CHILDHOOD'S END is apparently part of an attempt by the specialty cable channel SyFy to move away from the silliness of "Sharktopus Versus Platybadger" towards more serious speculative fare, as otherwise exemplified by their superlative new original series The Expanse. On paper, adapting Arthur C. Clarke's evolutionary alien invasion mystery - one of the most important, groundbreaking, and influential novels of science fiction's late Golden Age, and a novel I, myself, have long wanted to see adapted for film - probably seemed like a no-brainer. I was therefore grateful to discover that, for the most part, veteran BBC show-runner Matthew Graham manages to avoid the pitfalls that come with adapting a work so seminal that most of its ideas have been pinched and "recycled" by countless copycats over the years. Perhaps part of its success can be chalked up to the decision to accurately convey the novel's cold and cerebral tone and its disturbing undercurrents of sublime cosmic dread. Combined with a faithful recreation of most of the novel's best set-pieces and surprises (including a fantastic character reveal that gave me chills, even though I knew it was coming) these are decisions that pay off handsomely, and result in a miniseries that will linger with you for days, leaving you pondering some of life's Big Questions, occasionally leading you down dark intellectual alleyways where you might not feel all that comfortable exploring. And this is a good thing. There are, of course, a few small caveats. For one, at three 90 minute episodes, SyFy's adaptation is too long by a third. One or two of the sub-plots could have been pared down or even excised altogether. And one of my very favorite scenes from the novel, involving all the spectators at a packed bullfighting arena screaming as one as they are simultaneously made to feel the bull's terror and pain as a picador's sword pierces his beating heart, is missing in action. But these are trifling quibbles. The bottom line is that SyFy's Childhood's End is a worthy adaptation of a legitimate science fiction masterpiece, and that is pretty much the strongest praise that I can give.
Which brings us to the first two seasons of SALEM, WGN's gory, gruesome, goofy period costume series about high-stakes, world-class, competitive witchery taking place in late 17th century small town New England. I won't defend this series as anything beyond what it so obviously is: a deliriously daft, demon-haunted soap opera with myriad sexy young characters, ruggedly handsome men and beautifully corseted women, all with bosoms heaving as they pant with repressed sexuality, wearing gorgeous clothes, performing outlandish magical spells on each other while trying to steer clear of the Witchfinder General, the diabolical villain Increase Mather. Here is a character who only pauses in mortifying his own flesh with a barbed wire girdle in order to torture and execute suspected witches - mostly innocent young girls - in his increasingly barbaric butcher block of a prison, which townsfolk have taken to calling the House of Pain. As for the witchcraft, itself, frogs are stuffed down paralytic old men's throats, young girls vomit blood and nine-inch nails, a face flayed from a dead man's skull is conscripted into revealing the secrets it held onto in life, masks teleport unsuspecting redheads deep into the woods, the blood of innocent children is used to heal third degree burns, etc, etc, ad awesomeness! There are too many subplots to list in this bullet review, and I'm not sufficiently invested to detail them all, anyway. Suffice it to say, in this case, that regardless of the vast number of characters and ever-shifting allegiances, Salem is easy to follow, and is an absolute hoot to boot. Also, there are a ton of references to classic works of horror literature that have nothing to do with witchcraft, much less Salem (the aforementioned House of Pain, for instance, is a reference to H.G. Wells' The Island of Dr Moreau), which has the makings of a potentially fun drinking game for your more well read friends, should you have any. If you're looking for beautifully produced series with ambitions that don't go beyond delivering a massive jolt of entertainment with each episode, by all means, seek Salem out. Both full seasons are now available for download at a torrent server site near you. Enjoy!