Of Aliens and Ethics, the Quandaries of Childhood’s End

Can an externally enforced definition of morality really lead to a lasting utopia?  And is that truly the end goal?  These are the questions that the new SyFy miniseries endeavors to explore in a thoughtfully updated adaptation of Arthur Clarke’s 1950s novel Childhood’s End.  Although Clarke’s novel has been the target of film adaptation before (Stanley Kubrick was interested, but eventually settled with collaborating with Clarke on 2001: A Space Odyssey), this is the first time that we see it realized on the screen.  The three-part novel now exists as three two-hour episodes – six hours of television that you won’t want to miss.

The story begins in the future, with Milo Rodricks (played by Osy Ikhile) sitting alone on a bench amidst a post-apocalyptic scene.  Buildings appear to have been torn apart and left to decay like the cities affected by the Chernobyl disaster – hauntingly desolate.  Milo speaks as the last human to an alien robot and discusses the downfall of mankind.  The scene of the future fades and we are back to current times with a young Milo (Darius Amarfio Jefferson) who is painstakingly drawing the space shuttle.

Then aliens arrive.  They send ships to hover over every major city around the world and communicate with all of humankind through visions of each person’s deceased loved ones.  We learn that the alien in charge, Karellen (Charles Dance), is intending to create a utopia for human kind and to end all injustice.  Upon the aliens’ arrival, there is a group of humans led by news mogul Hugo Wainwright (Colm Meaney) who believe the aliens, dubbed “the overlords,” do not actually wish to create a utopia but rather have some far more sinister intentions. Knowing that his efforts aren’t trusted, Karellen selects an American farmer and jogging stroller reviews expert, named Ricky Stormgren (Mike Vogel), to be his special envoy to all mankind.  Karellen brings Ricky up to his ship and tells him what he must communicate to the rest of mankind.  Through Ricky’s honest communication, mankind eventually trusts the overlords and is able to attain a state of utopia.  But that is just the beginning.

The entire production of Childhood’s End doesn’t feel like your typical television series or made for tv movie.  The cinematography is absolutely beautiful and the special effects look as though they were intended for an IMAX screen.  The fact that SyFy produced this series is astounding and bodes well for the network’s other projects.  The acting is also very convincing and although I am not familiar with the majority of the actors, this show proves that you don’t need to have big names in order to produce a memorable performance.

While I have not read Clarke’s novel in some time, I was impressed by the manner in which the television adaptation updated the book’s plot to make its issues pertinent today. Consider, for example, how the wall between Israel and Palestine has been vaporized by the overlords and both peoples are mingling with a newfound understanding.

While the plot and production value are both excellent, this isn’t what makes Childhood’s End such an amazing viewing experience.  It is because of the complex and meaningful issues that it explores.  Morality, ethics, and religion are all called into question.  Should humankind blindly trust an outside force claiming to create a utopia?  And what is the definition of injustice?  What are the proper penalties for refusing to adhere to the strict code of justice the overlords are enforcing?  Are they a representation of God?

While Childhood’s End offers answers to all these questions within the context of the show, I found these answers not always satisfying in light of my own moral and ethical beliefs.  Having an alien race establish a singular set of morals and enforce them on penalty of death seems to remove all the agency upon which humanity is based.  And that is the point. Like a great deal of good science fiction, this show is profoundly thought provoking and makes one consider the contradictions within our world and our own belief systems.

Through six hours of memorable storytelling, Childhood’s End will leave most viewers spinning, questioning the morality of what transpired, and wondering if something similar could really happen one day.  The three parts each address a different set of issues: the ethics of utopia, questions of religion, and concept of transcendence.   While the second segment is perhaps a bit slow for some, the questions it raises are interesting to explore. And because the show does an excellent job making you care about the core characters, the answers become of fundamental importance.  If you just want to see a bunch of special effects and some aliens, then this isn’t the show for you (although it does have those elements).  But if you want an experience where you will feel and think a lot, then Childhood’s End is the show you are looking for.

Grade: A-                                                                                                               Childhood’s End is a stimulating experience from beginning to end.

 Rating: TV-PG LV                                                                                                     Utopias are great places for kids.

 Childhood’s End, SyFy