I hate to say it, but Syfy’s adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End floundered quite a bit during Night 2 of 3. I want so badly for this adaptation to do well; Clarke’s classic is both charming and astounding for how he envisioned a future in which alien Overlords constrain humans to Earth but make it a utopia for their troubles. But so far, Clarke’s lofty themes are getting bogged down in melodramatic human conflict, as Syfy tries too hard to make us care about specific Earthlings.
Spoilers for Childhood’s End Part 2, “The Deceivers.”
Part of the appeal of the book was how it spanned so many generations, so that we got only glimpses, through various temporary narrators, of how the Overlords were transforming Earth and the human race. For instance, it’s 50 years between the Overlords’ arrival and when Karellen finally reveals his form to humans, not 16 like in the miniseries. Part of Rikki Stormgren’s (from the book) desperation to capture Karellen’s form is because he knows he won’t live long enough.
Instead, we find out from the closing narration of Part 1 and opening of Part 2 that humans have mysteriously gained eternal youth, at least on the outside; they’re hot and young, if not entirely immortal. Ricky and Ellie are virtually unchanged from Part 1, though now it’s 2035 and they’re married, trying unsuccessfully to conceive, and instead dealing with pop-up communities of pilgrims who flock to their farmhouse when Karellen returns after he had bid goodbye to Ricky, 19 years prior. (More on that later.)
It’s a fairly transparent move to keep all of the same actors, though Part 2 did introduce us to a few new players. There’s Milo Rodricks (Osy Ikhile), now an astrophysicist and seemingly the only person who cares about getting humans (namely, himself) to space. Then we check in with Kyle (Ashley Zukerman) and Amy Greggson (Hayley Magnus) and their cute son Tommy (Lachlan Roland-Kenn). Problem is, around the time of Karellen’s return, Tommy and Amy (especially her belly hint hint) are getting scanned in their beds with the same blue light the Overlords used when they tried to dismantle Ricky’s house and bring him up for visits. And back from Part 1 is religious fanatic Peretta Jones (Yael Stone), who I spent most of Part 2 shouting at in utter frustration.
Syfy has experience with a generation-spanning miniseries about alien abduction and interference: Taken, which tracked three interconnected families from the 1950s to 2002 (when it aired). The writers of that series knew just how much time they needed with its dozens of characters before moving on to different plot threads. Unfortunately, those who adapted Childhood’s End seem determined to tighten the scope of the story by contriving to bring together the aforementioned characters even when it doesn’t fit.
Enter millionaire Dr. Rupert Boyce (Julian McMahon), who runs the Boyce Institute in Africa and has been collecting animals for Karellen’s menagerie on the Overlords’ planet. I have to agree with Entertainment Weekly‘s recap about how Boyce is very much a “keep your friends close and your enemies closer” type; he embodies healthy human skepticism much better than the Freedom League’s shadowy general Wainwright did in Part 1. With his endless riches—which, with world peace, shouldn’t we not have millionaires anymore?—he flies the Greggsons all the way to Africa so they can join a party with all of the planet’s movers and shakers. It’s there that Karellen nudges Boyce into getting poor pregnant Amy into a secret room so she can play with an alien Ouija board and act as a channel so her unborn, and decidedly not entirely human fetus can solve some Overlord puzzle.
This is the point where my boyfriend and I began sending each other nervous glances. Syfy is trying too hard to up the stakes, completely losing the charm of this part of the book. In the novel, it’s still a soiree at Boyce’s (here, a book collector who lets a different Overlord peruse his library), and the Ouija board is a titillating party game. This was my favorite part of the novel because it shows how humans, when cut off from space travel, turn their attention toward the spiritual realm. It’s the only way, at that time, for them to escape the constant supervision from the Overlords. Surely, even though these creatures look like humans’ understanding of devils, they can’t follow them into the spirit world, right?
But instead this weird board is a bit of a MacGuffin, intended to “activate” baby Jennifer, who we know from previews of Part 3 will play some major role in humanity’s evolution. But is that path damnation? Peretta certainly thinks so, as she basically stalks the Greggsons, trying to figure out why Tommy is having visions of a hot, dark place. And when the Greggsons close their doors on her, Peretta decides to attach herself to “blue-collar prophet” Ricky and Ellie instead.
The way she ingratiates herself into their lives, trying to gain more access than the pilgrims lined up outside their door, is appalling but effective. Now, in more self-aware hands, Peretta could have been a more insidious character, using the good parts of faith to endear herself to other people who may feel similarly lost without religion to guide them. Instead, she errs on the side of melodrama, clumsily shoehorning her way into vital scenes like Ricky’s showdown with Karellen.
Now, there is one character in the book who earned the extended time readers spent with him, and that’s astrophysicist Jan (now Milo) Rodricks. Not only did the Overlords’ arrival help his brain “blossom,” but it also gave him the ability to walk. He owes them more than most people, yet he’s one of the most skeptical of their goodwill. One of the smarter moves in adapting the book was to make Milo our frame story: He begins the story as the last man on Earth, but we’re still waiting to find out how that happens. And now that he was the only one to interpret the symbols jumping out of the Ouija board as constellations, he’s on his way to discovering something no other human knows.
By the same token, I’m glad that Charles Dance has gotten plenty more screentime as Karellen, supervisor of Earth. In the book, more than one Overlord mingles among the humans, but for a miniseries it makes sense to focus on one. Dance also imbues him with more… well, what I would call humanity: his attempts to not show his discomfort as guests move out of his way at a party held in his honor; his regret at exposing Ricky to some sort of damaging radiation/poisoning; his earnestness in saving Ricky and Ellie from the fate of their hypothetical children.
Yes, even though I’m otherwise not a fan of Ricky and Ellie’s dramas, this revelation was well handled and made for good foreshadowing. Karellen didn’t want his prophet to suffer in the same way that he, Karellen, will; he thought that by taking the option out of their hands, he would save them heartache. People who haven’t read the book don’t yet know what that means, so I won’t go any further, but it’s a good setup for Part 3 (“The Children”) tonight. The miniseries may be able to reverse its trajectory by tackling Clarke’s endgame, so long as they don’t keep letting human muddy up the book’s great themes.