Childhood’s End: Eps. 1-3, “The Overlords”, “The Deceivers”, “The Children”

Childhood's End is a well-crafted adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke's classic; SyFy would be wise to do more of these, and fewer Sharknados.

Childhood’s End, Arthur C. Clarke’s meditative epic on human evolution, offered many challenges over the years for those who wished to bring it to the screen, big or small, since its 1953 publication. Not only does the book present a harrowing final chapter to human existence, but it’s written in often contemplative near-internal monologue, and its characters often prove distant from the reader and the writer.

The SyFy Channel tackled the project, and brought it to fruition, with a deftly re-crafted retelling of Clarke’s story, extracting the essential plot from intergalactic meanderings, and adapting it into a thoughtful three-night viewing event. (Of course, with on-demand, people can easily binge on the extraterrestrial transformation tale on their own temporal terms.)

Writer Matthew Graham and director, Nick Hurran, chose the historically rooted route so deftly accomplished by Amazon with the Philip K. Dick-inspired Man in the High Castle. Rather than script against Cold War era competitions for space (be it the Russians or, as Clarke originally imagined, the Germans), SyFy’s Childhood’s End opening sequence of staged and found footage establishes Childhood’s End as a contemporary tale where the changes about to be wrought by the Overlords hold, perhaps, a very different meaning than they might to a post-World War II reader. The fight’s not between super powers, but with insurgents challenging the status quo. Viewers are dumped amid the contemporary that threatens everything from access to potable water to disruptive global weather patterns. Poor economics fuel income inequality, highlighted by homelessness, drugs, and prostitution. The issues of global annihilation aren’t as existentially tangible as the threat of nuclear war — they are more subtle, more personal, but even more global than either of the World Wars fought in the 20th century.

The first five minutes clearly tell viewers who know Clarke’s book to be ready for more than a few unexpected turns.

But the unexpected of 1953, the giant ships careening through Earth’s atmosphere to quietly and effortlessly establish themselves in orbit above the world’s great cities, a scene inspired by the protective dirigibles deployed to thwart the German attacks on London — aren’t so unexpected to contemporary viewers familiar with the giant ships of Independence Day — a cinematic trope that has become near cliché.

Childhood’s End fits into a basic three acts: arrival, preparation, and transformation. The big ships arrive. Peace quickly arrives. All is good. The Overlords reveals themselves as aliens that look like devils. To prove they aren’t what they appear, they invoke decades of peace, without disease, without strife, without want. And then the kids start acting weird, eventually taking over the planet and destroying it. The Overlords watch from space, ready to move on to the next project assigned to them by the Overmind. The Overlords can’t evolve; they can just facilitate the evolution of other worlds.

Against this basic plot, Graham and Hurran decide to tease the contrast from Clarke’s story. The first ship viewers see in fullness hangs mid-air above the statue of Jesus in Rio de Janeiro. The very idea of religion quakes in the wake of the visitors, whom journalist Wainwright (Colm Meaney) dubs The Overlords.

Clarke, of course, made sharp contrasts a theme when he played off of Western religious sensibilities, choosing to portray “The Supervisor for Earth”, Karellen (Charles Dance), as an incarnation of the devil, complete with wings and horns. Karellen hints at some kind of race memory — especially after a visit to his home world reveals it to be a mostly molten planet — this is speculation, however, left largely up to the viewer. Karellen and his kin don’t behave much like personifications of evil, although they do deceive, first in hiding their appearance, and then in the actual outcome of their beneficence. They are well aware of what they look like. Part of their social engineering charge is to ready Earth’s inhabitants for the revelation of the visage. In a way, Karellen’s species becomes the sympathetic contrast to humanity, as human evolution’s fulfillment contrasts with the Overlords inability to evolve and join the great consciousness that is the Overmind.

In the novel, Clarke chooses to create a relationship of “equals” with the General-Secretary of the United Nations playing liaison to the Overlords. The teleplay ironically becomes, given its very British roots, overtly “American,” choosing a mid-Western corn farmer as the face of the aliens: elevating an everyman to vaunted status. Greatness is thrust upon him. And in a presaging for the future of humankind, that greatness is abruptly and unceremoniously ripped from him, along with, eventually, his health. Ricky Stormgren (Mike Vogel) becomes the canary in the coal mine.

Stormgren introduces years of prosperity, and retreats from ambition. At first humankind enjoys its curated moment in the sun, less a few who create New Athens to keep the essence of humanity alive, in all its quirky, self-destructive ways. But eventually Karellen discloses that this generation will be the last. The children will evolve, and humanity will cease to exist. In light of the inevitable loss of all that is human, the mayor of New Athens ignites a nuclear weapon, taking the last of the free-thinkers with him.

With all of transformation going on, it does stretches credibility to think of such a disruptive evolution taking place in a single generation. Evolution, after all, requires millions of years. Clarke suggest, however, and Graham follows his lead, that perhaps humankind has reached a genetic tipping point, in which those who are currently children have evolved, and the arrival of the Overmind triggers their dormant genes that are then expressed. The late naturalist Stephen Jay Gould might argue that the children’s emergent mental connection creates an isolated population, one that results in a new punctuated equilibrium. This mad dash to the next species leaves its ancestors behind.

The other storylines that matter are those of Jennifer (Rory Bochner) and Milo (Osy Ikhile). Jennifer’s conceived and born after the Overlords arrive, suggesting her name to her mother while still in the womb. As the evolution activates, Jennifer becomes the last global meme, not through social media, but through extra-sensory perception. She is the nexus. All of the children of the world become linked to her and her nascent connection to the Overmind. Her family is the focus of the rather earnest Rupert Boyce’s (Julian McMahon) hopeful sucking up to Karellen, which in the end garners him no special dispensation. While Boyce offers animals of every kind for preservation by the Overlords, he ultimately proves a Noah without an ark.

The real glue across the episodes, though, is Milo Rodricks. Milo opens the trilogy of episodes by asserting his identity. He reports from the last moments of Earth, at the request of a yet unknown alien race, that humankind not be forgotten. We then meet Milo again as a child. Viewers experience Milo’s evolution from physically challenged child of poverty, into child healed by the Overlords, into one of the last scientists on earth to still pursue new knowledge. In order to learn the true purpose of the mysterious Overlords, who share precious little about themselves or their mission, Milo convinces his girlfriend to help him stow away on an Overlord vessel. He awakens, visits their home world, and connects with the Overmind. He returns 80 years later to a world devastated by its evolved children — a world in which he’s the only adult human, perhaps the only actual human, remaining.

The book speaks to it much better, but Milo isn’t just a bridge between humankind’s past and its future, but a kind of instrument, planted by Karellen to help his species understand what it is in humankind that created the opportunity for a merging with the Overmind. Karellen’s species, it appears, as reached its evolutionary apex. They’re now charged with workman-like efficiency, to act as plan executioner once the Overmind identifies the next species that will join with it, and thus the next planet that must be prepared. Milo, for the first time in Karellen’s long history, provides him with an on-the-ground analysis. In a nod to the potential failures of big data to provide insight over information, Milo can share very little beyond observation of phenomena with which Karellen already seems familiar.

In some ways, Clarke created an apocalyptic end that was more frightening than the one the world faced when he wrote the novel. In another way, however, he latches onto the most precious of human differentiators, the brain, and takes it to the edge of the imaginable, to the ultimate symbiosis with a great mind of the universe. While individual humans mourn the loss of their world, they do so in full knowledge that they aren’t the first species on planet Earth to witness annihilation at the hands of inevitable alien power. Humans, like the dinosaurs before them, leave the evolutionary stage so that something new can take its place. All of our tinkering and engineering, entrepreneurship and economics, really only mean something in the local now. They’ve no lasting meaning to the universe except as actions and experiences that trigger the growth and evolution of the human brain: the real outcome the universe seeks.

As business managers know, you can’t measure the path toward a goal unless you know what the goal is. Humankind, in this version of the future, has measured itself against the wrong metrics, but in doing so, still achieved the desired outcome; outcomes, however, that limit participation only to those who weren’t involved in bringing it about. That should prove a rather challenging thought to modern ideas of success and prosperity. Yet another contrast.

With Childhood’s End, SyFy has created another well-crafted show that competes on the level of Battlestar Galactica, as well as new scripted vehicles like Dark Matter and The Expanse. But I can’t help but feel that Childhood’s End’s much less than it should or could have been. Even adapting a book into a six-hour production, many things must be truncated or eliminated. Further, when re-crafting a book with a firm timestamp into something contemporary, some choices were made that didn’t ring true (like the bit with the i-Ouji Board versus the more realistic and intimate scene from the book).

SyFy has several new scripted projects launching in 2016. We can only hope that they continue to reach for this level of quality, even if they occasionally overreach. The world needs more good science fiction and much less of the brainless fodder like the Sharknado franchise. (And while we’re at it, can we get the wrestling off of SyFy please?)

RATING 7 / 10