It’s not surprising that the early years of science fiction (or as it was know back then, “speculative fiction”) coincided with the dawn of the Industrial Age. The mechanization of the world changed society and it was inevitable that writers would start to wonder what everyday life would like in 50 or 100 years. In those early years, most science fiction was of the “what if?” variety. “What if there were humans living on Mars?” “What would a war in space look like?” or “What happens when humans meet aliens for the first time?”
But by the 1950s, the greatest talents in science fiction had moved on to deeper stories that resonated on an emotional level unimagined by Jules Verne or H.G. Wells. Technological advances were a given and the best stories centered around how these changes in the world would alter the basic cornerstones of human society. Isaac Asimov wondered what rules would be needed to navigate a world in which androids were becoming increasingly like their human creators in “I, Robot.” Robert Heinlein wrote about a young man who struggles with the challenges brought on by a move to Earth after many years of living on Mars in “Stranger in a Strange Land.” And Arthur C. Clarke laid out the complex and surprising tale of humanity’s First Contact with an alien race who has surprising plans for Earth in “Childhood’s End.”
“Childhood’s End” is arguably one of the greatest science fiction novels of the era and deeply influenced the genre for decades. Published in 1953, the sprawling book tells the story of a peaceful invasion by Earth from an alien race that refuses to show themselves. They don’t seem to have any motive other than transforming Earth for the better. But as the story plays out, readers learn that an alien’s idea of “better” might be much different than humanity’s.
Hollywood has struggled for decades to put a version of “Childhood’s End” on the screen. Director Stanley Kubrick took a run at a motion picture version in the late 1960s before opting to work with Clarke on the influential film “2001: A Space Odyssey.” There were several attempts to produce a miniseries for both CBS and ABC in the 1970s, but ultimately none of the projects went before the cameras.
Now Syfy has adapted the book into a three-part miniseries and while I worried that anyone would have difficulty successfully translating the book for the screen, I can tell you that my fears proved to be unfounded. “Childhood’s End” is a complex, surprising and politically astute take on the book. Like the source material, the miniseries deftly balances the tale of an alien invasion and transformative evolution with the personal tales of humans struggling to adapt to a world devoid of war, hunger and want.
The miniseries opens with the last moments of a seemingly abandoned and dying Earth before jumping back to the point when alien ships first appear over the world’s major cities. The ships don’t discharge an army and in fact no one on Earth has any face-to-face contact with the aliens. Instead, humanity is given a series of firm requests along with technology that is hundreds if not thousands of years beyond our comprehension. The aliens don’t seem to want anything other than for humans to be the best possible version of themselves. But as you might imagine, not everyone is happy with this alien-imposed utopia.
A farmer from the Midwest is chosen to interact directly with Overlord Karellen, the alien “Supervisor for Earth,” whose job appears to be to prepare humans for some transformation of their society. That evolution and the reluctance of some humans to embrace this seemingly perfect world is at the crux of “Childhood’s End.” This struggle plays out over the first two nights before the story careens into unexpected territory for the finale.
For all of the technology and “big picture” science fiction in the book, what always resonated strongest with readers was the ambitious arc of the story. It was ultimately an examination of what it means to be human in a world where everything has changed. How do you find purpose in a world where no one has to work or is hungry or without every luxury of life? How relevant is religion on a planet where aliens are capable of acting like benevolent gods? It’s those questions that ultimately dominate the book and luckily for viewers, are the center of the miniseries.
You can fully enjoy the miniseries without having ever read the book and in fact not being familiar with the source material might be an advantage, since it will leave certain plot points as a mystery until they unfold over the course of the three nights.
But if you have read the book, you’ll find the miniseries familiar but not unchanged. Some of the tweaks are necessary because you’re dealing with a story that is more than 60 years old. In the original tale, the aliens show up as the U.S. and Russia are competing to land on the Moon, which obviously doesn’t fit today’s world. And the writers do a good job of integrating modern technology into a story that was written back in the days when television was black-and-white and many telephone calls still went through a human operator.
One of the most substantive changes from the book revolves around the character of Ricky Stormgren (Mike Vogel). In the book, Overlord Karellen (Charles Dance) dealt directly with Rikki Stormgren, the UN Secretary-General. Not only is the U.N. a lot less sympathetic to the general public than it was in 1952, altering the character into a previously unknown Midwestern farmer named Ricky imbibes the character with a new everyman resonance. If the optimism of the U.N. was a center of the news world in the 1950s, the obsession with instant celebrity and an aggressive media is a touchstone of today’s world.
It’s difficult to talk too much more about “Childhood’s End” without revealing important plot points that deserve to be discovered in the context of viewing the miniseries. What I can tell you is that this isn’t a fast-paced space opera filled with battles, booze and betrayal. “Childhood’s End” is a subtle, epic miniseries that successfully melds an alien invasion of Earth with the tale of what it means to be human. Or, not human.
While I’ve focused on the story and the production, the acting on “Childhood’s End” deserves special praise. Mike Vogel is the emotional centerpiece of the miniseries and he deftly handles a wide range of difficult highs and lows over the course of three nights. Charles Dance’s Overlord Karellen is the leader of an alien civilization much more powerful than Earth’s. And yet he manages to also portray the sadness and longing of being part of a race destined to be the servants and never the boss.
I also continue to be impressed with Daisy Betts, who stole the show when she was part of ABC’s short-lived “The Last Resort.” She plays the New York-born fiancee of Ricky Stormgren and in lesser hands it would have been a two-dimensional character that only exists to interact with her husband-to-be. But she brings a depth to the character that breathes life into Ellie and she is rapidly becoming one of my favorite actresses.
I could easy highlight the acting of a half dozen other performers, ranging from Colm Meaney to Julian McMahon and Yael Stone. But a special nod has to go to Osy Ikhile, who plays the inquisitive scientist Milo Rodricks. His character is a central thread that holds the many complex stories together and watching him evolved from a wide-eyed young man obsessed with the aliens to a world-weary human faced with an unexpected fate is a treat to watch.
It’s another impressive project in a year that could arguably be considered a Golden Era for Syfy. Following the success of “Killjoys” and “Dark Matter” with “Childhood’s End” and “The Expanse” gives science fiction fans the network they’ve been dreaming about since the heydey of “Battlestar Gallatica.” These are stories that are entertaining and yet have emotional weight and substance. They are textbook examples of the best of the genre and it’s a treat to watch all of them.
“Childhood’s End” premieres on Syfy on Monday, December 14th at 8:00 p.m.
Follow Rick Ellis on Twitter at Twitter.com@aysrick. You can read more of his reviews at AllYourScreens.com.