“Klondike,” Discovery’s first scripted miniseries, traffics in a lot of cliches and hoaky dialogue and takes a few strange detours in dramatizing the Yukon gold rush of the late 19th Century. But it also nails by far the most important part of the story: the unforgiving frozen terrain that made this particular gold rush as much a battle for survival as a hunt for fortune.
The mountains outside Calgary do a fine job substituting for the environs of Dawson City a few thousand kilometers to the north, and as you watch the three-part saga unfold – especially if you have the sort of big HDTV set that turns Discovery nature documentaries like “Planet Earth” into incredible eye candy – you will begin to feel the bitter chill and harshness of conditions until you will most likely need a blanket and a thermos of hot cocoa just to make it through part 3.
It’s the setting that distinguishes “Klondike” (it debuts tonight at 9) from similar Westerns – or, I suppose in this case, Northerns – about cocky young men heading into uncharted territory and suffering many harsh lessons from the land and its occupants. Director Simon Cellan Jones and his crew do a great job of capturing the terrible beauty of the surroundings, and if at times “Klondike” feels like a travelogue with a plot clumsily attached, it’s an effective, entertaining combination.
As to that story: Richard Madden (Robb Stark from “Game of Thrones”) plays Bill Haskell, recent college grad who joins his pal Byron Epstein (Augustus Prew) in heading west – and then north, on a tip from a man they meet along the way – to make their mark. Along the arduous journey to Dawson City, they meet a colorful cast of characters – many of them, like Bill, based on real individuals, but heavily fictionalized – including noble preacher Father Judge (Sam Shepard), unrepentant con man Soapy Smith (Ian Hart), lumber magnate Belinda Mulrooney (Abbie Cornish), would-be land baron the Count (Tim Roth), fellow prospector Joe Meeker (Tim Blake Nelson) and aspiring novelist Jack London (Johnny Simmons) who becomes so fond of Bill’s pet phrase “burning daylight” that he later uses it for the title of one of his novels.
Given more responsibility than he had on “Game of Thrones” (even as the King In The North), Madden makes a strong leading man. The accent wanders at times (though Ian Hart’s does even more), but he’s as sturdy and good of heart as the script demands that he be without lapsing into boring, noble caricature. Other than Cornish’s complicated Belinda, the supporting characters are all stock types, but the actors generally breath interesting life into them. There’s a world-weary matter-of-factness to Shepard’s performance, for instance, that sells the innate decency of Father Judge.
The story, adapted from the Charlotte Gray book “Gold Diggers,” is at its best when it’s simply depicting the complex mechanics of getting to Dawson and plying a trade there. It’s basic stuff, but the stakes are so clear, and the visuals so compelling and threatening, that all of that material works very well. After a while, though, it veers into a bunch of complicated and less successful directions, including a revenge plot, a feud between Belinda and the Count and tensions between the Canadian authorities and the resentful Tlingit tribespeople. The plottier “Klondike” got, the more I wished it had kept things simple and gone back to showing us Bill working his gold claim and trying not to freeze to death, though we thankfully return to simple questions of survival near the end of part 3.
If you’re expecting the nuanced characterization and complex themes of some other period cable dramas of the 21st century, “Klondike” will leave you wanting. If you’re just asking for an entertaining adventure story with impressive visuals and a solid cast, it does the job, and represents a promising first foray into scripted drama for Discovery.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org