Apr 20 2010 12:06pm

Riverworld is All Wet

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.

1. swanic
I enjoyed it. Perhaps my standards are low because, with very few exceptions, film and TV adaptations of science fiction classics are invariably bowdlerized. But the basic story by Farmer is interesting to me, and they kept enough details from his novels to appeal to me. I hope they make it a series. It can't be worse than Stargate: Not Again or whatever they call the latest incarnation.
Chris Meadows
2. Robotech_Master

But I'm a little disappointed that in this entire review there isn't any discussion of how well or poorly the miniseries's plot adapts the books (and, for that matter, whether the books are any better as books than the SyFy adaptation is as a movie).
Dayle McClintock
3. trinityvixen
I spent the last hour with a wobbly lower lip going, "But-but-but! What about the gay couple? WHAT ABOUT THE CUTE BOYS!?!" No, seriously, they were all kinds of adorable that the leads were not. It might have had something to do with them having spent decades rather than MONTHS together. (I'm looking askance at you RIGHT NOW SyFy!)

Also, why doesn't Methos win that pissing contest of days at the end? Because of TWU WUB? Gag me.

All I can say is that if this were the ongoing adventures of Samuel Clemmons and his River Whore, I'd watch it. They two, though not in equal measure (given that he a) had more screen time, and b) got all the best lines), were the most interesting part of the whole thing. I'd even swallow my outrage of the-only-way-women-are-useful-is-as-whores dynamic. (Whores or Nuns. The Virgin/Whore dynamic was apparently transplanted along with humanity.)
Fred Himebaugh
4. Fredosphere
There’s no point in dissecting the plot

Oh, right, but the source material on the other hand was a glittering jewel of finely faceted plot details meticulously, lovingly cut and polished by that master prose craftsman, Philip Jose Farmer. Right? Right???!!?!!?!
5. Otto42
The source material of the original books and story lines bear almost zero relation to the plot as it ended up being in this travesty of a mini-series.

As an opener to a real series, this fails on several levels. Mainly, it blows the entire plot of the storyline right away by introducing the aliens, the riverboat, throwing a damn zeppelin into the mix. All the characters seem to easily find period clothing and weaponry.. There are unexplained mechanical horse lying about for them to use...

Basically, the Riverworld itself becomes the Deus Ex Machina, with whatever the hell they happen to need at the moment just happening to be lying around.

On the other hand, an actual series based on the original books would be superb. Plenty of unanswered questions, tons of character development, lots of time for them to have sub-plots while building up to the next major plot point. Heck, it'd basically be like a big version of Lost, except with an actual background plot that wasn't just being invented by the writers on the spur of the moment. You could make four or five seasons out of the first four books quite easily. With good season finale and plot device points too.

First season to introduce the characters and settings, the discovery of Sam and the Not For Hire, back-story of him building the boat, adventures on the boat, loss of the boat, building of the second boat and of the zeppelin (interspersed with tales of Frigate and Burton and the Suicide Express), traveling up the river some more, final battle between the boats, finale at the tower... The fact is that there's plenty of beat points here for a superb series.

Sci-Fi (or "Syfy") simply can't make a good Science Fiction series to save their lives. All we get are Mega-Animal type bullshit, and frankly we should take their channel's name away from them. Then beat them. With sticks.
6. Elizabeth Randall
I didn't like Farmer's novels, but the concept is intriguing. They needed a more disciplined story, though. Too many secondary character cluttering things up. And with all that was going on, somehow neither Matt nor Jesse ever actually did anything that justified all the fuss made over them.

Wingfield was fantastic, however, and I think that a bolder storyteller might have done something really interesting with Burton as an antagonist.
7. CoriAnn
I have to say I enjoyed it quite a bit--but mostly because I enjoy stunt casting in the way that only Syfy can do stunt casting--i.e., all the random people hanging around in Vancouver getting bit parts on all of the random shows being filmed in Vancouver. Also, Tahmoh Penikett = Yummy. I don't think it made any sense at all, but I am now slightly curious to read the books, just to try to figure out what the heck was going on, so I guess there's that. At the very least it was something genre related on Syfy and not wrestling, and I will support that 100%.
8. LouWW
Why the hell, twice now, did they feel the need to muck up a perfectly good book series and tell the story their way? There was nothing in the original source material that needed to be altered in order to make a perfectly good series...indeed, if they followed the source material to the letter they may have gotten better ratings for doing so, as the British did back when the original Brideshead Revisited miniseries came out (at that time, I could pull the book out and follow the series, word for word).

Guess Hollywood doesn't trust book authors.
Alex Brown
9. AlexBrown
Is this more "Mega Shark versus Giant Octopus" so bad it's good or "anything Paris Hilton-related" avoid like the plague? Or just instantly forgettable?

I've so many things piled in my Netflix queue that while Tahmoh Penikett is normally enough to squeeze in one more, a mini-series just seems like too much brain-space to dedicate.
10. sofrina
i thought it was a rerun. scifi already did this adaptation: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0310952/
11. Venusian
GENEVIEVE VALENTINE is notorious for hilariously abysmal reviews....
Lexie Cenni
12. LexieGirl
Well my sister and I are gonna watch it, mostly for the shirtless Tahmoh Penikett, but also because we enjoyed Tinman and Alice quite a bit (and for that matter Children of Dune). They were a good time for all involved, so that's all we really want out of 4 hours of TV together.
Kenn Gentile
13. nachtwulf
For the record, i've see a lot of the Skiffy attempts at adaptations. Of those, this was hardly the worst. I'd put this in league with the Dresden Files... at least resembled the subject matter.

That's the good news.

The bad news is that the resemblance stops at a very flexible definition of "cursory resemblance." There is a world, it has a river and it's inhabited by the human race, the majority of which was killed during our "first contact". When you wake up there you;re young, there are no kids, and if you happen to die again, you resurrect somewhere else. And there are several famous figures from history band together to do stuff on it.

Oh... and Sam Clemmons is a snarky bastich that has a riverboat.

*looks again*

Yeah, that's about it.

It's almost as if they took their concept from the back of the books, reading it, saying "that sounds cool" and writing a screenplay based on it, but never actually bothered to read the book first. Even the Wiki (the 21c's version of cliff notes) give you a more exacting portrayal of the novels that this mini-series (mega-movie?) does.

And what little they do get right is obscured in a metric butt-tonne of unnecessary exposition and character changes, tedious hot-button topic additions, glaringly ignorant mistakes(assumptions), and poorly re-written concepts... most which could have been avoided by simply sticking closer to the books!

Herein lies the problem... nitpicking is one thing:

For example, the Grails are basically genetically coded "lunch pails" that can feed you three times a day as as well as provide some luxury items (and drugs) as long as you recharge them in a Grailstone. In the current miniseries, it's once a day (apparently), no items (that we know of), and you need a bracelet...

That's nit picking.

But with Skiffy's adaptation of "To Your Scattered Bodies Go" and "The Fabulous Riverboat" it's little details that are overlooked... little things like the near-complete lack of metals and ores on the planet and the fact there's no animals on the planet bigger than a fish. (robot horses? facepalm)

Ms Hammer: But, if there's very little metal, then how will we have cannons mounted on the riverboat? What will we do for sword-fights and gun battles!?

And there in lies the problem.

The problem is because, at the heart of the series, the Riverworld books are about exploration and survival. As we explore into the later books, the whole world has been created as a test to show that the Human Race *can* get it's collective crap together, and specifically designed to stifle the resurgence of the modern world and force the Human Race into living simpler more reflective lives.

It's kind of lost when everyone still has their trendy clothing and the ability to wage mass war on each other, and the apparent goal is to find Laura Vandervoort (Pssst... she's in a V Mothership over new york)

... unless your Sir Richard Burton... then your job is to nuke it, because a world famous adventurer and explorer would *never* be curious.

Skiffy probably could have fixed quite a bit by labeling it as "Loosely based on the works of Philip José Farmer"

They could have fixed all of it... by changing the name.

((PS... I pray to all the Gods of the Multi-verse that evil Lady Hammer's empire *never* gets a hold of Larry Niven's "Ringworld"... They'd probably make Louis Wu the Master Chief)
Lexie Cenni
14. LexieGirl
I never knew this was based on books to begin with, at least not until this thread, so now I'm interested in the books at least. It seems like that happens way too often (looking at you X-Men 3--seriously? The Phoenix was just the schizophrenic part of Jean Grey's mind? A power trip?) and 80% of the time the results are...horrifying, dull or otherwise unwatchable.

I sometimes envy those who don't know the source material, because at least then they can judge it based on if its a decent, entertaining storyline otherwise...

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