Syfy’s Childhood’s End Updates a Classic to Ask Big Questions

Childhood’s End is coming to Syfy as a three-night event beginning December 14th and starring Mike Vogel, Charles Dance, and Colm Meaney. I was fortunate enough to see an early screening of the first episode, and I’ve tried to gather a few non-spoilery thoughts about it, as well as a few of the highlights from the panel that followed the screening. While I found it a little choppy at times, I thought this opening episode set up an intriguing premise that will be compelling for those who haven’t read the book, as well Arthur C. Clarke fans who have wanted to see this story brought to the screen. Check out our non-spoiler review!

First, a brief primer for those of you who haven’t read the book: Arthur C. Clarke’s novel is a first contact story in which an alien race (dubbed “The Overlords” by the U.S. press) comes to Earth, ostensibly to help humanity attain peace. However, as the years go by, the relationship between the humans and the Overlords shifts, and people begin to question whether the aliens are as benevolent as they seem.

The humans’ main point of contact is an alien named Karellen, who soothes and reasons with his chosen human ambassador Rikki (now Ricky) Stormgren, until the man is completely pro-Overlord. One of the conditions of their relationship is that the Overlords don’t want to reveal themselves to humans for a period of fifteen years, because they believe that their appearance will be unsettling.

The story has been updated considerably. Where Arthur C. Clarke’s novel took place in the early 1950s, and featured a mostly male cast of diplomats and physicists, Syfy’s version sets first contact as 2016 and has clearly made an effort to diversify the cast, with varying levels of success.

Some of the updates seem like a perfect reflection of our current society. For instance, changing Stormgren from the UN Secretary-General to a Missouri farmer works improbably well, because it turns the character into an everyman hero (or, as the cast referred to him, “the man least likely”). Mike Vogel does a great job of portraying a character who’s in over his head but still trying really hard to make sense of things, and most of all trying to steer the most moral course through overwhelming events. In fact, and I mean this completely as a compliment, the character often reminded me of Adam Scott’s Ben Walker Wyatt on Parks and Rec. He’s just so damned well-meaning! His grief-stricken past becomes a prism for looking at the aliens’ power, as their constant interruptions of his life strain his relationship with his wife Ellie, and their immense powers offer him an escape into memories of the past that might ruin his present.

In the other big change, the show has added a character named Peretta, a deeply religious Brazilian girl who thinks the Overlords are destroying the world’s faith. We meet her briefly as a young girl, but it seems that her role is going to be larger in the later two-thirds of the series. Also, Jan Rodricks’ name has been changed to Milo, but he’s still the one character who seems to want to see the stars for himself, despite the Overlords’ insistence that humans aren’t ready yet. (His particular plan is to be the first human to visit the Overlords’ home.) While we only see Milo as a younger character at first, it will be interesting to see how the Overlords deal with humanity’s space travel, since obviously it’s part of our history in a way that it wasn’t when Clarke wrote his novel.

On the less-good end… The idea that the U.S. specifically has to jump in to help the aliens help “Africa”—not a specific nation or area, just “Africa”—is problematic for me, as is a scene where representatives from the U.S. confront a group of Saudi princes over oil pipelines. The U.S. shaming Saudis for their oil profiteering felt a bit forced and hypocritical to me. I was also frustrated by the rote “gritty” background that Milo is trying to escape from; there was no unique detail there to hang onto, just the story of a smart boy in a rough neighborhood with a well-meaning mom who can’t shake her drug habit. There are also rushed and clunky moments that unfortunately reminded me more of some of Syfy’s earlier series and movies more than their recent work like Battlestar Galactica and The Expanse. Overall, though, the emphasis on the human reactions to the aliens, and the big questions first contact inspires, carry the show more than any effects.

One other fun aspect I should mention: While Clarke’s book set a certain tone for first contact stories, he’s been… borrowed from for almost sixty years now. The show takes this into account with visual nods and references to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Signs, The Matrix, and Clarke’s own 2001 over the course of the first two hours, and it’s always hilarious to notice.

I know I already highlighted Mike Vogel’s lead role, but I should also mention that Colm Meaney makes a welcome return to sci-fi as the Rupert Murdoch-esque Wainwright, who leads a faction of anti-alien humans called The Freedom League. But best of all is Game of Thrones‘ Charles Dance as the voice of Karellen, who can shift from friendly to chilling mid-word.

Vulture’s Abraham Riesman moderated a panel after the screening with Mike Vogel (Ricky), Yael Stone (Peretta), Daisy Betts (Ellie), and Syfy’s head of programming, Bill McGoldrick. Some highlights:

  • Stone was drawn into the project by her character’s sense of moral indignation, and the way the show interrogates the question: “What is a perfect world?”
  • Vogel, having agreed to the role, read the complete script on a flight over the Atlantic and realized just how iconic a place this story has in the sci-fi canon, which led to a different realization: “Oh crap, I better not screw this up!” He said the show was “one of the most surreal and wonder experiences” he’s ever had.
  • Vogel and Betts discussed the ways their roles “run together”—since Stormgren ends up having a “kind of Moses-God thing” which obviously disrupts Ricky’s life with his fiancé (and later wife). Betts was pleased that the show allowed Ellie to be “more than a wife” role, and instead let their relationship be the focal point to look at how first contact would effect real people.
  • Riesman ended the panel by asking each panelist a hilarious what-if: If the aliens showed up immediately after the screening, would they follow the aliens? Or join an anti-alien faction like CE’s Freedom League? Stone thinks of herself as a “feminist prepper,” Betts would be fine with utopia as long as the fashions were more interesting than in most fictional futures, and Vogel asked if he could join Stone in her bunker. But it was McGoldrick who came in with the greatest, and most honest answer: “I’ve been a network executive for fifteen years. I’ve followed worse. I’d remake ALF if they wanted to.”

The first episode spends the bulk of its time setting up a world that would welcome these aliens, with the largest conflict occurring between pro and anti-alien factions. The end of the first episode tees us up nicely for a more interesting wrestling match between science, religion, and alien ideology, as Peretta and Milo enter adulthood in a world that is vastly different from the one they were born into. Will Peretta forsake her faith, or battle for it in the face of the world’s derision? Will Milo’s desire to explore space be crushed by the Overlords? For all its occasional clunkiness, Childhood’s End left me want to keep watching to find out. Childhood’s End will air December 14th-16th at 8 p.m. EST on Syfy; check out the trailer for an idea of what to expect from this three-night event.

This post originally appeared on Tor.com on November 30 2015.

Leah Schnelbach isn’t sure she’d trust anyone who sounded like Charles Dance. Come discuss utopia with her on Twitter!

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