Discovery is following in History’s footsteps, expanding their brand to include scripted offerings alongside their large, unscripted catalogue. Also like History, they’ve chosen to pick a story that goes back in time, and in the case of Klondike, one that compliments their myriad of gold-related programming. The instinct is not wrong, the execution is good. Klondike, produced by Ridley Scott, focuses on the late 1890s Klondike gold rush, as explored through the experiences of a young fortune seeker, Bill Haskell (Game of Thrones‘ Richard Madden). It will premiere in three, two-hour installments on consecutive nights. Hit the jump for why, “if it’s in the newspapers, it’s over.”
Klondike doesn’t let the shortness of its limited run stop it from telling complex stories. In the first hour alone, Haskell and his traveling companion Byron Epstein (Augustus Prew) face hucksters, wolves, Chinese card sharks, an avalanche, and the opportunity to both cheat death at least once. It’s the start of a very action-packed story, but it also helps establish the communal madness of the gold rush fever of the time.
Klondike boasts an impressive (and mostly British) cast, each playing roles that fans of Western series like Deadwood or Hell on Wheels will come to recognize as rote when it comes to the frontier: Tim Roth plays “The Count,” a dangerous character who controls the booming mining town of Dawson; Sam Shepard is the saintly priest Father Judge, who attempts to bring God into godless surroundings; Abbie Cornish is Belinda Mulrooney, a shrewd mill owner with early designs on Haskell; Ian Hart plays a conman named Soapy; Johnny Simmons takes a neat turn as Jack London; and Tim Blake Nelson‘s Joe Meeker becomes a quiet kind of mentor for Haskell, after he decides to stay on with his claim instead of heading for home.
Madden was a great choice to play Haskell, managing to bring just the right amount of his Robb Stark (King in the North!) character into the proceedings. Haskell is just a young man, after all, who has willed himself into foreign and extraordinary circumstances without much of a safety net. Madden plays him as heroic while being naive, and levelheaded while being willing to take chances. Ultimately though, he’s an empathetic lead, whose transformation by his experiences in the Yukon feels natural, while staying true to the responsible character met in the first hour.
Though Haskell and Epstein are nearly the sole focus of that first hour, the show wisely begins to expand its characters, and the underworld of Dawson, by the second half of its premiere episode. It’s a lot to take in, but it adds to the series’ cinematic feel. The choice of it being miniseries also helps give a frame and urgency to the proceedings. In this way, Klondike embraces the best of both worlds.
That’s not to say that Klondike isn’t without its hiccups. There’s some clunky directing here and there, like having a boarding house refuse Epstein because he’s Jewish, then panning immediately to a suddenly bright Star of David pendant, that somehow made its way unnoticed through his many layers of clothing. Klondike also doesn’t have the commitment to portraying truly bad teeth and poor hygiene like the HBO miniseries John Adams commendably did, but it does make Dawson a pretty dingy place (though with some exceptionally clean and attractive prostitutes).
All that aside (and it can be pushed aside), Klondike stays true to its central idea: that of trailblazing, and finding one’s own way in a lawless world. “Up here, the mask is off,” Soapy tells Haskell. No one bothers to hide their wickedness, and there are many layers of complication to it and to the setting, which is given loving reverence by the camera, with gorgeous, lingering landscape shots. Indians, Russians, shovelers and hucksters all come into play early in the series, but Haskell perseveres, telling Belinda (with a hint of Madden’s native Scottish lilt under his American growl), “your worry will be my good luck charm.” He will need it.
Klondike premieres Monday, January 20th at 9 p.m. on Discovery, and will continue its story on the next two consecutive nights.