Riverworld TV Review

The mind of Philip Jose Farmer is a dangerous place to play around. Author of dozens of science-fiction novels, winner of as many awards, and general legend in his own time, Farmer has created some of the most mesmerizing worlds in print, and some of the most compelling characters you’ll find to populate them.

Syfy‘s Riverworld is a kind of mashing of the original work, and the final result is the kind of show that can’t figure out who it might be for at all. The story ends up only distantly related to the original, so Farmer fans will watch it, but aren’t particularly likely to be happy about the fact. The uninitiated are likely to be skeptical going in, and the show ditches so much of the character play that made the books work, that it’s decidedly hard to get into from ground zero.

It’s a somewhat baffling mix which puts together both the idea that you probably need to have read the books to know what’s going on, and the fact that what’s going on is nothing like the books.

Still, there is a quirky fun to the thing, similar to other Syfy efforts like Tin Man and Alice. Those who lean toward any sci-fi port in a storm will have a fair enough time, even if the end product leaves quite a bit to be desired.

Now, if you have no idea what Riverworld is, stick with me on the general outline.

Matt Ellman (Tahmoh Penikett – Dollhouse) is a war zone reporter who is killed, along with his fiancé Jessie (Laura VandervoortV, Smallville) when a suicide bomber destroys a bar/hotel. Death is only the beginning here though, because Matt wakes up to find himself on Riverworld. Along with, apparently, everyone who ever died on Earth, Matt is now a resident of a planet that is entirely composed of one river and its seemingly infinite banks.

Quickly finding himself among people he knows, Matt wonders where Jessie could be, and begins searching for her. Though this new world seems somewhat idyllic at first glance, especially considering that food is provided via a curious system of incredibly advanced technological gadgetry, it turns out that there is little to find friendly about being tossed in with the entirety of the human race.

Before long, Matt meets up with Richard Burton (the explorer), Mark Twain (Mark Deklin), a 13th-century female samurai named Tomoe (Jeananne Goossen), and loads of others, all apparently after their own goals on this odd world, and most of them doing rather well with the idea that they’re dead.

Well, and don’t forget the aliens who are in control of the planet, and apparently the reason people show up here when they die.

The two-part, four-hour miniseries plays out with a strange air about it. I doubt the idea was originally to make this a ten-hour event (though that’s what the source deserves) which then had to suddenly get massively trimmed, but that’s the feel of the thing. The story seems shoved together, even considering that it very obviously is, and the best the overall effect manages is a certain “if only” longing.

Much of the acting is actually quite good all things considered, especially in the case of Mark Deklin’s Twain. Having provided a string of memorable one-offs (or two or three-offs) for years, recently as Mordor on Better Off Ted, it’s about time someone connected him to something long-term.

If the general premise doesn’t turn you off immediately, I can hesitantly recommend you give it a try. You’re likely at about a coin-flip to have a decent enough time. Go in with the right expectations, and see where you are about thirty minutes in. On the other hand, if you’re sci-fi shy at all, there isn’t anything to really recommend this as your crossover.

Airing back-to-back on April 18th (which is odd) at 7:00pm, the two-parter seems to have been given up on already. Why make two parts?

While I love the effort, and perhaps the show will encourage a few to read the books, this one didn’t really work out. There’s too little to it ultimately, and things clearly became crushed by the massiveness that couldn’t come through in the alloted time. Watch it for Deklin, and a bit of guilty pleasure adventure, but the less you expect, the better.

 

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Marc Eastman is the owner and operator of Are You Screening? and has been writing film reviews for over a decade, and several branches of the internet's film review world have seen his name. He is also a member of The Broadcast Film Critics Association and The Broadcast Television Journalists Association.