If you are debating whether to watch Syfy’s new, three-part adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke adaptation Childhood’s End, this is the only question that matters: Do I miss Tywin Lannister? If the answer is yes then you clearly have nothing but distance for humanity and nothing but respect for British thespian Charles Dance.
That’s totally reasonable and this is his show so watch away.
The first installment in the series sets up a concept ambitious enough to warrant big-screen, Spielbergian treatment; in fact, the exposition kind of reminds one of the director’s boilerplate 2005 War of the Worlds. If that doesn’t seem like high praise, it’s because it’s not. But it’s important to note that the concept of Childhood’s End is far more alluring than Orson Welles’ fear mongering. This is a show that truly believes the world might end. It’s less violent, but far more nihilistic.
The moments of camp, which help the Syfy series remain engaging, are entertaining more than groan-inducing. Clarke’s concepts are far weirder than that of similar undertakings like WoftW and Independence Day; the only issue with the series’ first part is that it could almost certainly be shorter. The exposition is the most boring segment of the story, absent the opening half-hour, which shows the Earth befuddled and scrambling at the moment of alien invasion. A giant space station hangs like smog in the air; the voice of Charles Dance (a.k.a. head ET Karellen) speaks through the spirits of the dead. Eventually, the world realizes that the aliens are able to cure most of what ails humanity, solving macro problems like war and hunger while allowing governments to work normally.
After that, we focus in on the Signs-or-Interstellar-like, cornfield-bordered estate of hunky Missouri farmer Ricky Stormgren, played by Cloverfield’s Mike Vogel, who is randomly selected by Karellen to be the alien “Overlord”’s representative on Earth. (“It was between you and an 82-year-old blind woman from Seoul,” Dance intones.) Stormgren has a couple too many bathetic conversations in Karellen’s ship, which is outfitted like the Four Seasons room where Stormgren spent a romantic weekend with his late wife for whatever reason. The function of these scenes is to slowly build up Karellen from the simple image of creepy savior to possible threat and, more explicitly, to make the audience salivate for a glimpse of him. Until the final shot of the first hour-and-a-half part, Dance’s Karellen is a disembodied voice, emanating from behind a two-way mirror.
“You would not accept my appearance,” Karellen warns.
Overall, the first installment is a bit of a slog, rolling out underdeveloped characters we don’t yet know why we care about — primarily, genius physicist in the making Milo (Osy Ikhile, when grown-up) — and granting an excess amount of screen time to wooden, rote white macho country-boy character of Stormgren, played as the kind of middle-American Apollo every Brad Paisley song is written for and about. Beloved The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine star Colm Meaney shows up to do what may or may not be an American accent and play a cynical, power-hungry tabloid journalist who starts a resistance movement against the Overlords called the Freedom League. Ultimately, though, his character is totally unimportant; his half-baked machinations against Stormgren and Karellen are thwarted by some Matrix-style bullet-slowing shit, and a too-convenient escape portal. Thanks, Overlords!
It doesn’t feel like Childhood’s End has really started until the final Dance unveil, and that’s when we know we are not in wannabe-James Cameron Land anymore, but in Syfy-only, weird-out, glorified camp territory. We are Dance-ing with a very literal alien here, in a hellish, outlandish form which has to be literally seen to be believed. The sinister, Tywin Lannister-faced alien traipses around for only a moment here, but it is the promise of much more of this unlikely and inscrutable future villain which makes the possibility of Night 2 a hopeful prospect.
Grin and bear it all the way through Childhood’s End ep. 1, because, if you know Clarke’s novel at all, the most batshit is yet to come (you saw all that creepy child telekinesis in the preview!) and we’ve only gotten one beautiful eyeful of Dance. The fun has just begun, though it should have begun faster.