Childhood’s End: “The Overlords” is a mix of brilliant and bizarre adaptational decisions

I was not at all sure that this adaptation would be even remotely good. The promotional material and trailers looked slick, but the obvious changes that were being made from the source material weren’t encouraging ones. Having actually gotten to watch the first installment of the mini-series, though, I’m glad to say that most of my biggest fears about Childhood’s End were unfounded. That said, while “The Overlords” manages to mostly capture the spirit of Arthur C. Clarke’s novel, it’s also deeply flawed and often at odds with itself as it tries to translate Clarke’s 1950s vision of the future for consumption by a post-postmodern audience.

Right out of the gate, the adaptation makes its first misstep, and it’s a big one. Rather than opening, as the book did, with the arrival of the Overlords’ spaceships, we’re introduced right away to Milo Rodricks (Osy Ikhile) recording his final testament at the end of the world. Obviously this isn’t a spoiler for anyone who’s read the novel, but it basically gives a whole story away for those who haven’t. Unfortunately, the story that this opening scene tells isn’t the story that is going to unfold over the next several hours. I suspect the show’s writers thought this would be a clever way of setting up and demolishing the audience’s expectations, but it really just ruins the surprise. Worse is that it spoils the ending without really telling the audience anything useful. Instead, it functions as an immediately “shocking” cold open that is more a cheap trick to generate interest than an intriguing taste of things to come.

The next character introduced is Ricky Stormgren, played in all his Mid-Western dullness by Mike Vogel. I’m honestly just confused by the decision to replace Arthur C. Clarke’s U.N. Secretary-General Rikki Stormgren with this slice of mayo-covered white bread from Missouri, and it’s a major adaptational change that works chiefly to undermine Clarke’s original message by, quite deliberately, making the United States the center of the world for the purposes of this miniseries. Clarke’s decision to make Karellen’s ambassador an officer of the U.N. was a meaningful one, and while the U.N. isn’t viewed today with the same optimism as it was in 1953, the idea that a white farmer from middle America would serve as a unifying figure for all humanity is just plain laughable. This casting choice and story change reveal a decidedly US-centric agenda that ignores half a century or more of history and reproduces a particularly boring science fiction trope that Clarke himself deliberately subverted in his novel. As if to add insult to injury, that Karellen’s other choice was a Korean woman—a much better option in many, many ways—is something of a running joke throughout “The Overlords.”

I’m getting ahead of things, though.

After the first two brief—very brief in Ricky’s case—character introductions, Childhood’s End jumps straight into the story. The opening sequence of the Overlords’ arrival is really incredible. It perfectly captures the momentousness of the event and introduces several more major characters before returning to Milo and Ricky. We spend some time with Hugo Wainwright, the cynical media mogul (played by an extremely dour Colm Meaney) who coins the term Overlords to describe the aliens and then becomes a vocal opponent of the changes the world is undergoing, before returning to Ricky and Milo.

While Ricky is busy serving as Karellen’s ambassador to humanity—in a profoundly silly sequence of press conferences and meetings with foreign dignitaries—Milo is growing up in a rough part of town, a wheelchair-bound boy genius with a loving, but drug-addicted mother who struggles to relate to her brilliant son. I understand the necessity of beefing up the character’s backstory, but I don’t see why Milo couldn’t have just been a college-educated black South African like his book counterpart instead of this condescendingly stereotypical story of a disadvantaged black boy in the U.S. I suppose we can be grateful that the character wasn’t just whitewashed altogether, but this is another failure on SyFy’s part to really bring Arthur C. Clarke’s vision of the future to life.

Interestingly, the only major character introduced so far that isn’t U.S. American is Peretta, a highly religious Brazilian girl whose mother committed suicide during a crisis of faith after the appearance of the spaceships. While it seems almost certain that Peretta will be a more interesting character than Wainwright and present better opportunities for exploring the series’ themes surrounding faith and spirituality and their conflict with science and progress, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes when I realized that of course the extremely religious character is a Latino woman. And of course she’s set up in opposition to the progressive white male Midwestern farmer. If it’s not cynical, it’s certainly a disingenuous set-up.

The thing about Childhood’s End, though, is that it somehow manages to more or less retain most of the spirit of the classic novel in spite of some not insignificant adaptational decisions. For those of us who love the book and its vision of a globalized progressive future, this U.S.-centric adaptation may be a disappointment in some ways, but it also may not be a bad thing in this day and age. Certainly white male Midwesterners in 2015 aren’t exactly known for progressive thinking, but perhaps Ricky Stormgren will serve as an inspiration.

Miscellaneous thoughts:

  • The melancholy cover of “Imagine” over scenes of the world’s suffering was a little too on the nose in the opening.
  • Charles Dance has the most amazing voice. He is a perfect Karellen.
  • Excellent use of classic alien invasion and abduction tropes. I about lost it when Karellen first sends the ship for Ricky. This stuff helps to lighten up material that is actually quite serious.
  • I adored the #freedomleague ads. They’re exactly the kind of awful crap I would expect to be made by the type of people who get angry about things like world peace and the end of hunger.
  • Maybe Ricky would be less insufferable if he would put on a shirt that’s not plaid.
  • All of the stuff about Ricky’s dead wife was a waste of space and time that could have been much better spent on literally anything else. It’s incredibly boring and moderately sexist, to boot.
  • Wainwright and his Freedom League could have been used more smartly. I liked that the show kept in the kidnapping of Stormgren, but Wainwright was never a proper antagonist, and the group was too easily defeated in the end.
  • The final reveal of Karellan was amazing. I’m so glad they’re using makeup and prosthetics instead of CGI for this.

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