Humanity’s struggle to understand its place in the universe was one of the central themes of science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke’s book “Childhood’s End,” which has been adapted into a Syfy miniseries that has its own crisis of confidence. Although Clarke’s 62-year-old novel, about a seemingly benign alien invasion with ominous undertones, is an enormously influential sci-fi work, director Nick Hurran and writer Matthew Graham can’t fully lick the problem of how to make the material resonate at a time when viewers have been inundated with plenty of stories about extraterrestrial encounters. Some of the original tale’s poetic, deceptively detached tone remains, but this miniseries ends up feeling derivative of the films and TV shows that have come in “Childhood’s End’s” wake.
The three-night event kicks off with a chilling opening image: Sometime in the future, an inconsolable man (Osy Ikhile) sits alone on what appears to be a desolate Earth commenting on the end of the human race. From there, “Childhood’s End” flashes to 2016 as UFOs bearing messages of peace enter our atmosphere. Soon, humanity sends an ambassador — a levelheaded, modest Missouri farmer named Ricky (Mike Vogel) — to meet with the aliens’ representative, Karellen (Charles Dance), who shields himself from his human counterpart, concerned that the denizens of Earth will be unsettled by his appearance.
For fans of Clarke’s novel, the reveal of Karellen is one of this miniseries’ best-executed moments, and Dance gives the character a regal soulfulness underneath the frightening exterior. But other elements of the book aren’t as successfully translated. A project that has kicked around Hollywood for decades, “Childhood’s End” (like Clarke’s subsequent book and screenplay for Stanley Kubrick‘s “2001: A Space Odyssey”) merged hard science with speculative fiction, resulting in a novel that questioned humanity’s relative importance amid all the civilizations and solar systems across the galaxy. The miniseries tips its hand early that the aliens, known as the Overlords, aren’t here just to teach us how to live in harmony and end global warming. But the book’s sense of inevitable, doomed grandeur — the resigned, bittersweet recognition that human beings’ fate is just a small cog in the complicated, methodical structure of the cosmos — mostly goes missing.
In its place, we get earnest emoting, some affecting moments, several dashes of “X-Files”-like spookiness and too much melodrama. “Childhood’s End” follows Ricky’s grappling with being humanity’s spokesperson, not to mention his unresolved feelings about marrying the pretty, adoring Ellie (Daisy Betts) while still grieving for the wife (Georgina Haig) he lost to cancer. Meanwhile, Milo (Ikhile), a brilliant scientist, is suspicious of the Overlords’ insistence that they merely want to help humans in their evolution, hungry to determine where this alien race originated. And a married couple (Ashley Zukerman and Hayley Magnus) worry that their precocious, slightly eerie young daughter may hold the secret to Earth’s dark future.
The miniseries’ balance between individual narratives and humanity’s collective destiny remains a bit wobbly throughout. Hurran (who’s recently directed episodes of “Minority Report” and “Doctor Who”) doesn’t give the material any sort of elegant or magisterial vision, a problem exacerbated by the fact that Syfy’s need for commercial interruptions requires the story to be segmented into mini-twists and cliffhangers. Consequently, this “Childhood’s End” is so wrapped up in perpetuating suspense that it’s not very thought-provoking. The miniseries has a professional polish without really seeming particularly awestruck by the deeper implications of what an alien invasion would mean for the human race, what the downsides of life in a utopia would be, or how the world would react once the full scope of the Overlords’ mission becomes clear.
The performances and effects work are both acceptable for cable-TV standards, which is to say that they’re solid but slightly pedestrian. One suspects that the characters are meant to be somewhat anonymous so that they can stand in for large swaths of everyday humans, but actors such as Vogel and Betts can’t bring enough charisma or empathy to underwritten roles. And although there’s an undeniable sadness to the final stretches of “Childhood’s End,” the conclusion doesn’t summon the appropriate amount of shock or self-reflection. It’s hard to be fully invested in the outcome of the human race when the humans we meet aren’t that compelling.
“Childhood’s End” airs in three parts Dec 14, 15 and 16 at 8 p.m. on Syfy.