Based on Charlotte Gray’s book Gold Diggers: Striking It Rich in the Klondike, this first-ever Discovery Channel scripted series was shot in six episodes and aired as a three-part miniseries.
“Klondike” is set in the 1890s and tries to capture the dangers, the isolation, the lawlessness, and the epic feel of the last gold rush on the North American continent. Richard Madden stars as Bill Haskell, an American who leaves the East with his Jewish pal, Byron Epstein (Augustus Prew), to take an adventurous turn before their lives inevitably settle into the comfortable desk jobs predicted by their college degrees.
Go West, young men, and in Colorado they learn about a new gold rush in Canada’s Yukon Territory. Before you can say “pyrite” they’re scaling the dangerous Chilkoot Pass en route to Dawson City, the rugged gold rush town that sprang up in the remote area near the Klondike River.
The first third of this miniseries focuses on men vs. wild, with spectacular cinematography and special effects that bring to life the perils of this wild northern country, including avalanches, river rapids, snow and ice storms, and wolf packs. But once the pair gets to Dawson City, that whole Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest thing revolves more around the two-legged animals that can quickly cut short your time in the Klondike.
Writer Jack London (Johnny Simmons) turns up as a character, and the rest of them are also loosely based on real-life counterparts. The most infamous is Belinda Mulrooney, who trucked in fine dry goods to sell in Dawson City and in the process became the richest woman in the Klondike. Here, she’s played by Abbie Cornish (“Limitless”). The cast of characters also includes a self-styled “Count” (Tim Roth), a ruthless man who’s determined to acquire all the property in Dawson City; a “whore” named Sabine (Conor Leslie) who’s out to strike it rich her own way; a self-ordained Catholic priest named Father Judge (Sam Shepard) who also hopes to carve a niche for himself in Dawson City; and a miner named Meeker (Tim Blake Nelson) who becomes uneasy partners with the main character.
The first part of the series is far more interesting than the middle, when Mounties come in response to a killing and the pace ironically seems to slow down. Everyone has some sermon to deliver, and while it was meant to make the dialogue more interesting and unique, such rhetoric makes you uncomfortably aware, at times, that you’re watching actors playing gold rushers. The art design and set decoration are also inconsistent, with some elements appropriately gritty and seedy, while others feel too new and refined. Sabine is a case in point. With perfect hair and makeup, she’s so drop-dead gorgeous that she looks more like a high-priced model than a whore trying to make a buck in a rough-and-tumble boomtown. Other characters’ clothing is also way too new and pristine-looking, so that, coupled with an increase in second-act monologues, the middle portion of this miniseries feels a little less believable than the first.
At the peak of the gold rush, the historical Dawson City had some 40,000 residents, and you just don’t get that sense here. Though the building facades in “Klondike” look authentic enough, AMC’s “Hell on Wheels” does a better job of recreating a frontier atmosphere, and the characters seem more in jeopardy from minute to minute. Here, we’re told what a dangerous place Dawson City is, but when you come right down to it, it’s not as lawless as it would seem. Plus there are contradictions. Mounties come to investigate one shooting, but ignore another. And viewers could have used a little help with the facts. Historically, Chicago was the first city in North America to have electric power, but surprisingly the second was Dawson City. But because the interiors of some of the places in town are so incongruously lavish compared to the exteriors, it would be easy to see the electric lighting and think it more of a historical inaccuracy than a period detail.
Overall, there could be more action and the atmosphere could be more consistently convincing, but even so, the story, the characters, and the production values are just good enough to keep you watching from episode to episode.
Here’s a description from the inside cover:
Part I: Based on actual events from the last great Gold Rush in history, a stampede of fortune seekers make their way to the Klondike boomtown of Dawson City, “The Paris of the North,” where murder, revenge, riches and redemption await.
Part II: It’s every man for himself as food and supplies run low and winter takes hold of the Klondike. A murderer stalks the miners at their claims while Dawson is plagued by Typhus. Belinda double-crosses Bill in a bid to stay competitive with The Count.
Part III: Bill finds the murderer and seeks revenge while The Count sets his sights on Bill’s gold. The Tlingit [Indians] descend on Dawson in a bloody nighttime raid. Bill and Meeker escape with their gold only to be confronted with death in the wilds.
Total runtime is 429 minutes, and “Klondike” is rated TV-14 for language, some violence, and brief nudity (a woman’s bare butt).
“Klondike” appears to be presented in 1.78:1 aspect ratio, “enhanced” for 16×9 monitors. Except for some extra grain that turns up in darkened tent scenes and such, the picture looks great in HD and features plenty of detail, realistic looking colors, and minimal backdrop noise. Apart from one or two instances of banding, I saw no issues with the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer.
The audio, however, is a surprisingly rudimentary English Dolby Digital 5.1, with just enough rear-speaker action to make you remember that the sound isn’t confined to the front speakers. Subtitles are in English SDH.
Aside from cast interviews that are mostly appraisals of their characters and the series, “Klondike” features two extras: “Klondike: Behind the Scenes,” which offers some background on how the film was shot (and how much real danger the cast was in), and “Discovering Klondike,” a place feature that explains the allure of the Klondike gold fields. Both are slightly better than average.
The biggest selling point for “Klondike” is that, apart from Chaplin’s 1925 “The Gold Rush,” it’s really the only movie or TV series to cover the Klondike Gold Rush in any depth, and that in itself makes it pretty fascinating. The cast is decent, the writing is just good enough, and despite a second-act sag the series ends with the same kind of bang with which it began. It’s a totally respectable foray into scripted TV series from the Discovery Channel.