Childhood’s End: “The Children” is a fitting (and welcome) end to this flawed adaptation

After the complete disaster that was the middle part of this mini-series, I adjusted my expectations for “The Children” way down, and this was probably a good thing as it allowed the more or less decent finish to the show to leave me pleasantly surprised instead of disappointed again. I was happy to see things finally start to come back together in about the last hour of part three, and I’m glad to be able to say that Childhood’s End comes to a close with some semblance of dignity.

“The Children” continues to struggle with the task of just filling all of the time allotted to it, and as in “The Deceivers” there’s a truly unfortunate amount of completely superfluous material that distracts from and obfuscates the main story and confuses the message. Unlike the bittersweetly profound ending of Arthur C. Clarke’s novel, the ending of this adaptation feels deeply pessimistic, injected with a nihilism that rather contradicts the idea that humanity’s ultimate purpose could be to basically become one with the universe.

Far too much time in “The Children” is taken up by checking in on the Stormgrens and watching Ricky slowly die from whatever space cancer he picked up on Karellen’s ship. Ellie and Ricky are the most boring imaginable couple, and Ricky’s still being haunted by his dead first wife, who is even more boring. Both Ellie and Annabel seem to exist only to have feelings for and about Ricky, and he only seems mildly-to-moderately irritated that they exist at all. All of the dullness and lack of characterization of all of these characters is on display in this episode, where they literally have nothing to do but die (or still be dead, in Annabel’s case). Ricky and Ellie are completely disconnected from any of the rest of the characters, most of the time they spend on screen is dealing with Ricky’s impending death, and even the few moments we see of them actually interacting with each other are basically the exact same shots we were shown in previous episodes.

Another major part of this episode deals with the Greggsons and their creepy children. They move to New Athens, supposedly the “last free city on Earth,” but this plot goes nowhere, as the kids’ ascension to a new level of consciousness is something that can’t be stopped. There’s some creepy stuff with children showing up to Nazi salute Jennifer Greggson, and there’s plenty of concerned face-making and futile angry speeches, but there’s not much actually going on. What little does happen over the course of this episode is ineffectual and pedestrian at best—nonsensical and unintentionally funny at worst. I laughed aloud more than once at the Greggsons’ antics.

What I found most striking about these sequences, to be honest, was the failure of world building. We don’t get to see much of New Athens, and the purpose of the place is highly simplified compared to the way Clarke describes the place in the book. In the novel, New Athens is a refuge for creative people, trying to recapture something of the culture that dwindles over the course of a couple of hundred years after the Overlords’ arrival. It’s also a large scale intentional community intended to try and put some of the ideas of Plato’s Republic into practice and create a place of industry and art as a sort of cultural revival. While I don’t agree at all with the premise (in both book and mini-series) that peace and plenty would cause human creativity to atrophy, the exploration of these ideas in the novel was done with an intelligence and nuance that is totally absent from this adaptation, in which New Athens is presented more like some kind of objectivist wonderland where people can go to avoid the peace and plenty brought by the Overlords.

The only story line that has consistently worked throughout this mini-series has been Milo’s, but even that one faltered a bit early in this final installment. I want to love the romance between Milo and Rachel. The thing is, it’s cute, but it never quite feels real—probably because, like Stormgren, Milo seems perpetually irritated by his lover’s mere existence. The important thing, though, in the end, is that Milo fulfills his role in the story. While there’s some weird stuff early in this episode where astrophysicist Milo is supposedly researching what’s going on with Earth’s children—which seems rather outside Milo’s area of supposed expertise—the last hour of Childhood’s End is dominated by Milo’s journey to the Overlords’ planet, where he learns what Earth’s ultimate fate is going to be, and his return home, where he ends up giving the final testimony that we saw part of at the beginning of “The Overlords.” I can’t say that this is perfectly executed, but it’s definitely done creditably enough that I got a little teary before the credits rolled.

As a feminist, I feel compelled to comment on what was, for me, if not the biggest failure of the mini-series, certainly its most annoying flaw—namely, its piss poor use of its women characters. Arthur C. Clarke’s novel had a women problem—he could imagine world peace and free love, but he couldn’t seem to imagine a woman who didn’t fit comfortably into the shoes of a 1950s housewife. Indeed, Clarke only imagined one woman in his book who could even really qualify as a character at all. This adaptation seemed at first determined to address these issues, and it was gratifying in the beginning to see so many women being included in the story at all. Unfortunately, none of these characters turn out to contribute anything to the events that unfold on screen, with the debatable exception of Rachel.

At the very least, it definitely can’t be argued that any of the show’s women got anything resembling a character arc of their own. Peretta perhaps comes the closest, if only because she’s the only female character in Childhood’s End whose story wasn’t entirely centered around a man, but Peretta’s characterization is uneven, and her ending is so cynical and abrupt that it’s profoundly unsatisfying. Of the rest of the ladies, Rachel is the one who is most like an actual character, but her character development is decidedly subordinated to Milo’s, and she dies off screen after he abandons her on Earth. Ellie is obsessed with motherhood and Ricky, to the degree that she has any goals or desires at all, and Amy is little more than an empty (-ish, and only figuratively, since she spends most of her time on screen pregnant) vessel who makes nurturing noises at her husband and children, who all get more lines than she does. Annabel, of course, isn’t even that much of a character; she’s only a figment of Ricky’s imagination, where she smiles gently, barely speaks, and mostly just poses in angelic white so Ricky can feel sad and guilty about her.

Overall, I have to say that I think the mini-series would have done much better to just hew closer to the source material. By trying to right some of the wrongs in the book (and I feel like that’s a generous assessment of the show writers’ motives), the show has actually managed to only compound the problems of the novel. I can forgive Arthur C. Clarke—a gay man in the early 1950s—for his retrograde ideas about women, but I can’t feel that charitable towards in a show that in 2015 is actually even more regressive than its sixty-year-old source material.

All that said, though, Childhood’s End is a largely successful and moderately enjoyable adaptation of a sci-fi classic. Perhaps it’s single largest problem is that it’s wildly over-long. Many of the most boring and rage-inducing parts of the show wouldn’t have existed at all if it weren’t for the decision to drag the story out to nearly six hours. Underneath a lot of extra nonsense, there’s still the core of a good story, and the adaptation got enough things right that it more or less communicates the best and biggest ideas of Clarke’s novel.

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