Expanded from his 1946 short story Guardian Angel, Arthur C Clarke‘s Childhood’s End has had a long and complicated path from its 1953 publication to the television miniseries debuted by SyFy over three nights in December, with previous attempts to film it abandoned in every intervening decade.
Adapted by Life on Mars‘ Matthew Graham and directed by The Day of the Doctor‘s Nick Hurran, while substantially faithful to Clarke‘s vision it suffers in the compromises required for commercial television and that many of the concepts have already been plundered by the medium.
It begins when the ships arrive over the major cities of Earth, vast alien objects as large as the national capitals over which they float, silent, enigmatic, the aeroplanes which had shared the sky drifting silently and gently to the ground. Unlike the vessels of Independence Day, they do not count down to an attack, the first contact coming not from above but in the homes and offices of those who anxiously look up: visions of deceased loved ones, parents, siblings, spouses.
Each offers a greeting from Karellen, the supervisor of Earth, his assurances, that this is not an invasion but that they have come to bring a golden age. “War, famine, inequality: these will be things of the past. Suffering will end. Injustice will end. No tears, only happiness and safety.”
There is confusion, concern, distrust, a fundamental shift in the relationship humanity has with itself and the wider universe which the Overlord’s are unable to bridge due to their refusal to leave their ships and reveal themselves. Instead, they choose a man, Ricky Stormgren (Cloverfield‘s Mike Vogel) to be their go-between, to speak for the concerns of the planet, and to bring back the guidance of the Overlords. Their intervention is not without conditions, however: “You were on the verge of discovering interstellar travel, but the stars are not for man.”
Where in the novel the ships arrive only five pages in and Clarke then skips five years to a fait accompli, the new world order in place, the difficulties of transition abbreviated in recollection, that struggle is expanded to provide the dramatic backbone of the first of the three episodes, an understandable and successful modification, as is the promotion of Ricky to leading man as the continuous human point of view for the audience through the three episodes.
In the novel an elderly bachelor and Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ricky is now a married farmer half the age of the character as originally conceived, uncomfortable in a position for which there is no reference or framework, his relationship with his wife Ellie (Last Resort‘s Daisy Betts) often overshadowed in her eyes by the memory of his deceased first wife, Annabelle (Fringe‘s Georgina Haig), who still appears to him during his consultations with the hidden Karellen, the recreation of their honeymoon suite an allusion to the hotel room where Dave Bowman awoke in Clarke’s most famous filmed work .
While Clarke had posited fifty years, two full generations, before the Overlords would reveal themselves, instead a mere fifteen have been substituted here to allow for continuity of the characters across the twenty three years of the principal narrative; the change of lifestyle means longer, healthier lives, but no attempt is made to give even a token appearance of aging to the continuing characters or changes in their home furnishing or fashions, belying any conviction of the passage of time.
The appearance of the Overlords and their decision to conceal themselves until they deem humanity accustomed to their benign presence is one of the crucial elements of the novel, and they are presented faithfully and impressively. As Karellen, Charles Dance is transformed through prosthetics and digital enhancement, carrying the difficult role with dignity, grace and presence, an intermediary whose gifts have benefitted whole species but who has hidden more than his face and who must always stand back as the final act unfolds.
It is suggested that the Overlords visited Earth ages before, their power and appearance weaving its way into the consciousness of humanity; this idea also surfaces in the Doctor Who story The Dæmons (1971) while the offering of a rational scientific explanation for the supposedly mystical was an area often explored by Nigel Kneale, most obviously in Quatermass and the Pit (1958-59) and The Stone Tape (1972).
With the fading of religion a natural consequence of the arrival of the Overlords and given little commentary in the novel (“Humanity had lost its ancient gods; now it was old enough to have no need for new ones,” the only survivor a form of “purified Buddhism,” reflecting Clarke‘s own secular beliefs), the resistance of religion – specifically Christian extremists – is brought to the fore, a brave move by SyFy, and those whose defiance to rationality is unsupported by the growing body of evidence for the non-mystical cling on tenaciously and aggressively to their entrenched positions, proving toxic to those around them.
The Overlords bestow miracles, but they are not from god, and those who have depended on faith struggle because they haven’t any other tools for coping with life without it. “God was just this black void we cried into, but only the Overlords answered,” Ellie tells zealot Peretta Jones (Orange Is the New Black’s Yael Stone in a thankless role whose only progression is to be increasingly histrionic) whose distrust stems from her mother’s loss of faith and subsequent suicide coupled with physicality of the Overlords which she has been conditioned to reject.
The novel explains that racial memory is a “backwards echo in time,” a troubling concept which is wisely overlooked; also gone is the “history viewer,” a device similar to the Time-Space Visualiser of the TARDIS as seen in The Chase (1965), though no doubt Clarke himself would have approved of that excision having subsequently poured scorn on the idea in his own 1972 lecture Technology and the Limits of Knowledge, found in The View from Serendip (1977).
The tone of the book towards psychic powers is neither overly sceptical nor credulous; it posits that the Ouija board, created here exactly as Clarke described it, could be directed either consciously or subconsciously, but also recognises the difficulty in such and it was also made clear that all the information gleaned, vague, abstract and unhelpful as it is, could have been known by those present; the dramatisation plays the scene very differently, having Karellen himself as the instigator and director of the session to a very different purpose.
This is markedly in contrast to the later editions of the novel, revised with a new foreword, in which Clarke entirely and unambiguously recants any belief in the paranormal having investigated fruitlessly for many years, as chronicled in the television series Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World (1980) and Arthur C Clarke’s World of Strange Powers (1985).
Despite the inarguable benefits of no crime, no war, no hunger and clean energy there are those who resist the utopia of the World Federation, some because they were unable to accept that there can be good for all without them losing, some because they resent the loss of autonomy.
New Athens is now a modern metropolis of rough pleasures as opposed to a colony of Bohemian artists on a Mediterranean island who have prefer to live the simple life of true humanity; perhaps unsurprisingly, they have not forsaken modern transport and reverted to bicycles.
The takedown of the Freedom League is a clever updating of the written original, and it is interesting that their campaign of resistance to the Overlords uses images of animals being herded to slaughter when in the book the Overlords were concerned for animal welfare, one of their few direct actions the disruption of a Spanish bullfight, the other being the blocking of the sun over Cape Town until race equality was established, an act which may have been inspired by the similarly passive demonstration of The Day the Earth Stood Still, released two years before the novel was published.
Acknowledging the debt owed by V (1983), it is suggested that the newcomers be referred to as the Visitors, a name rejected by Hugo Wainwright (Deep Space Nine‘s Colm Meaney) as he overtypes the headline for the following morning’s edition of the newspaper he runs, the “We’re all in it together” poster echoing the slogan “Friendship is universal” of that show, and the constant feeling of not being told the truth, of being kept in the dark, permeates the early stages of both.
Perhaps aware that incongruity would make it difficult to take them seriously, the Overlords don’t wear the utility belts or sunglasses of the novel, though curiously the Visitors did even though their primary, Sirius, is twenty five times brighter than Sol, meaning they should be well adapted to brightness.
With the novel divided into three sections it was an obvious decision to model the miniseries in the same fashion but it would have been wiser to hold each episode to an hour, the padding becoming obvious and distracting from the plot with the final night particularly indulgent.
With a vague reference to Clarke’s third law attempting to explain the visions of the dead, an idea used more convincingly in Contact (both Carl Sagan’s 1985 novel and Robert Zemeckis’ 1997 film), the dilemma between the former and current Mrs Stormgrens descends into overwrought soap opera and Ricky’s illness is a contrived peril which is unbelievable in the context of the demonstrated medical advances.
While it is understandable that these personal relationships are more pronounced in a television show than in the book, something which never interested Clarke in any of his works, preferring to deal with ideas and concepts on a grand scale, the tendency to sacrifice intellect for showcasing continues elsewhere with three scenes involving gunfire, Ricky’s overblown “abduction” staged along the lines of Close Encounters of the Third Kind rather than an invitation and a space battle from SyFy’s own Battlestar Galactica playing in the background of an early scene.
All this moves the focus from where it should rightly be. “Our children are Human 2.1. Can you imagine what their children will be?” Seen through Peretta’s eyes, the telepathic “breakthroughs”, a term used for exactly the same purpose in The Tomorrow People (1973-79), have about them an aspect of Children of the Damned (1964), the source for that being John Wyndham’s 1957 novel of alien influence The Midwich Cuckoos, published in the same era as Childhood’s End.
Since the publication of the novel, the transcendence of a species has become a standard science fiction theme – Star Trek The Motion Picture, The Hydrogen Sonata to name only two examples – with even Clarke himself drawing from the work of Olaf Stapledon, whom he greatly admired, who described a telepathically linked “supermind” in Last and First Men: A Story of the Near and Far Future (1930), but like the glimpse of the Overlord homeworld witnessed by astronomer Milo Rodericks (Osy Ikhile), the whole lacks the elevating wonder bestowed by Clarke.
Like the unseen intelligence of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the grand master knew enough to keep the Overmind an abstract concept which even the Overlord’s themselves could only vaguely comprehend. While not entirely successful, alongside The Expanse it is an ambitious and encouraging indication that SyFy are moving back to the core values they never should have abandoned and bodes well for their forthcoming productions of Larry Niven’s Ringworld and Clarke‘s own 3001: The Final Odyssey.