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Childhood's End boss previews Syfy's epic alien invasion event

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(Photo by: Ben King/Syfy)

Childhood’s End is not your typical alien invasion drama.

When the Overlords arrive on Earth, it’s a nonviolent invasion, in which they promise to eliminate poverty, war and sickness, ushering in an age of peace. But there’s a slight catch: The Overlords insist on hiding their appearance — with their leader Karellen (Charles Dance) choosing to communicate only with everyman Ricky Stormgren (Mike Vogel) — making some on earth wary as to whether their intentions are pure. (Watch the trailer below.)

Syfy’s three-night event is based on Arthur C. Clarke’s classic novel of the same name, and is surprisingly the first time the Hugo Award-winning novel has been adapted since its 1953 release. EW turned to executive producer Matthew Graham to find out why now was the right time to bring Childhood’s End to life:

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why do you think this was the right time to adapt the book for television?

MATTHEW GRAHAM: In terms of what it’s about thematically, I think the time is right because we seem to be living through many of the same fears and staring into a similar abyss that people felt they were slightly staring into in the 1950s, which is that we emerged from a very bloody conflict in the 1950s, and we’re still emerging from everything that happened in Iraq and still emerging from what occurred post-9/11.

The 1950s was, of course, an age of austerity, and we all feel we’re still living with at least of an awareness of austerity. They were frightened in the ‘50s about the Cold War; we’re frightened about the growing chilliness between ourselves and the East. They were worried about nuclear holocaust, and we’re worried about people being crucified on Madison Avenue. All our fears and terrors are very, very similar. So thematically, it’s a good time — or shall we say an appropriate time. I would rather it wasn’t a good time, for obvious reasons. I think TV is in a place, and has been for a number of years now, where you can have this idea on a mainstream network. Maybe 10 or 15, and certainly 20 years or 30 years ago, the only place for this would have been movies, and the only people who could possibly have made it with any sense of integrity would have been the Stanley Kubricks and those kinds of people. If they weren’t going to make it, then there was no other home for it.

How close to the book are you staying?

We are pretty close. The big changes are the time. Obviously, we set this in modern times, in our time. That’s because Childhood’s End starts from the idea that people are frightened about where the world is headed, and you can’t set something 60 years in the past and expect the audience to immediately identify with a planet that’s saying, “What’s going to happen to us?” You have to put it in the now for it to have the impact. For me, what was important was holding on to the philosophy of the book, which is a philosophy of acceptance — acceptance that everything ends, acceptance that we are very, very small in a very big universe. This is obviously Clarke’s philosophy that I wanted to keep and maintain.

Then it was about, however beloved the book is, taking some of the things that might feel a little anachronistic to us today and modifying them for a modern audience. Probably the biggest example of that is, in the book, Ricky Stormgren is the Secretary General of the United Nations, and it’s simply just a given that when an alien race comes to Earth, the first people they go to is the United Nations. But I don’t think we would think like that today, in terms of drama. I think if Clarke was alive today and writing this book now, I don’t think he would think that the United Nations was the most impressive body. Now we think of the United Nations as a slightly hamstrung bureaucracy. It seemed to me more interesting to play it like you’re an Old Testament god: Karellen doesn’t choose a king, he makes a king; he finds a shepherd boy and says, “You are going to speak for me.” I found that intrinsically interesting rather than going to the head of a world organization.

Those are the big changes we made. But I was really adamant that every major event of the book would happen in our show. All the key sequences and the key moments that people remember in the book, I believe are pretty much in our show — including the ending, which of course is the thing I think everyone was most terrified of that we’re going to change. We haven’t.

How do these aliens compare to what we’ve seen in film and on TV before?

The point about the Overlords is that they are challenging. Their appearance, when we get to them, is very challenging to us. There was no doubt in my mind that we had to do what Clarke had described in the book, because we’ve seen aliens; we know aliens can be incredible. We’ve seen all kind of crazy creatures, huge ones, small ones, ugly ones, useful ones — we’re not surprised anymore by CGI critters. But I think there’s something uniquely, profoundly challenging — dramatically — about the Overlords. When you see them, you think, “Oh, that’s going to generate story.” It’s not about seeing them and going, “Oh my god! Even Guillermo del Toro could not have given me this! I’ve never seen anything like this!” It’s about looking at them and going, “Ah! That appearance will generate story.” And that, I think, is what I’m pleased about, the fact that we’ve maintained that look. Because I think that moment at the end of episode 1 when you see Karellen, you will see the potential for plot after that appearance.

How does their arrival divide the world?

Very simply, of course, it divides the world into “Are they here to help us?” or “Do they have an ulterior plan?” There is a degree of distrust about it, but it is not the prevalent feeling. [Alien opposer] Wainwright (Colm Meaney) exists in the book, and you definitely get the sense that the Freedom League is a real movement and that there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people, who belong to it, but that there are, on the other side, billions of people are totally delighted that the Overlords have arrived.

When we talk about how you can make an alien invasion original, it struck me that that was original: the idea that when they arrive, we have a momentary dumbfoundedness, just absolutely “Oh my god,” and then we think, “Oh, great, finally some grown-ups have arrived to sort this out.” I think we all feel a bit like that. I mean, I read the paper every day and I think, “Oh, I don’t know what to think anymore! I’ve run out of things to be outraged about.” And now I’m being told we’re going to run out of antibiotics. So I’m like, “Oh, good, so on top of everything else, we’re all going back to medieval medicine.” You just run out of things to be frightened of, and I think the idea that these god-like beings descend and say, “We’re going to sort your medicine, we’re going to sort your wars, we’re going to stop wicked people doing wicked things,” I think there’s relief much more than there is defiance. That’s what makes it unique.

You’ve introduced us to Ricky, can you talk about some of the other characters we’re going to meet?

Well, Ricky’s living with his girlfriend Ellie (Daisy Betts), who he hopes to marry. But he does have a previous wife (Georgina Haig), who died, and that isn’t in the book. I wanted to give Ricky his own personal demons, that, through the course of the story, he has to face.

In the book, there is a character called Jan Rodricks, who is an astrophysicist. In our show, we have Milo Rodericks (Osy Ikhile). I renamed him because, with Ricky Stormgren and Jan Rodricks, it started to feel a little bit like a Scandinavian drama to my way of thinking. [Laughs] Milo is a character I’m very excited about and I’ve really enjoyed writing, because I gave him a backstory and a life that he doesn’t have in the book. In the book, he comes halfway down the story, and he’s already an adult, and he’s already working as a physicist. I thought it might be fun to see him as a child first, when the Overlords arrive, and to see that boy with dreams of space exploration and science and knowing the mysteries of the universe, and then following him and gradually watching him come more and more center stage in the story.

Then there’s Peretta (Yael Stone). Peretta Jones is a new character who isn’t in the book, and that’s the biggest departure. She represents religious faith, in particular Christian ideology. She is very challenged and threatened by the Overlords, and by the idea of beings that set themselves up as gods, as she sees it. Literally, I think it’s one page in the book, where Clarke talks about the Overlords ridding us of our need for religion, and I felt that, “Wow, that’s a book. That one page is a novel for most writers.” That felt very much like the middle act, was exploring religion through her.

All the other characters, Amy (Hayley Magnus) and Jake Greggson (Ashley Zukerman) are in the book; Jennifer, the little girl, is in the book; Tommy, their son, also in the book; Wainwright, played by Colm Meaney, is in the book. I tried to use as many of the key characters as possible, but just given them a modern context. You have to slightly adapt them to fit them into what is a good television drama rather than a novel. I feel very much that Clarke wrote a book that was designed just to be a book. He didn’t write a book hoping it would be made into a movie or a TV series. Some of it reads like a philosophical essay. So I had to use the characters less like ciphers and try to give them bigger lives that TV audiences would be used to seeing. I hope I’ve been successful in doing that.

What themes will Childhood’s End explore across the three nights?

Ultimately, this is a story about beings that transform our world, give us the chance for a golden age, a utopian age, where there’s no war, no disease, no suffering. The first theme is: Why are they here? Are they here to do good? And then the second theme is: What do we do with the utopia they help us create? Does the best of man flourish in such an environment? The third idea is really the idea that there is something even bigger going on, bigger even than the Overlords coming to Earth, there is an even bigger cosmic mystery. At least one of our characters is going to step forward to try and solve that mystery and find the answers, and the other characters have to learn a very hard lesson, I suppose, which I think is the lesson of the book, which is acceptance — acceptance that things change and that we ultimately can’t be masters of our own destiny.

The three-night event kicks off Monday at 8 p.m. ET on Syfy.