By Paula R. Stiles
Recap: One day, billions of human beings from every historical age wake up after their respective deaths in a superhuge river that literally spans its alien world several times over. They discover large monoliths called “grails” that feed them if they have bracelets and they also discover that they can’t die – at least, not permanently. Foreign correspondent Matt (Tahmoh Penikett), last seen dying in a mass bombing along with his new girlfriend, Jessie (Laura Vandervoort), searches for her. But he is being set up by mysterious blue aliens against famous historical explorer, Sir Richard Francis Burton (Peter Wingfield), who has his own connection to Jessie and a mission that could destroy this new world.
Review: I went into watching SyFy’s miniseries, Riverworld, after what felt like centuries of keeping my expectations low. Let’s face it – Sci-Fi Channel or Syfy Channel or whatever-the-hell-it’s-calling-itself-these-days channel is not noted for its high-quality original content. And Philip Jose Farmer’s famous Riverworld book series was bound to be a difficult slog of an adaptation even for the likes of, say, Peter Jackson. Who does not work for the Channel Formerly Known as Sci-Fi.
It didn’t help that they completely jacked around the plot, dropped every one of the books’ original characters save Richard Francis Burton (my favourite of the series), Tomoe Gozen (I think) and Samuel Clemens, invented the most boring “hero” ever, and then made Burton the main villain and Clemens and Tomoe sidekicks to the new Audience Identification protagonist (Matt). I loved Riverworld from the moment I discovered, age 11, The Dark Design in my school library. I have no idea what mad genius/rebel thought it would be a good idea to stick that book in a middle school library, but I’d like to shake their hand. I don’t know if I’d have found the series, otherwise.
As it turned out, I never did end up reading the entire series, though I did read a fair chunk of it. I still mean to sit down and read the thing properly from beginning to end (jumping around I do not advise, grasshopper, on this one), but wisely decided doing so right before watching this miniseries was not the best time. I was definitely right. If the series had been fresh in my mind, I’d have been unnecessarily aggravated.
The biggest problem really is the invented hero, who is as boring as oatmeal and twice as annoying (in fact, most of the invented characters are like that). He’s passive-aggressive, irritating, rude, obnoxious, and – oh, yeah – whiny. He’s also played by Tahmoh Penikett, an actor whose name has always struck me as being the most interesting thing about him. Yes, he’s pretty, but you know what? So’s Peter Wingfield, only Wingfield can act. This isn’t helped by the series’ insistence on presenting Matt as some kind of big leader (when he sure ain’t) for whom people would fight and die and presenting Burton as an amoral slaver (both the real Burton and Farmer’s version were not exactly pro-slavery).
So, you’re thinking, all right, Paula, you’ve done a pretty good job of showing why this should suck. Why did you actually enjoy it? Because, wonder of wonders, I actually did. Well, for a start, there’s the aforementioned Peter Wingfield (as Burton), who happily sinks his teeth into the best role he’s had in a while. Then there’s the writing of Burton over and above the fact that he’s the antagonist. I say “antagonist” because he’s not actually a villain. In fact, he’s an antihero…oh, hell, let’s just admit it. He’s the real hero of the story. No, really.
See, Burton in the miniseries has pretty much the same motivation as he does in the books: he wants to travel down/up the river until he finds the aliens in charge and force them to stop their game of using humans as pawns in a sort of real-world version of Civilization. There are several puns about this (all of them Farmer’s) involving Burton’s life and career, not least that he was one of the discoverers of the source of the White Nile and that he was heavily involved in the Great Game among the superpowers of his day in Asia. And I can’t say that I disagree with his intent. The fact that the alleged hero of this miniseries (Matt) would rather live on his knees than die on his feet (as Burton prefers) really undercuts that long sequence in the middle where Matt and his friends are slaves and they stage the lamest rebellion since V came out. Wingfield’s Burton is courteous, dangerous, cool-headed, intelligent (pretty much as he is in the books), and not so much bad as driven. When first physically accosted by our lumpenproletariat “Hero”, he politely asks Matt to let go of his arm. When Matt repeatedly refuses and gets aggressive, Burton headbutts him and kicks his ass. Go Burton.
Everything in the story revolves around Burton. Matt is supposed to stop him (but is forbidden from killing him), but in the end, doesn’t. Burton just changes his mind at the last minute and does something somewhat less drastic than he originally intended. Burton gets laid (pretty often) with several women, certainly more than Matt does. Burton also gets the girl. Yes, you heard me right. Matt’s main motivation is supposed to be his searching for his lost love of all of two months before they died and, in the end, Burton wins her heart, instead. God, I love Burton. Wingfield’s even learned how to ride reasonably well since Queen of Swords. If the rumours I’ve heard about this series are true and it becomes a show, I may well watch just to watch him. Well…and one other character.
That character is Tomoe Gozen (Jeananne Goosen), medieval samurai warrior. Female medieval samurai warrior. Yes, I know that SyFy’s version probably owes so much to Jessica Amanda Salmonson’s interpretation of this (almost legendary) historical figure that Salmonson, by all rights, really should sue. And yet, it’s hard for me to quibble too much when the odds of Salmonson’s books seeing the big or little screen are low to nil and Tomoe really does kick ass in this. Granted, she’s shackled to Matt, who cannot fight his way out of a wet paper bag, no matter how much she tries to teach him, but then, that’s also part of Salmonson’s version. I don’t think it’s really a coincidence that the two truly-cool characters in the show are both courteous and lethal.
The Vancouver scenery is pretty, though the off-river scenes aren’t particularly inviting. The river-birthing scenes (not in the books, where everyone wakes up on the riverbank) are overdone. The array of cultures is seriously limited compared to the books (I especially missed the Neanderthals, but would it have killed the producers to at least have some hunter-gatherers?). Everyone speaks English due simply to writer/director laziness, except that non-English-speakers have thick accents ’cause that’s not dumb and patronising to non-Anglophones, or anything. Portraying Pizarro as a thug is especially irritating. Yes, Pizarro was a brutal, violent man, but he also did remarkable things, so he had to have had quite a lot of brains, courage and charisma.
The orange-y cinematography actually isn’t as bad as in, say, Flash Gordon. The tech is pretty in a steampunk sort of way, but also pretty ridiculous (especially the zeppelin). These people are starting with nothing in terms of technology or infrastructure, yet we’re supposed to buy that they could build a steamboat or zeppelin so soon after waking up (yes, I know the awakenings have been staggered in this version). Admittedly, the timeline is deliberately fudged, but it’s still not long enough for that. And don’t get me started on the robot horses.
Still, in the context of it being a SyFy original miniseries, this is really pretty good. Lord knows it’s better than Alice. Which doesn’t mean it doesn’t drag in the middle (it does) or that there aren’t long, excruciating stretches of boredom when we’re stuck with repetitive scenes of Matt being Dumb on Cue (there are). But it’s still watchable and entertaining, overall. And that’s really not bad.