Adapted by Matthew Graham (creator of BBC’s Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes) from the 1953 classic novel by Arthur C. Clarke and directed by Nick Hurran (Sherlock, Doctor Who), the Syfy mini-series Childhood’s End follows the peaceful invasion of Earth by the mysterious Overlords. When Karellen (Charles Dance), the ambassador for the Overlords, makes first contact with Earthling Ricky Stormgren (Mike Vogel), he uses comforting words and amazing technological gifts to quickly win humanity’s favor, but the apparent utopia is ultimately at the cost of human identity and culture, which raises questions about whether his intentions are truly benevolent.
During this exclusive interview with Collider, actor Mike Vogel (Under the Dome) talked about why the themes in Childhood’s End appealed to him, realizing just how popular and beloved this novel is, how relevant the ideas being explored in this story still are today, the dark but hopeful ending, why a three-part mini-series was the best way to tell his epic story, and how intimidated he was to work with Charles Dance.
Collider: How did this come about for you?
MIKE VOGEL: All of us, in our off-season, were always looking for other things to do, and I was approached by Syfy to do it. We found a way that we could figure it out, to get CBS passed the fact that it was not competing with Under the Dome. I think both shows benefit from the other. The great thing about sci-fi is that the fans and the audience are unlike any other genre out there. They are constantly looking for great content and good stuff. They don’t care where it comes from, they’ll latch onto it. It all feeds the same beast. That’s how it came about. We did it in Australia for three months, and it was difficult to be away from the wife and kids for three months. There was no visiting (because of the distance), and my wife was a rock star and shouldered it. But, I’m happy to have had the experience. It was so fulfilling.
With as beloved as the novel by Arthur C. Clarke is, were you nervous about taking on this mini-series?
VOGEL: I’ve gotta be honest, I didn’t realize the full weight of what this was ‘cause it happened so quickly. As I was flying on the airplane and doing my research, and as I got there for rehearsals, I started to go, “Oh, holy cow! Oh, it’s Arthur C. Clarke!” Nick Hurran, our director, and Matt Graham, our writer, are so sufficiently, wonderfully nerdy. This was an iconic novel that for 50 years kicked off some of the sci-fi craze, and it has been a coveted piece that no one could quite figure out how to adapt because it was thought to be too blasphemous to do. It only helped my performance when I realized the reverence for this thing and the place that it holds in the sci-fi genre. It became an honor to be a part of.
If you weren’t initially aware of the weight of the project, what attracted you to this project?
VOGEL: The script and the book. In the book, Ricky Stormgren is a 60-year-old head of the U.N. In today’s environment, that’s not going to be your hero. With all of the political discord and distrust of those in power that’s out there, that guy instantly becomes the enemy, and is not necessarily your hero. Matt Graham and I debated a lot about it. I found it so ironic that no one would make the project because they thought it was blasphemous, especially during a strong religious time in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. People said, “You can’t talk about that.” But personally, as a man of faith, I found such common themes to Moses and to bigger questions. As we sat and talked about these things, we realized, “It doesn’t matter where you are on the spectrum or if you’re Atheist, we can all take things from it.” At the heart of it, it’s looking at humanity and asking these massive questions of, if this were real and we achieved light-speed travel and you can go out to other galaxies, should we be allowed to do so and spread the difficulty, the violence and the discord that we have perpetuated as a race to other places. That’s also assuming that we have the corner on that market. If there are others out there, I don’t necessarily think that they’ve somehow figured it out either ‘cause where are they so far? But, it holds a mirror up to us. That’s what lured me into it.
Arthur C. Clarke wrote this in 1953, and the same things that he was dealing with then, in post-World War II society, with the spread of Communism and the rise of the hippie movement, we find ourselves in 2015 with different bad guys. There’s still a Cold War occurring. Nothing has changed. At what point are we going to get that together? Separate from that, when you’re given this opportunity for all of those things to be eradicated, do you really want that? It’s something that made me look long and hard at the world. Colm Meaney, who’s in this movie, and I differ greatly. I believe in his point that we should absolutely pursue the betterment of our race and the betterment of people, but I would also argue that all of the pain and chaos spawns wonderful art, music, film and stories. Without adversity, what are you overcoming? There are so many different ways to look at this and anyone who’s read the book knows that it has a very dark ending, but there’s something nice about that. Not everything is hunky dory. Not everything is tied up with a neat little bow. Life is messy, and what we’ve done is messy. You want to get people to sit around and talk about it.
Was there ever a fight about having a dark ending?
VOGEL: We saved the end for later because it was an evolving, fluid discussion. Some people were afraid to go there, and other people thought that was exactly where we needed to go. Eventually, that won out, and I’m glad it did. For any redemption to take place, you have to see the ugliness of where this all ends. So often, we’re so careful of being nice and telling a beautiful story. Sometimes it’s just gotta be dirty, in order to make you go, “Yeah, I don’t want to go there.” But in a weird way, I think it does end on a hopeful note. Without giving it away – and people have read the book and know the ending – there’s hope in it, in a weird way. It’s called Childhood’s End. You can figure out a lot by that title, but it’s about so much more. It’s about us putting on our big-boy pants and putting the way of childhood behind us. There is a hope that we can look at this and go, “All right, let’s fix things now, so that we don’t get to that.”
Clearly this is a story that will spark a lot of conversation, and it sounds like you had conversations with your fellow actors. That doesn’t seem like something you’d typically have time to do on a typical TV series.
VOGEL: No, because television moves so fast. A series moves at such a rapid pace and things are changing, episode to episode, where you’re going, “Wait, why am I doing this? This last episode, you told me I was doing this.” You’re shooting at a moving target. Whereas with something like this, because of the iconic nature of the book and because of the structure of this three-episode limited series, we had a beginning and an end, and we knew where we needed to get. How we got there and how we interpreted that, was up to us, as actors. Film is very much about sitting around and talking about ideas, and that’s the stuff that I love, but I haven’t experienced that yet in the television that I’ve done so far. It makes me long for movies again because, creatively, I always have a much more fulfilling experience there.
Why do you think a three-part mini-series was the ideal way to tell this story?
VOGEL: Three hours wouldn’t encapsulate this entire story. If you had a long, three-hour movie, that wouldn’t fulfill all of the ideas. And effects and technology have risen to the point where what you can do on television now rivals a lot of film. Not that this couldn’t have been done in 1970, but it would have been very different and it would have had a very different look. I think we do it justice with what we’re capable of doing today. And people’s minds are much more open to discussion about a lot of the topics.
What was it like to find out that Charles Dance would be bringing Karellen to life?
VOGEL: Man, I was intimidated. The voice of the gods, that guy has. He has a commanding presence, and yet he’s so sweet. He just roots for you and roots for you to figure it out in each scene. Getting to do that with him was fantastic. The cast is so deeply talented, but there’s also so many characters that it’s such a global story. There are entire main storylines that I never interact with once. I saw Osy [Ikhile] several times throughout filming, just in passing, but we never had a single scene together and we never had any interaction together.
When you’re working with a character who’s supposed to be an otherworldly being, do you think about that?
VOGEL: When you see Charles Dance in this show, you will realize how insanely intimidating and awe-inspiring it was. Anyone who’s read the book knows that the Overlords are described in detail, and you see it in all of its glory, wonderfully done, in this project. The first time I had to step on stage with him as Karellen, I near about pissed my pants. When you combine that voice with his presence, in the get-up that he was in, and it threw me. There was almost no acting needed or called for because it instantly threw you into that place. I think people are in for a real treat, especially those that are protective of the piece and that are into serious sci-fi. It goes there.
Childhood’s End airs on Syfy on December 14th, 15th and 16th.