A fleet of alien ships suddenly appears overhead, carrying a mysterious race of visitors with weirdly benevolent intentions: They’re here to fix all of the world’s problems. Great! So what’s the catch? That’s the set-up for Arthur C. Clarke’s novel Childhood’s End, now a Syfy “event series” that kicks off on Monday.
Childhood’s End was published in 1953, 15 years before 2001: A Space Odyssey, and though it’s been bandied about Hollywood over the years, this is the first time it’s been adapted to the screen, with a script by Matthew Graham (Life on Mars), and direction by Nick Hurran (Doctor Who, Sherlock).
Watching the events unfold in the three-part miniseries, it’s pretty incredible how familiar a lot of its images and plot points feel—a testament to how influential Clarke’s book has been on science fiction works that came after it. In a new intro to the novel written a few years before he died, Clarke himself recalls watching the opening scenes of Independence Day and feeling a sense of déjà vu. And Independence Day is certainly evoked here, in turn, when the massive ships arrive and all of humanity stops to gawp and gasp with a mix of wonder and sheer terror.
But that’s not the first scene. In the interest of foreshadowing and building a sense of dread from the start, we open on what appears to be a post-apocalyptic Earth, with astrophysicist Milo Rodricks (Osy Ikhile) speaking into some kind of floating droid about Pop-Tarts and the end of the human race as we know it, a fate that’s more than hinted at by the title. Emotionally, he pleads to his unknown audience: “Don’t forget us.”
So. We have a pretty good inclination as to what will befall the characters in Childhood’s End, most of whom are quite altered from how they’re presented in the novel. Since the TV version is set in the present day, and not 1953, this makes a lot of sense, as does adding new characters to flesh out plot points that are important in the original text. Milo, for instance, builds off the book’s Jan Rodricks; though he’s introduced with a completely different backstory, his motivation is the same: his intense curiosity about where the aliens come from, and his suspicions that Earth’s newfound state of Utopia—no war, no pollution, no need to be a wage slave—will come with a heavy price.
Other significant changes: in the book, the aliens communicate through a UN official; here, they choose a Missouri farmer (played by Under the Dome’s Mike Vogel) whose plainspoken ways endear him to the public. And one of the book’s key themes—the death of religion, since who needs to pray to God when aliens can just magically fix everything instead?—is personified by Peretta Jones (Orange is the New Black’s Yael Stone), a woman whose unwavering commitment to her faith is ultimately her undoing. None of these characters are very complex, but they do offer ways for the audience to connect with Clarke’s complex ideas, and that’s important.
The aliens—or “Overlords,” as they’re called in both book and TV series (on the screen, we see a media mogul played by Colm Meany giving them their headline-grabbing nickname)—are best not discussed in too much detail here. The entire first episode builds toward a reveal of what Karellen, the “Supervisor for Earth,” actually looks like, though since he speaks with the commanding tones of Charles Dance, a.k.a. Game of Thrones’ cruel Tywin Lannister, even those who haven’t read the book might suspect he’s not cute like E.T. (For those who have read the book, seeing Clarke’s written description brought to life still makes quite a dramatic impact.)
As Childhood’s End progresses, its focus narrows and we dive deeper into its various individual stories. Decades pass between the Overlords’ arrival in episode one and the events leading up to Milo’s plea for humanity in episode three, but continuity is helped by the fact that all of the same actors play the same characters and don’t appear to age. (This convenience comes courtesy of the Overlords, who’ve made the quality of life so high that wrinkles and gray hair appear to be mostly a thing of the past.)
It’s clear that Graham, Hurran, and company approached Clarke’s original material with deepest respect. But they were also clearly intent on transforming a 60-year-old book that doesn’t have a ton of dialogue into something that contemporary TV viewers would enjoy. And the miniseries format is an ideal vehicle for Childhood’s End—a feature film would be too compressed, while a full series would take too long to get to the point.
Though the technically glossy Childhood’s End tends to favor obviously broad strokes—playing a tender, maudlin version of “Imagine” over scenes of Earth at the height of its Utopian bliss—it’s unafraid to poke into Clarke’s darker ideas. And since most of the fears and uncertainties Clarke evokes remain timely in the 21st century, they still leave a powerful impression.
Childhood’s End begins Monday, December 14 on Syfy.
Top photo by Narelle Portanier/Syfy; middle photo by Ben King/Syfy