Television Review: Childhood’s End

So I’ve had a backlog of TV shows to watch that I’m finally catching up on, and I wanted to review a very special miniseries that Syfy ran last December: an adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End. It was a pretty good adaptation, with just a few shortcomings.

Warning: some spoilers to follow.

Arthur C. Clarke’s classic 1953 novel, regarded by some as his best work, tells the story of Earth visited by powerful aliens called the Overlords…who just happen to look like Satan. (Or more accurately, Satan looks like them–it makes sense in context.) The Overlords usher in a golden age for humanity, but they are hiding a dark fate that awaits us as our “childhood” as a species ends.

Arthur C. Clarke is one of my biggest influences as a writer–though more for his descriptions of the scientific side of things rather than the borderline-mystical Sufficiently Advanced Aliens he is so fond of. I like the premise of Clarke’s Third Law, but the way he presents it as something basically supernatural doesn’t sit as well with me as it used to. Even so, I enjoyed the book, and I also enjoyed the miniseries.

The story of Childhood’s End begins with Milo, an astrophysicist and the last human, sitting in the ruins of Earth, explaining how all this came to be. It began many years before, when the Overlords came, led by Karellan, the “Supervisor for Earth”. The Overlords don’t take over the Earth, but they exert just enough control to end war, disease, poverty, and, most importantly, injustice. Karellan selects and ordinary farmer, Ricky Stormgren, to serve as his ambassador to humanity and get the world on the right track. While there is some resistance at first, the world comes to accept them. Even though the golden age seems to stifle art, science, and innovation, most people take it in stride.

However, not is all well behind the scenes. The children of Earth are “evolving” into something new, and they will soon leave to join the “Overmind”–the higher consciousness that pervades the entire universe, and which the Overlords serve. Predictably, this causes some problems.

I want to start by saying this was a good and faithful adaptation of the original novel. There were obviously some changes, but I think few of them detracted from the story, and many added to it by linking the disparate plot threads closer together. I think the most important change is that the end of the miniseries comes off as more of a tragedy than the book. Clarke’s novel depicts the human race facing the end with dignity. The miniseries portrays vividly the pain of the loss of the world’s children and, ultimately, the world itself. But this is a fine ending of a sort you don’t see much anymore, and it’s more realistic, anyway.

I have two big points of contention with this miniseries, though. The first is Karellan. In the book, he is super-intelligent and extremely well-versed in human language and culture, and he essentially never makes any kind of faux pas. The miniseries pays lip service to this notion, but it makes him out to be a much more morally ambiguous character. Karellen at one point describes the Overlords as “midwives”, but if that is true, then he has terrible bedside manner. He makes life-changing decisions for people without consulting them, and he drops bad news on people without explanation or consideration for their feelings. Long discourses from the book about why the end is inevitable and ought not to be feared, and why the Overlords acted as they did, were omitted. The miniseries, of course, was pressed for time, but a few lines of those explanations would have gone a long way toward softening his character.

The other problem is the children themselves. In the miniseries, they’re seen essentially changing into zombies a hive mind all at once. In the book, the change is gradual, manifesting through dreams, giving them a chance to at least try to explain to their parents what’s going on. This is conspicuously absent in the miniseries. Even when Tommy gets a last chance to talk to his mother, he only says goodbye and that he’s joining the other children, he doesn’t even try to explain where he’s going or why, or give her any words of comfort. This seems wrong on its face, and when it’s combined with the lack of explanation from Karellan, it leaves not just Tommy’s mother, but the audience confused and uncomfortable. It seems like the children have the same bad bedside manner as the Overlords.

But despite these oversights, I enjoyed the series, and I would put it on par with the original novel, which is high praise for an adaptation. I would definitely recommend looking into it.

My rating: 4 out of 5.

About Alex R. Howe

I'm a full-time astrophysicist and a part-time science fiction writer.
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