With ‘Childhood’s End’ and ‘The Expanse,’ Syfy Bets on Adaptation with Mixed Results

Tonight, the network formerly known as the Science Fiction Channel, and currently known as the channel that brought us Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No!, unleashes two-thirds of its latest wave of high-profile adaptations. As both the most anticipated and, as a fantasy show on a science fiction network, the odd one out, The Magicians won’t debut until mid-January. The Expanse and Childhood’s End, meanwhile, premiere back-to-back, a fact that only highlights their neatly opposing premises.

Where Childhood’s End, like the Arthur C. Clarke novel on which it’s based, sees space come to Earth in the form of alien occupiers, The Expanse, adapted from a series of contemporary novels, sees Earth branch out into space. An exposition-heavy title card, that oldest of sci-fi tropes, informs the viewer that The Expanse takes place in the twenty-third century. Humanity has expanded from its home planet, now governed by the UN, to Mars, an “independent military power,” and to the Asteroid Belt, a relatively lawless frontier zone populated by “Belters,” who are treated like second-class citizens by both Earth and its Martian rivals.

Fiction loves nothing more than a lawless frontier zone, so it’s little surprise that about 90% of the action occurs either on Ceres, an asteroid “protectorate” of Earth, or in the space surrounding it. Because space is as much a narrative vacuum as it is a literal one, storytellers often populate it with the clichés of other genres — think Star Wars’ use of fantasy tropes, or Firefly‘s interpretation of space as an analog to another lawless frontier, the American West. The Expanse is no exception, introducing itself as a collage of detective story and geopolitical thriller with traces of neo-noir and Homeland alike.

The central mystery of The Expanse is the disappearance of Juliette Mao (Florence Faivre), an Earth-born heiress turned pro-Belter political activist. Ceres’ own Detective Miller (Thomas Jane, of Hung) is commissioned to track her down on his own time. Miller is a walking, if deliberate, cliché, a lone wolf perma-bachelor with an ex who’s not quite over him, a penchant for one-liners, and — what else? — an actual fedora. It’s through him we discover Juliette’s involvement with the Outer Planets Alliance (OPA), a movement (or terrorist group, depending who you ask) for Belters chafing against the control of the planets who economically depend on them. Thanks to measures like strict water rationing, the OPA’s gaining traction.

Meanwhile, a commercial ship crew follows up on Juliette’s distress signal from the Scopuli, the now-abandoned craft she used to leave Ceres, and a UN official (played with steely resolve by Shohreh Aghdashloo, the series’ biggest get by far) chases the OPA with some extralegal interrogation techniques. That’s about as far as the two episodes provided to critics get plot-wise, but they’re enough to lay out the Big Concepts that serve as any science fiction show’s calling card.

That’s especially important with The Expanse, which shows no signs of developing into something character-driven. Compared to Miller and the ship’s crew, headed up by a milquetoast officer with a conscience (Steven Strait) and the obligatory Spunky Space Tomboy (Dominique Tipper), the only figure multidimensional enough to carry the show is Aghdashloo’s Chrisjen Avasarala, a leader whose total confidence that’s she’s doing the right thing only increases her capacity for doing the wrong thing. This is another well-worn trope in survival and terrorism narratives alike, but it’s one Aghdashloo plays with the right mix of soft and sharp.

The Expanse makes up for it, however, with its world-building and thematic potential. Writer-showrunners Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby lay the groundwork for a multifaceted conflict between Earth, Mars, and the colonies in the Belt who have little reason to stay loyal to either; the Belt itself is full of the half-futuristic, half-steampunk, all-claustrophobic detail Battlestar Galactica fans know and love. It’ll be a while before the plot comes together, but the look and feel of The Expanse are enough to sustain an interest until the ten-episode season picks up.

CHILDHOOD'S END -- "The Deceivers" Episode 102 -- Pictured: Osy Ikhile as Milo Rodricks -- (Photo by: Narelle Portanier/Syfy)
CHILDHOOD’S END — “The Deceivers” Episode 102 — Pictured: Osy Ikhile as Milo Rodricks — (Photo by: Narelle Portanier/Syfy)

Childhood’s End, on the other hand, doesn’t demand nearly as much of an investment. Airing as a six-hour miniseries over just three nights, the first onscreen treatment of the novel, written by Matthew Graham and directed by Nick Hurran, will be over just as soon as it begins — which makes sense, since adapting a mere 200-page, highly conceptual book into even a limited series is no easy feat.

Like the original, Childhood’s End begins when a mysterious race of aliens known as the Overlords arrive on Earth. World peace, an end to sickness and poverty, and “the Golden Age of Man” soon follow, leaving humanity to wonder exactly what’s in it for the Overlords. Unlike the original, Childhood’s End makes some necessary adjustments to work as a show, some more successful than others.

For one, the extended, philosophical musings of Clarke’s narration are replaced with a voiceover from Milo (Osy Ikhile), an astrophysicist given a more prominent role, and a more sentimental backstory, than his counterpart in the novel. The centuries-long time frame of the original is also compressed, allowing for a more stable cast of characters than the constantly shifting roster of protagonists provided by Clarke.

The problem is that said protagonists often don’t provide the emotional investment they’re supposed to. Milo’s simultaneous fascination with the Overlords and dismay at the end of scientific inquiry their arrival has brought works; the transformation of Finnish UN leader Rikki Stormgren into a good ol’ Midwestern farm boy named Ricky doesn’t. It’s as if Graham doesn’t trust us to relate to anyone other than a traditional avatar for the everyman, even if that avatar seems increasingly outdated. Combined with a tacked-on dead wife subplot that’s a blatant play for pathos, Ricky feels more artificial than the alien getup Charles “Tywin Lannister” Dance wears as Overlord ambassador Karellen.

A new addition to the cast — a devout, borderline hysterical Christian played by Orange Is the New Black‘s Yael Stone —rings equally hollow; Stone does an admirable job, but along with a Murdoch-esque newspaper magnate, she’s one of a host of anti-Overlord straw men far less compelling than the rational objectors Clarke provides in the book. Once again, the decision to include this character feels both cheap and condescending, failing to trust viewers to like the Overlords without giving them unlikeable enemies. An assassination attempt that relies on the audience forgetting the miraculous medical abilities that are the cornerstone of the Overlords’ appeal proves the final straw.

Where The Expanse‘s appeal ultimately lies in its potential as an allegory — for imperialism, for insurgent movements — Childhood’s End gives up too much of its abstraction in favor of an unsuccessful bid for emotional heft. The Expanse, in other words, embraces science fiction’s knack for the conceptual even as Childhood’s End winds up forfeiting it. Luckily, it’s The Expanse we’ll see more of in the coming weeks.

Childhood’s End debuts on Syfy tonight at 8 pm; The Expanse debuts immediately afterward, at 10 pm.