[This is a review of Childhood’s End Night One. There will be SPOILERS.]
With a lull in new shows as we move into the usual winter hiatus in TV, Syfy is taking advantage by kicking off a three-night special event with Childhood’s End. Adapted by Matthew Graham (Life on Mars) from the 1953 Arthur C. Clarke novel of the same name, the miniseries takes aim at the big themes from Clarke’s novel, while updating it for a modern crowd. Previously unadapted, perhaps it needed to wait until the technology and budgets could catch up before taking a crack at it. The result from Syfy is a sweeping and slow-paced thriller that leaves an ominous feeling in its wake.
The first night opens with an incoming alien invasion. Unlike invasion tales we already know, these new visitors come with considerably less destruction. Moving calmly over 40 global cities, they send emissaries in the form of deceased relatives to assure the population of planet Earth they don’t mean any harm. It’s during this sequence the real scope and scale of the production demonstrates that Syfy is really stepping up its game, as the visual effects are cinematic and gorgeous.
As the world adjusts to its new guests, the media, lead by newspaper mogul Hugo Wainwright Jr. (Colm Meaney), is the first to jump to action and land "The Overlords," as a moniker for the aliens. Soon after the aliens make their introductions, the miniseries introduces the audience t Ricky Stormgren (Mike Vogel), a farmer from Missouri with a knack for negotiation. Ricky is tapped by Karellen (Charles Dance), supervisor Overlord for Earth, to be the planet’s unlikely mediator between the Overlords and the public. It’s a drastic update from Clarke’s original novel, where the mediator was the Secretary General of the United Nations, rather than a simple farmer from Missouri. Karellen warns Ricky humanity isn’t ready to see the Overlords in their physical form, which is normally sci-fi speak for a giant red flag. Nevertheless, Ricky becomes a reluctant but compliant go-between for alien-earthling relations.
In the first two hours, Childhood's End wants the audience to get to know Ricky and to understand what motivates him to stay in the uncomfortable role between a planet full of people and a group of extraterrestrial invader -- or Overlords. But whether as a result of Nick Hurran's direction, or Vogel's acting choices, what the audience is left with is a human protagonist in an incredible situation who takes everything in stride and with the same docile demeanor -- even when his newfound position begins to come between him and his new fiancée (Daisy Betts).
The rest of the first act shows Earth adapting to the changes the aliens bring. The Overlords, still unseen by humans, systematically wipe out war and, with some help from Ricky, disease. They check items off their to-do list on the way to global progress: war, disease, starvation, and climate change. And yet, even as the world flourishes, every time Ricky confirms another global issue has been solved, there’s a feeling of impeding dread that the world is being primed for something much larger. Structurally speaking, there's a considerable amount of tension to be wrung from this scenario, if only because it's one that has been seen many times before by the average viewer. The question is: Does the miniseries plan to exploit that tension in any way?
In its first two hours, Childhood’s End inches through the plot with a slow-and-steady pace. In a night where nothing really “happens,” it’s hard to shake the feeling an alien-sized bomb is about to drop right on top of the Earth’s newly found peaceful existence. There are interesting ideas being explored, as the arrival of aliens means human nature is altered, as both religion and scientific curiosity fade, but the audience is left wondering if the miniseries is intent on exploring the ramifications of this, or if it is just biding its time for a showier reveal.
The first act uses Ricky to tackle the topic of free will and choice, making the population entirely responsible for whatever happens next. In the end, Childhood’s End gets major points for the dramatic visual effects and a solid script that puts forth some compelling questions.
Childhood’s End Night Two airs Tuesday, Dec 15th at 8pm on Syfy.