While you’re waiting for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” to invade theaters this week, you can tune in a couple of other star wars on TV – with settings and themes that hit much closer to home than the goings-on in a galaxy far, far away.
Starting tonight, the Syfy channel is bringing two classic science-fiction sagas to the small screen: Arthur C. Clarke’s “Childhood’s End,” a novel about space aliens that was written before dawn of the Space Age; and “The Expanse,” a series of future-looking novels and short stories by James S.A. Corey (the pen name for collaborators Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck).
“The Expanse” weaves a tale of battle and intrigue involving Earth, Mars, Ceres, an Outer Planet Alliance and even the Mormons, in a style that’s been compared to “Game of Thrones.” The novels and Syfy’s adaptation have won the endorsement of none other than George R.R. Martin, who’s been writing the novels on which the “Game of Thrones” sex-sword-and-sorcery series is based:
“This is the show that fandom has been waiting for since ‘Firefly’ and ‘Battlestar Galactica’ left the air … a real kickass spaceship show, done right,” Martin wrote after hosting the world premiere at his theater in Santa Fe.
Who am I to argue with George Frickin’ R.R. Martin? Fortunately, I don’t have to. After previewing the first four episodes, I’m hooked. “The Expanse” has all the gritty feel of the aforementioned space operas. And if it’s sometimes confusing to keep track of all the connections between characters – ranging from a mysteriously missing interplanetary heiress to an asteroid-belt gumshoe with the “Blade Runner” mojo of Agent Deckard – don’t panic. I think it’s supposed to be that way.
Eventually you’ll find yourself rooting for Earth, Mars or the OPA the way “GoT” fans root for Jon Snow or Daenerys Targaryen. (Buzz Aldrin has already picked his team.)
Speaking of “Game of Thrones,” one of the bad guys from that HBO series is playing a key role in Syfy’s “Childhood’s End.” In “Game of Thrones,” Charles Dance pulled the strings behind the scenes as Lord Tywin Lannister, until that character met with an ignoble end at the end of Season 4. Tonight, Dance resurfaces as Karellen, the alien overlord who arrives with a fleet of spaceships to oversee Earth’s pacification.
The three-part miniseries may sound as if it’s starting down the same road as “Independence Day,” but Clarke had something more cerebral in mind when he wrote the book in 1953. These aliens are so powerful that Earth can’t put up much of a fight, and soon it looks as if the planet is really on its way to becoming a paradise. Nevertheless, the earthlings wonder who these unseen aliens really are – and wonder how much of a point there is to life when superintelligent beings have everything figured out.
Syfy’s adaptation adds some twists to the novel’s plot: For example, the overlords’ chosen emissary is a Missouri farmer in the mold of sci-fi movies such as “Signs” or “Interstellar,” rather than a Finnish-born U.N. secretary general. But like the book, the miniseries gets into big questions that are, if anything, more pointed than they were in the 1950s: What’s technology doing to us? What do scientific advances mean for religion? How do you balance freedom and security? And what’s the ultimate meaning of our existence?
More sci-fi and fantasy
The next few weeks are bringing more goodies for sci-fi fans. Instead of seeing “The Force Awakens” for the umpteenth time, give these TV shows a try:
The Magicians: What if the characters from “Harry Potter” or “The Chronicles of Narnia” actually behaved like kids with more power than they really ought to have? Lev Grossman’s novel about magicians behaving badly has been turned into a TV series for Syfy. The first show gets a sneak peek on Wednesday as a warmup for the January start of the series’ regular run.
Shannara Chronicles: There are a couple of Seattle angles to “The Shannara Chronicles,” airing on MTV starting Jan. 5: The series is based on the fantasy novels of Seattle author Terry Brooks, and one of the signature scenes shows a ruined Space Needle lying on its side. “The Shannara Chronicles” is set in a far-future Northwest inhabited by elves and demons as well as the remnants of humanity. If you can’t wait until January, the series’ first two episodes will be screened daily at Seattle Center’s EMP Museum at noon and 3 p.m., from Dec. 21 to 31.
The X-Files: I want to believe … that the “X-Files” reboot will be as much of a cult hit as the original series was when it made its debut 22 years ago. The six-episode limited run reunites Mulder and Scully and reopens the investigation into the alien conspiracy. But it won’t all be about Cigarette Smoking Man: “X-Files” creator Chris Carter promises there’ll be “Monster of the Week” episodes as well. The series premieres on Fox on Jan. 24
But wait … there’s more: In April, Syfy starts up “Hunters,” a series that’s an amped-up cross between “The X-Files” and “Men in Black.” Syfy is also moving ahead with second seasons for “Killjoys,” “Dark Matter” and “12 Monkeys” as well as adaptations of Frederik Pohl’s “Gateway,” Dan Simmons’ “Hyperion” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” farther down the line. In 2017, Spike TV is due to unveil series based on Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Red Mars.” And by that time, the buzz machine will have moved on from “The Force Awakens” to “Star Wars Episode VIII.”