Monday night, SyFy premiered Riverworld, a four-hour miniseries based on the series of novels by Philip José Farmer. The novels chronicled the adventures of those resurrected after death, living on a cultivated river-planet overseen by extraterrestrial powers.
SyFy is notorious for hilariously abysmal weekly movies. Their miniseries have fared a little better from additional time and care—not that this tempers the glee with which they can throw a decent cast into a cauldron of plot soup for four hours. (Lookin’ at you, Tin Man, and Alice, and Children of Dune, and...)
With Riverworld, SyFy was more ambitious, and this backdoor pilot is a full-on narrative bouillabaisse, thick with confusion and seasoned with questionable overtones. (Mmm, soup metaphor.)
SyFy hopes the miniseries will act as a backdoor pilot to a series. A similar gambit in 2003 failed. This time, however, the network took steps to ensure an audience by recruiting old stalwarts from spec series past and present: the oft-shirtless Tahmoh Penikett and the oft-clothed Alessandro Juliani (Battlestar Galactica), the oft-expressionless Laura Vandervoort (V), the oft-game Alan Cumming (Tin Man), and the oft-British Peter Wingfield (Highlander), joined by a host of TV veterans like Kwesi Amiyaw and Jeananne Goossen.
Many of these actors will try to rise above the material. Several of these actors will have suspiciously broad accents. One of these actors will paint his face blue (again). All of them will be hamstrung by the plot.
Penikett is Matt, a photojournalist. His reunion with his girlfriend of two months, Jessie (in a nightclub full of teen extras and her middle-aged friends), goes sour when a suicide bomber blows up the club. Matt awakes on a riverbank, along with younger, hotter versions of his middle-aged acquaintances, and proceeds to gather friends and foes in his quest to find his missing girlfriend and/or save the world, whichever comes first.
Matt is alternately aided and hindered by mysterious blue-skinned overseers, a nuclear-powered steamboat captained by Mark Twain, Senegalese warrior bands, Richard Burton (no, the other Richard Burton), lightning, a terrarium, a 13th-century woman samurai, his videographer, dirigible pilots, and Francisco Pizarro. (SyFy Channel: No Plot Element Left Behind.)
There’s no point in dissecting the plot, for two reasons. Firstly, the narrative doesn’t bother to wrap up so much as set up—this may seem endless, but all four hours are just the introduction to the in-series through line. Secondly, nitpicking a plot does no good if the basic themes are flawed, and oh, are they. You have to look sidelong at a plot where the hero’s only motivation throughout is to find his girlfriend of two months, at the cost of the greater quest and many of his friends’ lives. (You dated her for two months, dude. Dial it down.) And oh heavens, what are the chances that our antagonist, Richard Burton, is also hopelessly in love with the bland Jessie? (Three hundred percent.*)
On an even larger thematic level, Riverworld repeatedly resurrects people at random locations, leaving them demonstrably isolated, bereft, and/or held hostage by Vikings. Yet Burton, out to destroy the regeneration machine, is a madman who must be destroyed at all costs. Even though Matt himself hates his omnipotent alien overlords and their mind games, he never thinks for a moment that Burton might have a salient point. (Several characters, knowing their departed loved ones are on Riverworld but still probably lost forever on its vast surface, seem confused by this dismissal of an interesting but morally-gray question. Not more confused than I, characters! Get in line.)
Not that there’s a dearth of nitpicks, either: this plot is rampant with things like food-accessing/tracking bracelets absent from persons deemed important, which in theory is a gesture of freedom but really just means we have whole conversations about how to feed Matt the Wristless. And of course, there’s the ever-popular Withholding-of-vital-information-itis that leads to Vague Conversation Syndrome and the fatal Expositiontosis.
To be fair, whenever the exposition settles down there are actually fleeting moments of solid pulp fun from a cast that seems largely to be getting along and enjoying the scenery despite occasional dialogue clunk. Unfortunately, the series’ wild unevenness makes even its good points hard to enjoy:
There are many characters of color. (That’s good!) Most of whom are suicide bombers, wisecracking sidekicks who die avoidably, all-knowing Asian monk-warriors, or Francisco Pizarro. (That’s awkward!) A woman character is portrayed in a sex-positive way! (That’s good!) Because she’s a historical hooker. (That’s awkward!) There’s a gay couple! (That’s good!) When they’re reunited as hostage and undercover conquistador, the first question is, “Ooh, can you keep the uniform?” (...really?)
To be fair, it is good that SyFy is trying to find speculative works to bring to the screen. It’s good that they’re pulling from a stable of recognizable sci-fi actors while seeding the field with some newer faces. It’s good that they’re attempting a diverse set of characters. In fact, with all that good, it’s strange to see how bad Riverworld ended up being. Here’s hoping that they keep cooking up dishes like this until they get it right. (Soup metaphor!)
* Peter Wingfield never settles for only one hundred percent.
Genevieve is just glad Peter Wingfield is keeping busy, she guesses. She talks about many other oddly-careered actors on her blog.