This Childhood’s End review contains spoilers.
Childhood’s End episode 1.
There’s a reason why Arthur C. Clarke’s 1953 novel, Childhood’s End, was never adapted for the screen. It’s just so damn huge! The alien invasion (or occupation, depending on how it’s characterized) is global; it stops all war, cures all diseases, and the timeframe of the story encompasses decades. The producers of this Syfy miniseries do an admirable but not flawless job of addressing these issues of scope, and the deeper questions it raises about free will, Utopia, religion, and politics are at times pedantic but often artistically, if not always entertainingly, sound.
When the alien ships first arrive, the Overlord known as Karellen speaks to humanity through visions of dead loved ones. Right from the start, the audience can’t help but wonder why. The immediate complacency both at the start and when the children make their departure is as puzzling as it is disturbing. As the Utopia unfolds, viewers have to ask themselves what price they’d pay for the end of war, famine, and disease. While this adds depth to the underlying themes of the miniseries, it’s often at the expense of the storytelling.
Of special interest is Ricky Stormgren, who is chosen as the Overlord’s emissary to humanity. Mike Vogel of Under the Dome fame plays the humble farmer with a casual ease that is both charming and troubling. Why is he so quick to accept Karellen’s plan even as he argues for a face-to-face meeting to establish trust? He saves the Supervisor with a cure-all meant for himself, but this sacrifice goes largely unacknowledged. And his final descent into delirium, fighting to let go of his dead wife, felt protracted, even though it made a nice metaphor for the Utopia imposed upon the rest of humanity.
Another character who felt more like a narrative exercise than a real person was Peretta Jones, played nevertheless excellently by Yael Stone of Orange is the New Black. Peretta’s crisis of faith made a certain amount of sense based on Karellen’s appearance, but her reactions to the Greggson boy, Tommy, and her eventual attempt on Karellen’s life seemed irrational and out of place. The religious debates she inspired were interesting enough, but when her usefulness was over, she was discarded like an extracted splinter.
The Milo character, played by Osy Ikhile, had great potential as an astrophysicist bent on traveling to the Overlord home planet. Most of the deciphering of the overall plan came from his scientific curiosity, and I enjoyed his discussion with the Overmind and his final journey. However, as wonderful as Charlotte Nicdao was in the role of Rachel Osaka, Milo’s loving colleague, the couple’s lack of chemistry muted the impact of her eventual fate and Milo’s reaction to it.
There’s no denying that Charles Dance was absolutely wonderful as the devilish but kind Karellen. The creators of the miniseries succeeded masterfully in depicting this iconic character from the book, in his speech, his mannerisms, his practical and CGI effects, and even his personality. Karellen consistently treated “his” planet with care and sympathy but always with an undertone of parental condescension. The Supervisor for Earth was definitely the highlight of the miniseries.
It would have been easy for Childhood’s End to come across as having a heavy-handed political and religious message, but the series wouldn’t have worked if it didn’t confront these questions. Although the second and third installments got bogged down in esoteric minutiae and drawn out emotional journeys, the overall tragedy of the story was felt strongly in the end. Rather than sadness, the role of humanity in the universe produced a sense of awe at how small Earth and its inhabitants really are. In that regard, the miniseries succeeded in spite of itself.
Hear more discussion of this miniseries in the Childhood’s End Event Podcast (courtesy of Golden Spiral Media)