Writer Matthew Graham, having grown up a fan of science fiction, fell in love with Arthur C. Clarke’s classic novel “Childhood’s End” when he was 14 years old, but it took more than a few years before he found himself in a position to adapt it for the screen. That opportunity came courtesy of Syfy, which this week brought the novel to life in an epic three-part miniseries. With a cast including Mike Vogel and Charles Dance as Kalellen, who represents the Overlord aliens who have brought a new level of prosperity to the planet Earth (while failing to mention that utopia has its own sort of consequences), “Childhood’s End” represented for Syfy a major recommitment to science fiction.
READ MORE: ‘Childhood’s End’ Stars Mike Vogel, Daisy Betts and Yael Stone: ‘In a Sense, We’re All Playing Ideas’
Graham, whose credits include great British television like “MI-5” and “Life on Mars,” sat down with Indiewire at the TCA Summer Press Tour to dig into the challenges of the story, how the cast engaged with the material and whether the ending of the story should be seen as optimistic or depressing. Some minor spoilers below.
When did you start having a sense that this is kind of a difficult project to bring to life on the screen?
I never had the feeling of being daunted that I probably should have had, which is a good thing. When I came back to the book was when Michael De Luca showed it to me and said, “Have you read it?” I said, “Yeah, I have. I love it.” I read it again, and this time I read it with a scriptwriter’s eyes. And it seemed to me that what was good about it was that the problems were very obvious.
The big problem was the huge time jump — the fact that we lose so many characters halfway through the story. I just felt like that was wrong, and I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t think it would damage the integrity of the book at all if we kept our characters. So it felt to me that the problems were very clear and the solutions were reasonably clear as well.
So what does it change, when you shift the time jump from 50 years to 15?
I mean, can you imagine 15 years of being seen and overlooked by aliens and being aware of all of the problems we have and fixing them gradually over 15 years? It would change us profoundly. Like, even if you go 15 years back from today, we would be pre-9/11. Cataclysmic events do profoundly change us. So I felt 15 years was justifiable. And also, because in television terms you don’t know the difference between what 50 years on TV feels like and 15 years. Even if we’d had 50 years, all I would have done is fade out, gone 50 years later, and faded in. So all it does is fade out, 15 years later, and fade in.
In a way, you’re just telling your audience that time has passed living in these extraordinary, unbelievable situations, and we have changed slightly to the point that we can accept more what Karellen looks like without completely going mad.
Well, thinking about it now, “Downton Abbey” is probably going to hit 13 years as the time period it’s covered.
What does that cover, like a war?
Yeah, the first season starts in 1912 with the Titanic, and we’re wrapping up in 1925 or so.
Yeah, so I don’t think it affects the drama. It doesn’t affect the way you tell the story. In a way, it’s almost more dramatic that over such a short period of time, they have changed us completely.
It is interesting, the concept of introducing a utopia and then pulling back to reveal the truth of what it means for society. How much time can you really spend in the miniseries, on exploring that time period between one realization and the other?
Well, we jump in and out. We dip into it. So you hear characters talking. One of our characters gets very frustrated and says, “I want to go somewhere where there’s crime. I want to go somewhere where there’s chewing gum under the bus seat. I want to go somewhere that’s messy.” Because the perceptive ones have worked out that we need some grit. We can’t just have everything smooth and gentle.
There’s a scene where two characters are talking and one says, “You know, I’m a gay man, and I can walk along with my partner and everything’s fine, but I wonder what [Armistead] Maupin would write about now.” There would be no Maupin. There would be no angry writer because there’s nothing to be that angry about. It’s personal. Those are things that are obviously in the book as well.
But that’s so interesting because, if we’re talking about a story about the end of human culture, introducing the concept that in order for human culture to thrive, it needs real conflict, grit…
Yeah, this is the debate that Colm Meaney and Mike Vogel were having all of the time during filming because Mike felt that you absolutely have to the grit. You have to have something to rail against in order to create great art. And Colm was like, “No, to hell with that. People can create because they’re happy, and isn’t it nicer to be happy and create in a happy, safe environment?”
They were basically having the opposite debate of their characters.
How did that play, then, when they had to switch it to the other day around?
It was fine. It was just fun. I’ve never known a show that I’ve worked on to stimulate so much discussion amongst its cast. As soon as the cameras stopped, people would go into their corners arguing about what this meant and what that meant and what they were doing. And then suddenly they would take that energy and use it in front of the camera.
Is that something that just started happening organically?
Oh yeah. Sometimes it was draining. Sometimes at the end of a long day, you’d go back to your apartment and get a knock on the door and Mike would be at the door with a bottle of– He used to make these fantastic cocktails called Old Fashioneds. They’re lovely. He’d have a rucksack with all of the diced oranges, sugar, a boombox with Sinatra on it. And he’d go, “We’re going on the roof.” He’d go, “I want to go on the roof. We have to talk.” And I’d go, “Dude, let’s go have a drink, but do we have to take the lid off of this again?” And he was like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, we do.”
That’s so fun. Where were you guys shooting?
Melbourne, Australia. We were down there for like six months.
I’m trying to think if that’s more or less time that I would’ve expected, for a six-hour miniseries.
Well, we were prepping. So we started shooting in December, and we shot for four months.
We talked a little bit about how getting this off of the ground was a pretty impressive thing, given how many times it’s been tried before. I’m curious as to why you think now is the time, now is the secret sauce.
That’s a good question. I mean I think it could have been done any time. I suppose it was a bit of a combination of Mike De Luca is a very influential producer who wanted to do it and Syfy as a network was interested in going back to its science fiction roots, so they were interested in doing it. I don’t think anyone really knew quite how to tackle the story, and then, naive or not, I came in with a take, and then everyone said, “Great, there’s a way in on this.” And that was it. So it’s just one of those lucky moments, I think.
I think what I keep coming back to is the fact that Stanley Kubrick considered making this, and then instead he collaborated with Arthur C. Clark on “2001.” “2001,” by contrast, is a much more optimistic look in terms of looking at the exploration of the universe. Is there something about right now that feels like the right time to tell this story?
I think that we are generally disillusioned with how the world is run. I know we were in the ’60s, particularly in the United States because of Vietnam, but I think as well, as Westerners, we had come off of this glorious victory against evil not that long ago. When “2001” was made, everyone could remember clearly basically defeating evil. We felt that it was still possible for us to step up and become more, become greater than we are. I think now we wonder, are we really ever going to do that? Are we ever really going to become greater than we are? Are we just destined to repeat the same mistakes over and over again?
So now it feels like intervention is the only way, and even then, intervention that says, “You’re kind of done, but there’s a part of you that we can take and use and evolve and move on with.” I don’t think the end of “2001” and the end of “Childhood’s End” are that different really. It’s still about new beginnings and looking to the children. And that image of the Star Child is open to interpretation, but one thing that I think is pretty clear is that it’s saying that we have to start again, we have to be reborn. I think there are similarities there at the end of “Childhood’s End.”
Is there room for optimism in “Childhood’s End”?
Yeah, I think there is some room for optimism. There’s room that through the children everything goes on. Everything goes on in a different way we can’t imagine, but it still goes on. But it is a tragedy, but it’s a tragedy for us, it’s not a tragedy for creation. It’s just inevitable. There’s no morality in this story. It’s just about what is. Death itself is not a moral thing, it just is. It exists.
We’re having a really fun conversation.
Embracing the inevitability of change, I suppose, is what it comes down to.
Yeah, and letting go and letting your children go. We try to get that in there as well. So some of those adults are at a point in their lives where they understand suddenly at the last minute that they’ve got no choice here. They have to let their children go.
It sounds like you’re keeping very close to the original book.
Trying to, yeah.
Is there any specific place where you feel like you’ve shifted?
Only probably in the way that we delved deeper into religion in night two. That takes us into storylines that aren’t in the book, even though we intercut them with storylines that very much are in the book. We explore the challenge through religious faith in a way that Clark never went down that path too far. He kind of skirted over it in a couple of paragraphs, really.
I love that you refer to it as “night two.” How key is the concept in your head of knowing that this is going to be watched across a series of nights, but also that probably in future times people will find it on Netflix or Hulu or wherever it ends up?
I think that three nights is great. Three consecutive nights is even better, which is what I think we have. It’s fantastic because it feels like gorging on a book, which is what I want it to feel like. And it means we can be quite complex about things and leave things in quite a complicated state of play and not worry that we’ve got a whole week before the audience comes back. Hopefully, they’ll come back the next night and they just got it all there again.
So wrapping it up, going back to your 14-year-old self, what for you is the core thing that you kept with you this whole time from the story?
To try to make it feel the same degree of happiness and sadness at the end of our adaptation as I felt as a kid at the end of the book. To hold that same strange melancholy that I felt, where I didn’t feel like what I’d seen deserved me being just unhappy, but it also didn’t prompt vast amounts of joy either. I want to leave the audience struggling to know how they should feel.