Get FREE tickets to the 10/21 Travel Show - use code TSFWP at checkout

'Childhood's End' and 'Expanse' two ambitious journeys into the unknown on Syfy

Robert Lloyd
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Television Critic

Two big new shows land on Syfy on Monday night — one a sprawling series set across the solar system, the other a three-night adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke's 1953 novel of transcendent evolution, "Childhood's End." Both are ambitious; one flies, the other falters.

Adapted by Matthew Graham, who created the great fantasy procedural "Life on Mars," "Childhood's End" begins with the arrival of an extraterrestrial force. Stationed unseen in big ships above the world's big cities, it promises to take the world from war to peace, to end inequality and injustice and to do something about the weather everyone else just talks about. Whether we like it or not. You know the drill.

SIGN UP for the free Essential Arts & Culture newsletter >>

On the page, Clarke's tale does not exactly scream, "Adapt me!" It's short on dimensional characters and dramatic action; indeed, it's in large part a story of things happening slowly over a long time. (And as an antique work of speculative fiction, it's inescapably quaint in parts.) Stanley Kubrick wanted to film it — in the end, he and Clarke wrote "2001: A Space Odyssey," which repurposes some of the novel's themes — and its air of detachment does suit his cool, intellectual style. But it's not the stuff of which three-night, basic-cable, television-event miniseries are made.

The film follows the shape of the novel, at least through the two (of three) episodes available to review, while altering the particulars to create a through line and make the show more overtly emotive than the book. New business is created; characters are transformed, as when the novel's ambassador to the aliens, U.N. Sec. Gen. Rikki Stormgren, is made over into the series' Ricky Stormgren (Mike Vogel), American farmer, chosen from billions for his peerless people skills. There is no sense to it — he's not all that charismatic — but it satisfies our liking for an average Joe at the center of things.

As in the original, there's discussion of what happens to creative striving when people become the pet hamsters of a far superior intelligence. But where the novel has a quasi-mystical bent, looking toward something beyond our dramatic constructions of good and bad, happy and sad, the miniseries leans toward a more conventional, muscular, melodramatic struggle to preserve the human status quo, for better or worse. I'll be interested to see how the third installment interprets Clarke's finale.

At times the production can seem underbudgeted, the direction overwrought. Here and there, the dialogue sounds as if it had been written by an alien who picked up English from broadcasts of B-pictures. ("This is not about us; this is about the whole damn world." "You're my whole damn world." Or: "I don't know about you, Paul, but these guys don't give the warm fuzzies.") As the series' resident alien, Charles Dance — both as a disembodied and later an elaborately embodied, commanding voice — gets the best of this business.

Based on a series of novels by James S.A. Corey, "Expanse" is an engaging, sometimes exciting 23rd-century political thriller, detective show and space opera that rings some of the same thematic and stylistic bells as Syfy's former flagship "Battlestar Galactica" without feeling like a retread.

It's 200 years from now, and though Earth is united, as in "Star Trek," a colonized Mars is now an "independent military power" with which it maintains uneasy diplomatic relations. Meanwhile, out among the asteroids, the Pur'n'Kleen corporation mines ice to keep far-flung humanity hydrated. Space is a Balkan powder keg.

It takes an act or two to tell one dark, moody actor from another and to get a bead on the story, which runs along three main channels, sure to meet. One is set on the dwarf planet Ceres, where the native Belters do the Earthers' bidding and where the hipster-hatted, job-worn Det. Miller (Thomas Jane) is sent to find a missing girl, "the richest bachelorette in the system"; another on a freighter half-hiding second officer Holden (Steven Strait) is forced to lead; and on Earth, where the sea walls are up around Manhattan and U.N. Deputy Undersecretary Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo), wary of war, is not beyond torturing a suspected spy when she can get away with it.

Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby ("Children of Men") developed the series, which seems to marshal every trope, metaphor and analogy ever associated with sci-fi. We get cold war, class war, the terror war, colonialism, anti-colonialism, scarcity of resources, ecological collapse. Yet though you may note the myriad references in its many-chambered plot, it's just a house to live in finally — well-constructed, artfully furnished, with good feng shui.

robert.lloyd@latimes.com

------------

'Childhood's End'

Where: Syfy

When: 8 p.m. Monday

Rating: TV-PG-LV (may be unsuitable for young children with advisories for coarse language and violence)

'The Expanse'

Where: Syfy

When: 10 p.m. Monday

Rating: TV-14-LSV (may be unsuitable for children under 14 with advisories for coarse language, sex and violence)

Copyright © 2017, CT Now
51°