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Riverworld or, How to make a good SyFy television movie

There’s an easy formula for making entertaining shows – a great cast, some excellent action, and a promising premise. Yesterday’s review of The Phantom proved that it wasn’t up to par on all three counts. Fortunately, SyFy had this gem of a television movie back in April this year, and that gives me some hope.

Called Riverworld, it’s based on the Philip José Farmer series of science fiction books about a kind of afterlife for humanity. The twist is that this afterlife is run by aliens, and while you can die, you end up being resurrected somewhere else along a ridiculously long river that gives the planet its name.

I’ve a slight confession to make. Up till recently, I had no idea about using a television movie as a backdoor pilot for a potential series. Yet, having watched both Riverworld and The Phantom, I feel I am somewhat more qualified to decide why Riverworld stands a much better chance at becoming an ongoing series.

Firstly, my favourite aspect of any creative onscreen production, the casting. SyFy’s decision to cast actors already largely familiar to the target audience seems like a stroke of genius. In fact, if not for Dollhouse‘s Tahmoh Penikett, V‘s Laura Vandervoort, X-Men‘s Alan Cumming and of course, my personal favourite, Highlander‘s Peter Wingfield, I might not even have given Riverworld a chance. As it is, I’m glad I did.

Ironically, it also turned out that familiar casting is a double-edged sword. Penikett’s lead character, Matt Ellman, had practically the same tired agenda of finding a particular woman as Paul Ballard from Dollhouse. Vandervoort as Jessie fared no better and, despite top billing, had about just as much purpose and screentime as her V character Lisa. By far the most hilarious was Alan Cumming once again wearing Nightcrawler- blue body paint as the alien Judas Caretaker.

In fact, if not for the top-notch casting of Peter Wingfield as Sir Richard Francis Burton, a strong-headed willful genius who is not above changing alignments to suit his own personal agenda, and the brilliant casting of little known but talented Jeananne Goossen as the samurai Tomoe, this movie may have fared little better than The Phantom. As it stands, they injected just the right amount of gravitas and much-needed believability into this sci-fi/fantasy epic.

A Toronto native, Jeananne Goossen surprised me with every second she was on screen. In her first appearance, dressed as a Buddhist nun, speaking the heavily accented English one would expect of a native Japanese speaker, I was immediately intrigued. Despite some clearly Chinese features, Goossen, as you can guess from the name, is of mixed heritage, which gives her an extremely exotic look – I mean, she has freckles on that gorgeous face!

Her talent also shines as she tackles a multi-faceted character, headstrong, honourable, capable of much serenity, yet equally deadly with a katana and wakizashi. Plus, she looks really really good in samurai battle gear.

Here’s one Geek definitely looking out for Jeananne Goosen’s next project.

*ahem* But getting back to Riverworld.

Director Stuart Gillard, whose resume is filled with television movies, brings a steady rhythm to the drama and a compelling pace to the action sequences. In stark contrast to The Phantom, the first part of Riverworld kept me rapt and helped me ignore the rather unintentionally laughable bits by immediately throwing in a new dramatic moment at every junction. Unfortunately, the plot seemed to run out of steam by the second half, and one could tell that Gillard himself was running out of ideas and options.

All that being said, the most credit must be given to the screenwriter who impressively formulated a compelling and somewhat faithful story using the Riverworld mythology. As a writer on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and producer of Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda, Robert Hewitt Wolfe is no stranger to adapting a universe created by someone else and yet putting a very unique spin on things. He does this once again, using lead character Matt Ellman as the everyman that gives audience a first-person view of the Riverworld Wolfe envisioned. The original protagonist, if he can even be referred to as such, is Richard Burton, who now plays a more adversarial role to Ellman.

Wolfe chooses to gloss over the original themes of life and death, resurrection and rebirth. Instead, he draws the focus to a question of morality, the sense of right and wrong, in the strangest of places – the afterlife. Is the alien concept of purgatory, where one can never die, but one can never really live something worth holding onto, or should it be destroyed as soon as it can? Ignoring the large gaping plothole – in which it is never made clear why the aliens created this in the first place – the questions posed are worthy of a second thought indeed.

Peter Lin

His teenage years spent nursing a giant man-crush on Steve Rogers, the first Captain America, Peter naturally found himself drawn to many other heroes who depicted strong, manly qualities, including the honour-bound warrior Worf, first Klingon in Starfleet, and the muscular rock hard abs of The Thing.

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