Childhood's End December 14-16, 8 p.m., Syfy.
The Expanse Tuesdays, 10 p.m. (premieres December 14, 10 p.m.), Syfy.
When the Sci Fi Channel rebranded itself as Syfy in 2009, it moved away from scripted science-fiction series like the acclaimed Battlestar Galactica and into reality shows, game shows and professional wrestling, to the outcry of many sci-fi fans. Now six years later, the network’s programming is shifting back toward science fiction, with an emphasis on adapting well-regarded source material.
Two of the biggest launches in that new initiative debut this week: the miniseries Childhood’s End, based on the classic 1953 novel by sci-fi legend Arthur C. Clarke, and the ongoing series The Expanse, based on the popular novels by James S.A. Corey. Both exhibit the scope and ambition the network has been missing in recent years, although only The Expanse manages to make good on those ambitions. It’s not entirely consistent, but over the course of its first four episodes, The Expanse builds a convincingly lived-in future world and populates it with an impressively diverse range of characters (including what must be TV’s very first space Mormons), while weaving together several intricate storylines.
The show’s political landscape includes friction among residents of Earth, colonists on Mars and downtrodden workers in the asteroid belt, and the ensemble cast ranges from Thomas Jane as a noir-style Belter detective to Shohreh Aghdashloo as a pragmatic Earthbound politician. The various storylines seem a little disconnected at first, but they come together effectively as the series progresses, and each small detail, whether in dialogue or in set design, contributes to the overall immersion of the show’s world.
The world of Childhood’s End, on the other hand, feels disappointingly limited, even though it encompasses all of humanity. Clarke’s story of seemingly benevolent alien invaders dubbed the Overlords is more about philosophical ideas than specific character interactions, and screenwriter Matthew Graham has a tough time building engaging arcs for the miniseries’ characters (some of whom have been created or significantly reimagined for the TV version). In particular, the second of the three two-hour episodes is a tedious drag, with detours that ultimately have little relevance to the story’s outcome.
Even in its special effects, Childhood’s End looks chintzy and unimaginative, while The Expanse manages to take familiar sci-fi elements and synthesize them into something that looks and feels distinctive. While both shows aim for thought-provoking, serious storytelling, The Expanse is the one that represents a true promise for the future of Syfy.