Childhood’s End is a 1953 science fiction novel by Arthur C. Clarke. In the twentieth century, Clarke was considered to be one of the three greatest science fiction writers, alongside Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein.
The story that has stood the test of time for over sixty years. Now, after various failed attempts (Stanley Kubrick once tried to make it a movie, and the BBC did a radio adaption in the 90s), Clarke’s favourite of his own novels has reached the small screen thanks to the efforts of Matthew Graham and the Syfy channel.
But does the adaption live up to the source material? Well… yes. Many of the things that made Clarke’s writing great are alive and well on screen, yet so are his weaknesses. Some deviations from the source material don’t seem to hurt, but neither do they improve the story much.
Let me explain myself.
This show perfectly adopts the atmosphere that Clarke was once so famous for. There is a real sense of scale and power to Childhood’s End. When you are told to believe that the events of the show are affecting the whole world, you really believe it. Clarke’s novels always gave an impression of size and, just like in the books, when spaceships appear in the sky above Earth in the show, you really get a sense that they are vast. His ideas have enormous scale, and that scale is represented perfectly in the series.
Unfortunately, like Clarke’s books, the characters aren’t quite as impressive as the world they inhabit. Yes, they serve a purpose, and can be charismatic and cool, but you never quite invest in them the way you should. Character development takes a back seat to the grander, more fascinating story being told. As a result, it’s hard to care about the characters’ complicated relationships.
However, credit must still be given to Mike Vogel as Ricky Stormgren for giving what otherwise is a bland and tired trope some charisma and weight. In addition, Osy Ikhile as Milo Rodericks manages to pour in some good emotion, and the wonderful Charles Dance as the alien “supervisor for Earth” Karellen turns out to deliver an absolutely stellar performance.
But like I said, characters are a secondary feature. The story and its ideas are what sells.
One day, spaceships appear in the sky. The human race is told not to be afraid. A peaceful alien invasion proceeds, with aliens titled the Overlords now watch over the skies of planet Earth. They have decrees that it’s time for the world to become a utopia—but at what cost?
The book is split into three parts: Earth and the Overlords, The Golden Age, and The Last Generation. Similarly, the show is split into three two-hour long episodes titled The Overlords, The Deceivers, and The Children. Though the names are changed, the focus of each episode mostly correlates with the novels’ plots.
The Overlords begins with an ominous flash to the future, in the ruins of a post-apocalypse, where a man named Milo stumbles through the wreckage of a city and claims to be the last living human being.
With that to hang over us, we are thrown back in time to our present-day Earth, with the arrival of giant spaceships in the sky, and the grumbling tones of Charles Dance introducing himself as Karellen. Karellen proclaims himself to be the supervisor for Earth, and he has come to pull humanity into the future by ending war, poverty, starvation, and every other blight on Earth.
The Ooverlords choose a farmer (though in the book it was a UN secretary) named Ricky, a calm, self-assured, almost painfully all-American boy as their liaison. Ricky is periodically brought to the Overlords’ ship. Karellen advises him, and there is slowly a real sense that the two have become friends. This is by far the most interesting relationship in the show.
Together, they end war, pollution, famine, and slowly transform the world into a better place. There is some resistance to the Overlords, but it is quickly defeated. During this time, a young wheelchair-bound boy named Milo is shot through the heart. A beam of light comes down from the sky, and Milo is suddenly alive again and able to walk. Milo then tells an old man who he shares a friendship with that he wants to grow up to become the first person to see the Overlords home planet.
Everything is wonderful, but as Karellen continues to stay in the shadows, Ricky becomes more frantic and paranoid as to why his alien friend won’t reveal himself. When Ricky finally catches a glimpse of his friend, he decides that it’s better that the Overlords go unseen. Then, after fifteen years on Earth (fifty in the book), Karellen reveals himself to the world.
Cloven hooves for feet, horns, bright red wings, and fiery eyes—Karellen looks like the devil.
Episode two, The Deceivers, might be the weakest of the three episodes. This is not the fault of any particular element. Episode two must deal with the consequences of the first episode while setting up for the finale. That’s a lot to do, and its storyline is hindered by some sub-par new characters. While we are invested in Milo and Ricky, it’s hard to care about the new Greggson family and their seemingly possessed children. Meanwhile, when Ricky falls ill from exposure on the Overlords’ ship, it simply seems like a way to continue to include him now that his role has been fulfilled. Milo is still fascinating as the only human to still yearn for answers, but he’s mostly just waiting around to take the spotlight in the finale.
The quality of episode three, The Children, is somewhere between the two preceding episodes. Ricky’s inclusion seems pointless, though with some nice beats, and the Greggsons’ story continues to be annoyingly flat. Their deaths in the climax occur without any emotional resonance. We simply don’t care about these people.
Nevertheless the Greggsons do serve a purpose. They help show that, though humanity has reached utopia, it has done so by sacrificing its imagination and its culture. The world may be perfect and free from all evil, but it’s a dull perfection. This is contrasted by the small community that rejects the Overlords’ help, and lives as the humanity of days gone by, in which culture, creativity, and scientific inquiry are seeping back in. They are also included in the series because their child, Jennifer, grows to possess psychic abilities, linking her to all other children and showing the eventual fate of Earth.
It’s Milo who takes the final spotlight however. As a man who grew up wanting to be a scientist, he is distraught to find that scientific inquiry on Earth is dying, and he’d like to know why. Milo believes there is a time distortion that occurs when the Overlords travel from their world to Earth, so he hides aboard their ship, thinking it will be a forty days journey between worlds.
Milo is awakened on the planet of the Overlords, and it is there that their true purpose is revealed to him before he is taken back home. He was wrong. As Milo stumbles through the wreckage of the Earth, eighty years after he left, we are finally back where we began.
As the Earth crumbles around him, Milo asks Karellen to save something, anything of Earth culture, so that it may survive them. Karellen obliges, and as the Earth vanishes from the universe, music remains.
Music floats in space as a symbol of the culture and creativity that once was the human race.
Childhood’s End is by no means perfect, nor is it an exact replica of Clarke’s great novel. The inter-human relationships fall flat, to the point that I didn’t even bother to mention some of them here. But the story is as beautiful and fascinating as it was on the page, a story that I’ve only partially spoiled here—if you’d like to know it all, go watch for yourself! The love and attention payed to Clarke’s story has resulted in six hours of television that are definitely worth watching.
-Contributed by Ben Ghan