The Discovery Channel’s first attempt at scripted programming is one of the more intriguing examples of channel drift in recent memory. Unlike TLC abandoning “learning” for a stable of reality sideshows or History flouting history with takes on Christian and Scandinavian lore, there’s a palpable trace of the old Discovery—and the new-old Discovery—in all three nights of Klondike. With its flea-bitten Western aesthetic and mythically epic sweep, the miniseries calls to mind two of the finest prestige dramas of the past decade: Deadwood and Game Of Thrones. (The presence of the latter’s Richard Madden further invites the comparison.) But Klondike’s most obvious antecedent (and deepest tie to vintage Discovery programming) is Planet Earth, the BBC co-production that brought nature documentaries into the age of HDTV. It’s a curious balance to strike, but the striking mountain vistas go a long way toward explaining why these fictionalized tales of the Klondike gold rush are being told on Discovery.
In lieu of Richard Attenborough narrating a parasitic fungus conquering an ant colony, however, Klondike’s majestic views are accompanied by the narration of Madden and his co-stars, describing in purple prose the parasitic-fungi-on-ant-colony effect of man on unspoiled nature. There’s a fine character study beneath the mysteries, schemes, and romances that stack up during Klondike’s six-plus hours. Unfortunately, the series digs only so deep, letting the tale of fortune-seeking Bill Haskell serve as the through line to a straightforward telling of boom times in the Yukon. It’s just as well that Bill and his cohorts only make the most basic of connections to one another as they march toward their pioneer’s fate. They only have so long to do so. And the true relationship story in Klondike is the one between the characters and their humanity.
The most potent material in the miniseries mimics a Deadwood routine, taking a wide-angle view of a civilization without civilization. Klondike amounts to a classy, well-photographed treatment of big ideas: Greed, survival, manifest destiny, justice, sacrifice, and fate all get a chewing from Dawson City’s prospectors, con artists, legitimate business owners, and representatives of law and order. Klondike’s cast is stocked with top-flight talent—Sam Shepard, Tim Roth, and Tim Blake Nelson all put in supporting turns—but the broad, bland platitudes of the scripts never rise to those actors’ abilities. The members of the First Nations who exist on the fringes of the action speak in “Colors Of The Wind” lyrics; Roth’s predatory character, known simply as The Count, skulks wearily about for the first two nights before finally striking amid the growing chaos of the frequently tense concluding chapter.
Based on Charlotte Gray’s Gold Diggers: Striking It Rich In The Klondike, this Klondike has literary roots—much like the network miniseries of old. Yet in an attempt to reproduce the multiple points of view of Gray’s gold-rush history, Klondike presents multiple voices that fail to mesh into a neat whole. That jibes with the general messiness of the show’s setting (though Klondike’s Western environments pale in comparison to those of Deadwood, surely the foulest-smelling set in television history), but it leaves the viewer without a sure anchor. It should be Madden, but the serious countenance of the King in the North weighs down Bill Haskell, King in a Different North. More compelling are Abbie Cornish’s frontier entrepreneur Belinda Mulrooney and Johnny Simmons as a pre-fame Jack London, but their characters are too often shunted aside in order for Bill to avenge a wrong that occurs midway through part one.
But Klondike isn’t half as good a televised novel as it is a parade of landscape photography punctuated by archetypal Western exploits. Human-versus-human conflicts are easy to come by in Dawson, but even Shepard’s man of the cloth and Roth’s thieving heel are fighting the same overriding fight: Humans against nature. Without the intervention of other people, the conditions in the Yukon turn the mild-mannered monstrous, as the cold and isolation slowly eat away at those whose claims yield nothing but mud. Haskell and his contemporaries can pull as many minerals as they want from the ground, but the ground ultimately fights back. It’s a fitting message for a miniseries whose longest-lingering impressions are left by iced-over rivers and imposing mountain passes: In Klondike, nature conquers all.
Directed by: Simon Cellan Jones
Written by: Paul Scheuring, Josh Goldin, and Rachel Abramowitz (based on the book Gold Diggers: Striking It Rich In The Klondike by Charlotte Gray)
Starring: Richard Madden, Abbie Cornish, Tim Blake Nelson, Sam Shepard, and Tim Roth
Debuts: Monday at 9 p.m. Eastern on Discovery Channel
Format: Three-part historical miniseries