2016.29: Childhood’s End (TV, 3-part miniseries)
Childhood’s End is based on one of those Arthur C Clarke classic works of science fiction that I have intended to read for many years but never gotten around to. While I’m still waiting for Hollywood to make Rendezvous With Rama, this miniseries at the very least offered me a chance to find out what this Arthur C Clarke novel was about.
Incredibly, the novel dates back to 1953. I’ve read that Childhood’s End was the novel Stanley Kubrick originally intended to make in the 1960s but couldn’t get the rights, so instead he and Clarke ended up making 2001: A Space Odyssey instead. I don’t know if that story is true, it’s just something I seem to recall reading once, but it’s certainly possible, as Childhood’s End shares many themes with 2001, particularly the impact of alien civilizations on humanity and our place and future in the universe. In 2001, we go to the aliens, in Childhood’s End, they come to us, and in both cases the results are largely the same – strange and wonderful and scary, leaving humanity changed. While the series is by no means perfect, it certainly leaves you with plenty to think about.
My wife was actually quite taken aback with how grim and dark Childhood’s End ultimately proves. I won’t go into spoiler territory as there’s plenty to enjoy going into this series not knowing where it’s going- indeed it is refreshing to see something sci-fi that’s not quite as obvious as most summer blockbusters. There certainly is the feel of (albeit superior) sci-fi like Quatermass about this production, something darker and more ‘honest’ than the cosy kind of sci-fi we usually see. The last hour lingers in your head afterwards.
However, while it certainly seems earnest in its drive to be honest to the original book, the show does seem to falter. For instance, I cannot imagine Clarke’s book being encumbered by some of the romantic dramatics saddled on the series. A lot of the show’s problems are emblematic of a tv show trying to appeal to the masses, particularly caused by its lack of imagination regards casting.
I know I’ve gone on about this kind of thing before, but the leads are just too, well ‘perfect’ and prove as far-fetched as anything in Clarke’s star-spanning plot. Mike Vogel, an actor I’m unfamiliar with, is ok in the lead but he’s just, well, too handsome. While I’m endeavouring to stay spoiler-free, there is a period in the series when Vogel’s character is terminally ill and he still looks great- he doesn’t lose any weight, or any hair, or even his designer stubble, and while he’s haunted by the memory of his gorgeous ex-wife his current flame is pretty dazzling too. The guy has it all, so much so that any drama tends to dissipate. Forgetting the tiresome inevitability that it’s an American who is selected as The Chosen One by the Overlord Aliens who seek a human mediator, its inferred he’s just an ‘Everyman,’ and Vogel doesn’t look like an ‘Everyman’ to me, he looks like a very handsome Hollywood actor. It doesn’t feel real- it’s some kind of Ideal that, well, is a pet hate of mine that diminishes the project.
Fortunately while some of the ways it is executed seems uninspired and formulaic, the ideas behind the original story still shine through. It really is High Concept science fiction. The format (three parts, each running two-hours with commercials) seemed to give the production time to breathe and it certainly seemed to be ambitious visually, but it lacks a sense of ‘voice’ or identity.
It tends to look very pedestrian, uninspired- it’s competent enough, certainly, but it lacks an edge. Its as if the series needed a bold director with a clear vision of his own, for while it tells its story fairly well it nonetheless looks and feels very generic- very mainstream when it should have felt, more, well, ‘Quatermass’. It needed a thread of, well, terror through it, frankly- even though the Overlords start a new Golden Age and everything looks fine it should have felt wrong from the start. But maybe that’s just me. Childhoods End is certainly worth watching, particularly for those unfamiliar with the book, but I do have the final impression it isn’t as good as the novel really deserves.