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Sci-Fi Channel: Riverworld—A Pilot Masquerading As a Movie

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Last night, the Sci-Fi Channel aired 2003’s Riverworld, starring Brad Johnson (who?) and Emily Lloyd (who?), in which every human who ever died on Earth (along with at least one alien) is reincarnated under the water of a mysterious River. Released in small groups from their watery wombs, each newly reborn person emerges dripping from the River to find a silver canister and a mystery.

Where are we? Perhaps it’s a spiritual realm… maybe even Heaven… or Hell!
&#8212Captain Jeff Hale, upon his reincarnation on Riverworld.

Brad Johnson plays a US shuttle astronaut, Captain Jeff Hale, reincarnated in a group that includes Lloyd as “Alice Lidell Hargreaves”. (In case you didn’t know it, this was the name of the child who inspired Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland&#8212I have to tell you, because the movie never mentions it.) Also in the group is a Roman soldier who introduces himself as “Drusus,” but who is actually the once-Emperor Nero; an African seeress named Mali (Karen Holness); and a revenant from Büchenwald, Lev Ruach (Jeremy Birchall).

The group is attacked by a Neanderthal as they discover how to use their canisters to get food. This character apparently serves only to reveal Drusus’ blood-thirstiness, and Alice’s sweet sympathy&#8212we never see any other evidence of Neanderthals in the movie. Before Hale and Drusus can battle for leadership of their group, they are captured by the cavalry of the Vandals, a local fiefdom led by Valdemar (Kevin Smith), who informs them that they will either become soldiers in his army, or slaves.

That night, the group is herded into several cages. The cage which holds Hale, Alice, Lev and Mali is opened at one point, and an alien from Tau Ceti (Monat, played by Brian Moore) and a child reincarnated from Earth’s last human population (in 2039, in case you wanted to know when the Big One would hit) are shoved inside. The child appears to be in the movie to illustrate Alice’s mothering capabilities, as the script does nothing else with this character. The alien, however, provides a reasonable source of futuristic engine for the fantastic riverboat (built by the reincarnation of Samuel Clemens) Hale will take upriver.

We barely meet the alien, when a Mysterious Stranger (played like the Ghost of Christmas Future by Lloyd Edwards) releases Hale from his cage. Hale then finds a way into the Vandal city, arriving just in time to sneak Alice, Lev, Mali, along with the alien and his human ward, out of the city. The alien then leads the group to the hidden location where Clemens is building his fantastic riverboat.

In breaking the prisoners out of the Vandal compound, Hale takes advantage of an unwitting diversion provided by Nero’s emergence in the arena. It turns out that soldiering abilities in the Vandal kingdom are tested by gladitorial-style combat, and Drusus observes many of his former countrymen in the ranks of Valdemar’s officers. He reveals his Imperial self after killing his opponent with the short sword, then fights Valdemar mano á mano and kills him, too. Following this assumption of rule, Nero is then focused totally on recapturing Alice, upon whom he has lustful Imperial designs, and getting revenge on Hale.

This strange distortion of the first novel in Phillip José Farmer’s excellent Riverworld Saga series eliminates many of characters who made sense in the original story (Sir Richard Francis Burton, the explorer who sought the source of the Nile and the Amazon, among them) and inanely substitutes others, seemingly at random. So we do not meet Hermann Goering, and the English-speaking Neanderthal of Farmer’s novel is effaced by the grunting attacker cock-cocked by Nero in the opening scenes. The script also substitutes visions caused by Hale being speared in the head by the Mysterious Stranger while underwater for reasonable (though science-fictiony) motivations carried forward from a previous life.

In fact, this movie felt more like a cliff-hanger pilot for a series that never made it&#8212the movie ended with so many loose threads left hanging, I felt my TV had acquired a fringe.

I can recommend Farmer’s Riverworld Saga highly&#8212these books take an intriguing sideways look at reincarnation and the purpose of life. The TV movie, however, is a wet firecracker with a broken fuse. Don’t waste your time&#8212unless you feel your TV really needs a fringe!

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About DrPat

  • http://w6daily.winn.com/ Phillip Winn

    But now I want to read the books!

  • http://paperfrigate.blogspot.com DrPat

    Well, that’s the kind of reaction I always hope for!

  • SFC Ski

    The Riverworld series is epic in scale, another interesting take on the afterlife is the “Heroes in Hell” series from the ’90’s.

  • http://paperfrigate.blogspot.com DrPat

    …another interesting take on the afterlife is the “Heroes in Hell” series from the ’90’s.

    Is that the Janet Morris-edited team effort?

  • SFC Ski

    I believe it is, several books with different contributors, IIRC.

  • http://scottpepper.blogspot.com Scott Pepper

    DrPat, this post has been syndicated at the Advance.net family of sites. It will appear in the TV weblog on sites such as Cleveland.com .

  • http://thewriterspath.com vikk

    You’ve reminded me that I have these books on my sci fi shelf. Time to pull them down and read them. Thanks!

  • Gary

    Several times i had picked up his (Farmer’s) books and thought of reading them. Now even with the halfhearted “movie” its required reading…

  • riverworld wonder

    man i watched the movie but it leaves u clusless i rly rly wana read the books but i cant find a place to buy them i mean i think it would be awsome i like the movie