Here’s the problem: I didn’t really like (nor entirely understand) the ending of Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End when I first read it. So, it’s difficult to parse out my feelings about the third and final part of Syfy’s miniseries. Was it as frustrating to see the human race take a certain evolutionary path? Yes. Was it as emotionally earned? Ehhh.
Spoilers for Childhood’s End Part 3: “The Children.”
We pick up four years after Jennifer’s birth at the end of Part 2: She’s now a precocious child who has somehow managed to hide her creepy, uncanny-valley behavior from her parents—until all around the world, children suddenly start saying “Jennifer” with dead eyes and hands raised toward the sky. Their parents, the ones who enjoyed this post-Overlords golden age, are understandably freaked out. Clearly utopia erased the phrase “sins of the father,” because the parents seem utterly shocked that the Overlords are demanding something of their children in exchange for their carefree lives. Not least Jake and Amy, who immediately start packing and cart Jennifer and Tommy to New Athens, a community meant to emulate pre-Overlords life. And by that, they mean New York City. Seriously—the Greggsons step through “customs,” and there are honking yellow taxi cabs ready to drive them to their new lives. I know NYC is supposed to be the cultural capital of the world—and yes, there’s plenty of art and life in New Athens—but the comparison is rather heavy-handed.
Unfortunately, the sequences in New Athens take up so little of the total story that it almost would have been better to omit them. Not to keep harping on comparisons to the book, but that version of the colony actually sounded like a real social experiment, like a big middle finger to the Overlords and their sanitized utopia. Unlike the miniseries’ kumbaya “we have no immigration policy” promise, the New Athens of the book employs a rigorous battery of psychological tests to ensure that their new citizens will actually fit in and make beneficial contributions to the community. New Athens is intended to be a complete lifestyle change for the Greggsons, not a desperate escape from Jennifer’s Children of the Corn army of tots. Who, by the way, follow her even there.
Speaking of trips, Milo Rodricks has become even more obsessed with seeing the Overlords’ home planet. Maybe it’s because he’s observed how the children are so much fitter and freer than their parents; perhaps he continues to chafe at the Overlords’ benevolent but restrictive control. At any rate, he convinces his scientist girlfriend Rachel to stow him away with a menagerie of animals being sent to the alien world. The adaptation trades having Jan Rodricks hide in an airtight coffin inside a whale skeleton for Milo voluntarily allowing himself to be vacuum-sealed in the hold along with other animals (including, I noticed, a killer whale). It certainly makes for a more terrifying sequence on television, but the endgame is the same: He makes it to the Overlords’ planet, check. Gets to see that yes, it does look a lot like humans’ vision of hell, check. Meets the Overmind and discovers the children’s destiny to be subsumed into it, check.
Then turns back around and goes back to Earth, 80 years later… check. Except that while Milo had figured he’d get to see Rachel again, albeit at the end of her life, and meet his peers’ grandchildren, he hadn’t counted on humanity being nearly extinct by the time he returned.
To be honest, the way the book was laid out actually diverted me from guessing what the Overlords’ final plan for the human race was. When I discovered that the next generation of children after the Overlords’ arrival are telepathic and already drawn to the Overmind, and that they depart Earth while their parents die out within a generation… I was incredibly upset. I think because I always read the book from the perspective of the golden age generation; not that I have kids, but I could understand their frustration and helplessness. For all that the Overlords eliminate war and greed and bring about peace and prosperity, by keeping humans constrained to Earth, they take away their independence and treat them like children. Yet at the same time, the Overlords oversee the birth of a new generation and decide when humans are no longer able to procreate (like in that sad scene of the woman miscarrying her baby), then take those children. It leaves the golden age humans in an odd position; they’ve served their purpose and are “rewarded” with the ability to live out their remaining days, as not quite children and not quite adults.
Or, in the case of New Athens’ mayor Jerry Hallcross, they can trigger atomic bombs and obliterate humans’ attempt at independence. You get the impression that Jake and Amy, after watching Tommy and Jennifer literally slip through their fingers, are oddly relieved just to have one another again. It’s an interesting, ashamed selfishness that I would have liked to see depicted more consistently throughout the miniseries.
Or, in the case of Ricky Stormgren, they can die anyway, right around the same time the children merge with the Overmind. I see where Syfy was going with giving us Ricky and Ellie as an emotional anchor, but their storyline lacked depth. Mostly I felt awful for poor Ellie, eternally second-place to Ricky’s dead wife Annabelle. Yet she soldiers on, trying to woo him to her with silly photos of their present, while he keeps wanting Karellen to beam him up so he can stay stuck in the past in the imagined honeymoon hotel room. (Things started getting really uncomfortable when he was reliving pillow talk and sexytimes in his memory, then realized he was alone.) Credit to Ricky, he eventually realizes that he needs to let go of the past and the what-ifs to embrace his present. Too bad that by the time he tells Karellen to bury the memory room, he’s already close to death from the alien radiation. (Something I just considered—could his continued visits have sped up his deterioration?)
So, Ricky and Ellie spend their final moments staring up at the stars, guessing at what the constellations mean, because that’s as far as humans will ever get. It’s a sobering visual, and the kind of small, rare, key moment this miniseries has brought.
It’s actually too bad that Ricky’s closure was more compelling than Milo’s ultimate fate as Earth’s first interstellar traveler and its last human. (If we don’t count Jennifer, which we can’t, really, she’s not human anymore.) Believe me, I adore time-dilation stories—I’ve written about The Sparrow at length, and I cried unabashedly at Interstellar—but by the end of Milo’s story, I couldn’t sum up enough emotion to really care. It’s certainly an interesting commentary on complacency; Milo could have been content enough on Earth with Rachel and studying the evolved children and their burgeoning powers, but he wanted more. And yes, he sealed his fate more than he ever realized when he got on that Overlord ship.
But by the time he was sitting on a couch in a dystopian-looking city, narrating Earth’s final moments to an Overlord sphere, I felt much like Karellen must have: distantly sad for these characters, but mostly watching to make them feel better. And, sure, we can leave that bit of music just hovering in space over Earth’s smithereens so that travelers can appreciate it, if you really want. Mostly I just want to jet out of this solar system by now.
“The sun must set on every day,” Karellen tells Ricky early on, and so it is with this Syfy miniseries. Thank the Overmind.