Discovery Channel, three-part series, six hours, TV-14, premiered in January 2014.
Discovery Channel’s first-ever scripted miniseries is a subarctic adventure based on Charlotte Gray’s 2010 book Gold Diggers: Striking it Rich in the Klondike and will transport you up close and personal to the Klondike Gold Rush (also called the Yukon Gold Rush) of 1896–99. Friends Bill Haskell (played by Richard Madden) and Byron Epstein (Augustus Prew) are fresh out of college in New York City, and they mean to take New York newspaper man Horace Greeley’s “Go West, young man” advice to heart. In Denver they run into a man with a tinful of gold nuggets, and they decide to head west and then to the far north—to the riches waiting in the Klondike region of the Yukon in northwestern Canada. They are in for a cold awakening when they arrive in the mining camp of Dawson City, which is not only frigid but also home to murderous, thieving lowlifes, corruptible Mounties (North-West Mounted Police) and brooding Tlingit Indians.
Simon Cellan Jones directed and Ridley Scott executive-produced the miniseries, which boasts magnificent production and cinematography. With beautiful, sweeping shots of the Canadian tundra and fastidious costume and set design, the show achieves a size and scope a gold rush adventure story deserves on this larger-than-life, Jack Londonesque frontier (coincidentally Johnny Simmons plays a young, aspiring London in the show). A common detriment to period piece TV is when producers shortcut accuracy due to budgetary constraints, something they may have avoided here. The script occasionally delves into 21st century-isms, and sometimes actors may look a bit too pretty, but these serve as minor distractions. Klondike doesn’t trim anything off the edges.
The undaunted technical presentation of Klondike makes one a little disappointed in the straightforwardness of its story and characters. But while its tale of obsession and revenge is one we’ve seen before, its well-paced script, penned by Paul Scheuring, Josh Goldin and Rachel Abramowitz, and its impressive performances still make it very entertaining. Richard Madden (Game of Thrones) portrays Haskell with a relentlessness that crosses a line between determination and stubbornness, a characteristic that is practically a necessity for anyone wishing to survive this tundra—something few do. Scotland-born Madden may need to work on his American accent, but he is a tough, likable main character. Abbie Cornish excels as Belinda Mulrooney, the town’s queen of lumber and one of its most powerful citizens, as does Marton Csokas as Mountie Superintendent Sam Steele (read about the real Steele at www.WildWestMag. com). Steele finds himself stuck in a moral quandary between doing what is right and what will further his career (guess which one requires him to slaughter innocent Tlingits?). The fine cast also includes Sam Shepherd as a well-intentioned priest; Conor Leslie as a whore turned nurse; Tim Blake Nelson in a minor but memorable turn as Haskell’s partner; and Ian Hart as con man Soapy Smith (read about the real Soapy in the April 2013 issue and at www.WildWestMag.com).
Klondike is prone, however, to only showing us one side of its characters, a prime example being Tim Roth’s Count, who seems evil through and through, if only because the show felt the need for someone to fill the role of “main bad guy.” Roth makes the most of nothing, though, doing everything but twirling his proverbial mustache to make his character interesting. Another drawback is the annoying, loopy narration that interjects the episodes with over-romanticized ideas about the frontier lifestyle, while the show within does anything but. It’s out of place but, fortunately, seldom heard.
The show opens with an image of hundreds of men, women and children trudging up a snowy peak seeking fortune. Three years later almost all of them, at least those that survived, will leave the Klondike in disappointment. At the very least, you won’t leave Discovery Channel’s Klondike so empty-handed.
Originally published in the June 2014 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.