Syfy’s Arthur C. Clarke adaptation premiered last night with its first installment, “The Overlords.” The episode begins ominously, as a fleet of alien ships suddenly appear over Earth—and the tension only builds from there, right up until the moment their mysterious leader, Karellen, reveals himself.
Backing up a bit, before we see the ships roll into Earth’s atmosphere, we meet the last human being: astrophysicist Milo Rodricks (Osy Ikhile), who sits on a beat-up coach in a destroyed cityscape, addressing a floating droid: “I got a favor to ask. Don’t forget us. We may have many faults, but we don’t deserve to be forgotten.” This isn’t foreshadowing ... it’s a promise that a happy ending is not waiting at the end of the third episode.
We’ve already explored the plot differences between the book and the miniseries, and praised Syfy’s commitment to keeping Clarke’s themes intact. The second episode, provocatively titled “The Deceivers,” probes his most challenging theme: the death of religion. But we get a big dose of “HOLY SHIT!” at the very end of episode one. It’s 15 years after the Overlords have arrived—the appointed time at which Karellen (Charles Dance) has promised to finally show his face.
At this point, humankind is thoroughly used to, and fully enjoying, its newfound harmonious bliss. Thanks to the aliens, there’s no more war, injustice, hunger, or economic struggle. Diseases are nearly eradicated, and the quality of life has never been better. It’s “the Golden Age of Man.”
Because of Milo’s opening speech, though, we know humankind isn’t going to get out of this Overlord thing unscathed. (We’ll later explore, and see firsthand, utopia’s other big drawbacks.) Clarke describes Karellen’s appearance on the page, of course, but even fans of the book will find it has a shocking impact when it appears onscreen. “Let the children come forward,” Karellen calls, in the comforting tones we’ve been hearing him use for the past two hours. As the world watches the live TV broadcast, two kids run to greet him as he emerges from his ship. Instantly, we realize why he’s kept himself hidden all these years.
He’s the spitting image of Satan, as if drawn exactly from the Bible, folklore, heavy metal album covers, or South Park: horns, bright red skin, cloven hooves, wings, tail ... the whole works. Though it’s obviously symbolic, it’s also undeniably eerie; a later episode delves into possible reasons why he looks this way. But for now, “There is no need to be afraid,” this demonic creature says for the second time this episode, his yellow eyes flicking uneasily back and forth. The first time, he used the phrase while speaking through visions of departed loved ones, summoned to convey the Overlords’ seemingly benevolent message upon their initial arrival.
This time—seeing Karellen’s visage as he says it—it’s a lot less calming. How can the people of Earth not be afraid, realizing their cushy new lives come courtesy of a deal with what looks like the Devil? It’s a hell of a set-up (literally) for episode two.
Top photo by: Ben King/Syfy