Dollhouse and Battlestar Galactica star Tahmoh Penikett has landed another major science fiction role, this time in a TV-movie adaptation of Philip José Farmer's Riverworld, as the Syfy Channel attempts to replace, well…BSG, mostly.
The Riverworld books are set on an alien (but Earth-like) planet in the far future where, for some unknown reason, everybody who has ever lived is simultaneously resurrected as healthy, twenty-five year old versions of themselves. The various stories set in this universe explore both how famous historical figures interact with each other and their strange new surroundings, as well as the larger attempts by the thirty-six billion people on the planet to recreate human society.
Penikett plays Matt Ellman, a war correspondent who is killed and resurrected along with his fiancé, played by Smallville's Laura Vandervoort. The two characters, who as far as I can tell are being newly created for the miniseries, will serve as the protagonists and audience identification figures as they attempt to discover Riverworld's secrets and discover the sometimes surprising identities of the famous people they now meet. Joining them in the cast are Jeananne Goossen, Mark Delkin, and Alan Cumming as "The Caretaker."
Riverworld is just one of three four-hour movies, along with new adaptations of The Phantom and Alice in Wonderland, that RHI Entertainment is producing for the Sci Fi channel; RHI was previously behind the Tin Man miniseries that aired in 2007. All three are being considered as backdoor pilots, in that they may become regular series if ratings and reviews are strong enough, similar to Battlestar Galactica. (It's particularly fitting Penikett would now be the star of such a movie, considering Helo was never even supposed to survive past the BSG miniseries.)
Of the three, Riverworld is considered the best candidate for a follow-up TV series, although the other two are not without potential. The Phantom adapts the long-running comic strip, which follows Kit Walker, the twenty-first member of his family to bear the mantle of the Phantom in a tradition that stretches back to the 1500s. Screenwriter Daniel Knauf explained the TV-movie's particular take on The Phantom story to Newsarama back in 2008:
"In our story, we have a break in the lineage. The 22nd Phantom, the one we all know and love, his wife and his son died in an automobile accident. So when he died, there was no one to take over…But it turns out the son survived and has been raised by a foster family and has no idea who he is. They find him through a fluke when he's arrested on a trespassing charge, and he ends up getting his DNA into CODIS [the national DNA database]. The people in Bangalla who are still part of the Jungle Patrol — which we call Bpaa-Thap (which literally translates to 'Jungle Patrol') — they find him and decide to bring him in and train him. So it's a whole new game for this kid. So he's very conflicted, as far as who he was and who he thinks he is."
Desperate Housewives actor Ryan Carnes is set to play the Phantom, with Isabella Rossellini guest-starring as Lithia, a mind-control experiment's evil director (but then, is there any other kind?). Cameron Goodman and Sandrine Holt have also joined the cast. Less is known about Alice, RHI's third project. (Although we found a scary-looking photo of Whoopi Goldberg as the Cheshire Cat on RHI's website.) As one could probably guess, it promises to be a darker, more adult revamp of Lewis Carroll's classic along the same lines of how Tin Man reworked The Wizard of Oz.
Of course, there's one question that hangs over any Tahmoh Penikett casting announcement - what does this mean for Dollhouse? The short answer is "not much." Riverworld and The Phantom started production yesterday, with planned air dates set for 2010. Considering the Syfy Channel's usual lag between miniseries and series (there were ten months separating the BSG miniseries and the first episode of the series proper), any regular series that would require a substantial time commitment from Penikett wouldn't likely materialize until 2011. As much as the latest wild Internet rumors are rather positive for Dollhouse's future, the show would have to make it all the way to a third season before there would be any potential conflict, and that's assuming Riverworld is successful enough to launch a series. In any event, this shouldn't be taken as an indication that the Dollhouse cast is already looking for other work.
So, for now, it's best to take this news at face value - that Tahmoh Penikett continues to get roles that he richly deserves. It only makes sense that you'd need a veteran of Battlestar Galactica to replace Battlestar Galactica.