This Childhood’s End review is based on the complete mini-series. It contains no spoilers.
Let’s get the answer to the big question of out the way: Yes, Childhood’s End is an impressive adaptation of a work once thought unadaptable. In fact, the event series probably contains some of the best visual work Syfy has ever produced. After spending an afternoon with all three episodes, which run an hour and a half in length each, I can honestly say that it looks as good as any sci-fi film you’ve seen on the big screen this year. Especially the miniseries’ final episode, which delivers the most ambitious visual effects I’ve ever seen on TV.
Arthur C. Clarke’s slim novel provided this adaptation with some very challenging visuals that for the most part are knocked out of the park. Dare I say that this doesn’t really look like what you’d expect from Syfy? Fans of the novel have certainly called this adaptation into question based on what Syfy has made in the past. But from what I can tell (and see), the network has been shedding its identity as a producer of kitschy shows, and Childhood’s End is a stunning proof of concept for the future. This brave adaptation only makes me want more event series from Syfy. I’d love to see them tackle more Clarke or Isaac Asimov or Robert A. Heinlein in the future.
Narratively, the series is just a tad less successful at adapting the original work. While fans will certainly be impressed by how faithful writer Matthew Graham (Doctor Who, Life on Mars) has been to Clarke’s story, there are some necessary tweaks made to the show’s plot that might cause a bit of a stir. Most changes (and cuts) are made to make things feel a bit more contemporary (the novel is from 1953 after all). There’s also the matter of extended storylines for some of the original characters, which I found necessary for the most part. If you’ve read Clarke’s book, you know that the story introduces dozens of characters (and their perspectives), something that would prove very hard to do in a mini-series with a budget. Instead, Graham smartly focuses on the most pivotal characters and drops many of the smaller roles. Which means he has to write three-episodes worth of material for characters who might only appear in one part of the book. This works wonderfully for the most part.
One character from the first third of the book has an especially extended role in the series, which I found a bit much. Not only is the character’s backstory tweaked quite a bit, but he doesn’t really have much to do in the second and third episodes, which really serve as a swan song for someone we saw too little of in the book but way too much of on screen. And the new backstory pushes the limits of credibility a little too far. Even for a show about aliens invading the Earth… No, this is one instance where I would have preferred Graham have stuck to the material. But the writer is clearly going for emotional depth here, and in fact makes this one storyline the source of sentimentality for most of the four and a half hours.
On the other hand, the show also adds a new character and largely expands the focus on religion. The novel touches on the idea that after the Overlords (the alien invaders) arrive on Earth to end humanity’s woes, the need for organized religion is quickly eradicated. But this implication is never explored as in-depthly as it is on the show, which dedicates a large chunk of the second episode to the dying days of religion and humanity’s concept of God. This is done to great effect and is one of the series’ most powerful sections. Yael Stone (Orange Is the New Black), who plays the new character, also knocks it out of the park.
Childhood’s End does suffer from a bit of a pacing issue, particularly in its first two parts, which carry a lot of storytelling baggage. Not only do they have to introduce the Overlords (I’ll get to them in a second), but they also have to juggle ALL of the implications of their arrival. The first episode is economical with the way it handles the opening chaos of the Overlords’ arrival, with fictional newscasts and propaganda mixed into the first hour. I especially enjoyed watching the kind of political propaganda you might see during commercial breaks of a Presidential Debate.
But things do feel a bit rushed at points, especially when it comes to how the Overlords communicate with humanity in the first episode. I wish the show had taken more of its time with this section, but there’s a whole other batch of stuff to introduce in part two, so things progress fairly quickly. The second part drags a bit, though, since it has to pick up the baggage, add more things to it, and also set up the final hour and a half, which is all pay-off. The final episode is also Childhood’s End‘s strongest story-wise, as its narrative quickly find itself walking on the edge of poetry. The episode has to answer all of our questions, and it does so without long, expository scenes. Instead, it embraces the massive scale and visual cues that might remind one of 2001: A Space Odyssey or Interstellar. And the final scenes almost look as good, too.
The Overlords are handled with great care. Fans hoping that Syfy remained faithful to the original look of the aliens will be very pleased. You’ll be doubly pleased to hear that Syfy used practical effects. Charles Dance delivers a good performance as Supervisor Karellen, leader of the Overlords, although I was always just a tad distracted by his appearance. This is nit picky (and probably won’t be the general opinion of the audience), but I never quite got used to what the Overlords look like on screen. Karellen always stood out in scenes, and not in a good way. That said, I think Syfy went in the right direction with it, especially since the Overlords’ appearance is vital to the overall plot.
With all that said, I’m very pleased with Childhood’s End. I applaud Syfy for taking on this “impossible” adaptation and making it work for the screen. While the show’s flaws are evident, I loved watching this beautiful homage to Arthur C. Clarke, a writer whose work deserves to be on screen much more often. I eagerly look forward to the next event series.
Childhood’s End premieres on Dec. 14.