Really, I think it’s a combination of things: NPR puts out an article about the “trendiness of hard science fiction”—as the world goes batshit over the latest Star Wars movie; the Star Trek trailer comes out, and it looks exactly like you’d expect from the director of The Fast and the Furious; and on the same day that SyFy is bringing an enduring classic, Childhood’s End, to the screen, the webs are abuzz with the trailer for the second-biggest ripoff of Arthur C. Clarke’s masterwork, Independence Day II (the clouds are supposed to obscure the fact that Will Smith isn’t there).
Add that to a not-so-great day at work, resulting in my leaving late, getting rained on halfway to the station, and almost coming down with a cold hours later. Plus forgetting my tire pump, forcing me to ride on half-flat bike tires, making the trip harder and more hazardous.
All of this left me in a lousy mood by the time the first night of Childhood’s End came on. And I’m fully prepared to chalk up my dissatisfaction with said lousy mood. But the fact remains that I’ve watched it… and I’m not happy. Before I go any further, I will point out here that I’ve read Childhood’s End, and it’s one of my favorite novels. So, again, I am prepared to accept that I’m over-reacting to what I’ve seen in the first night. But I have to get this off of my chest, so I’m just gonna lay it out.
Now, I get that Childhood’s End was a book, written in the years before we’d even reached the Moon. The international science fiction reading audience of then was very different than the USA television audience of today, and the (expletive deleted) they have largely been raised on. So I get that the producers would want to make changes to the story, to make it more palatable to those audiences.
Hence, the arrival of the Overlord’s ships—impossibly large, like the originals, but now also weirdly-shaped and sporting random strings of white lights and nasty red-glowing radiators—are presaged by every aircraft in the world suddenly ceasing to fly… a rather over-the-top presentation of jets floating slowly out of the air and landing in cornfields and city streets… like there was some reason they couldn’t finish their journey unassailed. Which there was not. You’d think the arrival of the massive ships would be enough, and in truth, the majesty and shock of seeing the ships themselves was nicely done. But no: Let’s throw in floating jetliners in Manhattan, too… won’t that be cool?
Next, let’s replace the original liaison with the Overlords, a United Nations executive, because who cares about stuffy old men in the UN? What is the UN? Who shall we get, to represent the interests of the entire world? I know: a straight-talking American farmboy-slash-male model whose claim to fame is charming the pants off of his local yokels in the midwest. Yeah, he’ll be a hit in the Sudan. And we’ll send a probe that rather uber-dramatically takes his house apart, literally stick by stick, to convince him to come outside. Subtle as a supernova, these Overlords.
Next, let’s give a substantial voice to the paranoid xenophobes who we know will come out of the woodwork. Everybody hates media moguls today; so let’s have a Rupert Murdock stand-in who can sound ominous and asinine at the same time. And instead of the head of the terrorists being essentially pacifist, and non-threatening to Stormgren… let’s have our mogul decide to just shoot Stormgren, because he’s not on our side, so (shrug) why the hell not? And it gives us a great excuse to do some bullet-time effects to save our male model from getting his hair mussed.
And then… there’s Milo.
Okay, I’ll be frank (no, never mind, I’ll just be Steve)—Milo’s character is pushing buttons in me that very rarely get pressed. Personally, I think some people
press stomp these buttons so often that maybe I’m just getting weary of them. But in this case, I have to speak up.
First: Milo’s name in the book was Jan Rodricks. So, maybe Jan is a bit out-of-favor for male names today. But the producers could have named him John, Paul, George or Ringo… and any number of other names to sound more modern. Instead, they give him Milo… which, don’t ask me why, seems to be one of those names that has become synonymous for certain racial backgrounds. Or, to put it another way, with a name like Milo… could he be anything but Black? (I’m so surprised that they didn’t rename him Jefferson.)
Second: The Jan in the book was the son of a divorced Scots magician from Haiti and a Black college professor from Scotland. He was not introduced in the first part of the story at all; he didn’t appear until a third of the way along, when the Overlords had already made sure everyone in the world was living comfortably. He was of average intelligence, he grew up with a sister, Maia, and when he left college, he dreamed of going to the stars.
On TV, the renamed Milo is introduced early on, as a preteen boy of better than average intelligence, in a wheelchair, living in the ghetto with his poor but kindhearted junkie mother, and hanging out with an old Black man who lives in his dead car in an empty lot. His defining moment in the first episode is being shot by his mom’s pusher for insulting him after mom is pistol-whipped by him.
WHAT THE GOD’S HONEST FUCK, MAN.
I mean, are we really resorting to these old racist tropes to depict the singular Black characters in this story? Did the producers just walk out of an Amos and Andy screening, or perhaps they’ve been hanging out too long with Donald Trump, and honestly believe this is the way the average American Black family must be depicted to get the audience’s interest? This is the enlightened age I’m supposed to believe I live in? I feel like I was just hit with the oldest surviving race stick in the collection, the one conservatives keep mounted on their mantle to remind them of the Good Old Days.
At this point, I am forced to remember the first time Childhood’s End was optioned for television, back in the seventies. After the producers got through messing with it, we ended up with… V.
And I swear, I’m not feeling much more optimistic about this new version at this point.