why would aliens use an alphabet based on the constellations as seen from Earth? That’s an idea ripped off from Stargate, and at least the Stargate movie (though not the series) had the sense to acknowledge that a different star system would have different constellations. But this miniseries doesn’t even know the difference between a constellation and a star system, having Milo use them interchangeably in his spiel. The gibberish explanation Milo gave for how he found the Overlords’ homeworld was so ignorant of basic grade-school astronomy that it’s an affront to Arthur C. Clarke to put it in an adaptation of his book, and at this point I was literally shouting at the screen in betrayed outrage. Okay, the book’s credulity about psychic powers and Ouija boards is one of its major shortcomings from a plausibility standpoint, but at least Clarke did his homework about the ideas he included in his books. This was an aggressively inept failure of research.

The one part that really works is Charles Dance’s performance as Karellen. I’ve always liked Karellen in the book, and I think Dance is doing a good job capturing his intelligence, urbanity, patience, compassion, and humor, even though the somewhat cheesy makeup design isn’t helping him much.

Part 3: “The Children”

The first half or so of the final installment was quite tedious. In the book, Rikki Stormgren was featured only in the first part of the novel, and the miniseries never really established a good reason for keeping Ricky Stormgren around beyond that. He didn’t do anything in part 3 except slowly die, and continue to be obsessed over his lost love Annabelle — which was ridiculous, since he’d been living with Ellie for something like 25 years at this point. It’s poor writing to have a story that spans so many decades and have the characters undergo no real change or growth in that interval. And having Ricky still be obsessed with someone he lost half a lifetime before just made him pathetic and was an affront to Ellie’s character. This didn’t work, and it had no bearing on the overall story. It was totally pointless. When Ricky eventually died, my reaction was “Finally, now we can get on with the actual story.” I kind of liked his character in part 1, but his and Ellie’s story should’ve ended then.

And the time wasted on Ricky could’ve been better spent fleshing out the plots that actually mattered and came from the book — the Greggsons in New Athens and Milo’s journey to the Overlords’ planet. The New Athens part was handled superficially — we just got one introductory scene with the guy in charge of the place, and the script’s heavyhanded approach to villains was still very much in effect — he seemed all nice on the surface, but was surrounded by garish artwork celebrating war and bloodshed and talking about how he’d rather burn New Athens down than lose it, and it became obvious what was going to happen. In the book, the fate of New Athens was a consensual choice by its citizens, with those who disagreed allowed to leave. Making it one lunatic’s unilateral act was more shallow and came off as gratuitous.

As for the children’s evolution and ascension, that was poorly handled as well. The scene where they floated up into the air was risible. I was staring at the screen in disbelief and asking, “Seriously? Seriously?!” Even before that, the miniseries seemed to be trying to rip off Torchwood: Children of Earth rather than adapting Childhood’s End. But the levitation scene was where they really lost it.

The one part of “The Children” that worked for me was Milo’s journey to the Overlords’ planet. This was the part I was most worried about — I feared they’d either leave it out entirely or have their white farmboy hero get to make the journey instead of Rodricks. So it was a relief that they kept it basically intact. It wasn’t perfect. They sort of lost the spirit of pure scientific curiosity that drove Rodricks in the book, instead having Milo do it because he feared a danger to Earth, and having him more concerned about that danger and his lost love (a relationship that was never sufficiently established to justify his pathos at its outcome) than about the discovery itself. And the depiction of the Overlords’ world was too hellish and not as rich and interesting as the visuals Clarke described. Still, they kept the essence of it intact, and after a night and a half that was mostly padding and lame subplots, the miniseries finally anchored itself in Clarke’s story again and brought it to essentially the same resolution. I’m not sure if I’m actually satisfied by that so much as relieved, but at least it wasn’t a total disaster in the end.

In the final analysis, I feel this miniseries should’ve been told over two nights instead of three. Lose all the Ricky/Ellie stuff after part 1, lose Peretta altogether, keep it to the plots that actually came from the book. It’s certainly possible to add new ideas to a book adaptation in a way that works and enriches the story, but they failed to do so here. The material invented to pad the story out over three nights was weak and ultimately rather pointless. Even cut down to four hours, this would still be a flawed adaptation, but it would be less flawed.

All in all, the miniseries never succeeded in establishing a consistent tone. It kept trying to make things seem ominous and suspenseful and scoring everything with scare cues, but the Overlords’ invasion and the children’s ascension were so gentle and benign that the attempts to make it feel dangerous and sinister never really worked. Especially when the human antagonists were consistently so fanatical and cartoonish. People often say this is a dark or pessimistic story, but I’ve never really found it to be such, because it’s a story of humanity ascending to become something greater. Sure, the transition is sad, in the way that letting your children grow up and leave home is always sad, but it’s not portrayed as something evil or unjust. It’s a natural transition that the Overlords make as comfortable as possible. This is what the title means. The end of childhood is the beginning of adulthood — in this case, for the human species. The irony is that it’s the grownups who are trapped in the child form of the species (because their mental patterns are too fixed to allow the transition) and the children who metamorphose into its mature form.

And the attempt to pass off that solemn and thoughtful tale as a horror story just didn’t work. At least, not for someone like me, who’s known the book since childhood. For someone coming to the story for the first time, I imagine that being set up to expect something evil and then consistently not getting it might’ve been off-putting too. It was trying too hard to pretend to be something it wasn’t. But then, maybe this was just too contemplative and nonviolent a narrative to work well on television.

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