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In Klondike, Dawson City is heaven or hell, depending on your whim.
In Klondike, Dawson City is heaven or hell, depending on your whim.

Klondike is lovely – just less than it could be Add to ...

It starts tonight. It’s Discovery’s first-ever scripted project, Klondike (Discovery Canada, 9 p.m.). And here’s how a Discovery executive described the making of it: “56 days, 9,000 feet above sea level, above the cloud cover, temperatures that dropped to almost 30 below zero for 16 hours straight, and raging rapids. For our cast and crew, that was a day on the job. This is Klondike.”

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The six-hour, three-night miniseries (continuing Tuesday and Wednesday) is based on Charlotte Gray’s 2010 book, Gold Diggers: Striking It Rich in the Klondike. The guy in charge of the lavish adaptation is Ridley Scott. And there’s a stellar cast – Richard Madden from HBO’s Game of Thrones, Abbie Cornish, Tim Roth and Sam Shepard.

It’s good, entertaining and visually it is stunning. Just don’t look for premium-quality cable drama subtlety and nuance here.

As fine as it is, it seems like it was a quickie but eye-wateringly expensive production. Tim Roth was asked, “When you play a villain like this, do you do an elaborate backstory to justify how you behave?” To which he answered, “No!” And scoffed. He did note that the story was, “kind of an interesting concept.” But added, “You know, for me, nothing really dark and deep. You just muck about and then you hone in on things that seem to be working and you flush them out and push them through other scenes. I found him [the character] to be incredibly offensive but also quite funny. I find that’s what keeps me going with stuff like that.” Sam Shepard, meanwhile, was mighty interested in the fishing he could do while filming in Alberta.

The gist of Klondike’s story is this – it’s the 1890s and two restless young men, Bill Haskell (Madden) and Byron Epstein (Augustus Prew, from The Borgias), go West as soon as they leave college. Eager to become quick successes, they soon head north, to Dawson City where, the word is, many men are getting rich finding gold. The journey is wonderfully filmed: the majesty of the mountains, the profoundly callous weather and conditions. Men are small in this environment, small creatures to be swatted away or crushed by nature.

Dawson City is heaven or hell, depending on your whim. Rogues and hookers like Sabine (Conor Leslie, from Revenge) abound. There’s an evil manipulator called the Count (Roth). There is an apparent innocent woman now gone greedy, named Belinda (Abbie Cornish), a boss among male desperados, and there is a religious fanatic, Father Judge (Sam Shepard) who is, of course, not what he seems. Dawson City is, in short, the whole world itself in all its flavours and madness, all of life captured in one isolated place. Terrible things happen. Love finds a way. Things like that unfold.

As the producers and indeed the U.S. press see it, Klondike is an American story. And there was no dissuading them from this view. The drama has the Mounties in it, but that hardly matters to some in the audience. It’s an international production meant to satisfy audiences in the U.S., the U.K., and Australia and with something that’s not about Canada but adds to a familiar mythology about the American frontier.

As the series’ director, Englishman Simon Cellan Jones, put it, “We’ve got so many stories about the California gold rush, which had many sort of similar economic and sort of migration factors. But added to this ... it was so hard just to get there. Literally, you were locked in for six months a year by the winter. And I’m just amazed that this story hasn’t been told before properly really because it seems to me the heart of what makes America both good and bad and crazy.”

And, as casual as Roth seemed about the production, Shepard seemed even less gripped by it all. Asked, “Have your motivations changed as to why you take a role what interests you in a role?” he joked, “Yeah. I was out of work.” And then when asked, “So this one was all about the money?” he replied, “Yeah. The landlord was going to kick me out.”

Producer David Zucker fleshed out the story. “When we were pursuing Sam, even getting connected to him proved to be a challenge. It proved to be a rather large ordeal because he was out fishing. So we couldn’t get hold of him directly. He didn’t have Internet. We couldn’t e-mail him the script. So we had to find a way to actually get connected with Kinkos so that we could have it printed and then the next morning when he’s back from fishing, he could then pick it up. He read it. He called us. And then I think the other attraction perhaps is that he could get in his car, drive up to Calgary, do some work, and then go out and fish again.”

This drollery was fun, but underlined that for all the expense, the difficulties of filming in Canada and Discovery’s decision to make it the channel’s first drama, Klondike has amounted to something less than it could have been. Wonderful to look, enjoyable, and almost finding gold, but not quite.

Follow on Twitter: @MisterJohnDoyle

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