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Discovery Channel hits paydirt in ‘Klondike’

By David Wiegand
San Francisco Chronicle

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    ‘Klondike’

    6-part miniseries. New episodes at 9 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Discovery Channel. Episodes repeated at 7 p.m.



Haul out all the plays on the word “gold” because that’s what the Discovery Channel has struck with its first scripted content, the stunning six-part miniseries “Klondike” airing over three nights.

With a cast headed by Richard Madden of “Game of Thrones,” “Klondike” grabs you with terrific performances, a rich script, magnificently sweeping visuals of jagged mountains overlooking valleys of ice and snow, and such a convincing attention to period detail, you’ll believe you’re back in Dawson City, Yukon, at the end of the 19th century.

The miniseries is based on the book “Gold Diggers” by Charlotte Gray and executive produced by Ridley Scott, with Simon Clellan Jones directing.

The series begins as two eager young men, Bill Haskell (Madden) and Byron Epstein (Augustus Prew, “The Borgias”) decide to head west as soon as they’ve graduated from college. They have a little money, but mostly, they have a lot of hope, as well as the youthful conviction that they can conquer the world. They decide to make the six-week trek to Alaska, where the gold rush is just beginning in the muddy collection of tents and flimsy clapboard shacks.

To get there, the pair join a very long line of other would-be prospectors trekking slowly up the snow-blanketed side of the mountains and then down into the Yukon River valley. The uphill trek is tough, especially for those pushing supply-laden sleds ahead of them. Isn’t it like the myth of “syphilis,” Byron asks. No, it’s “Sisyphus,” Bill corrects.

At first, there’s no law at all in Dawson City, but even the arrival of a unit of the Canadian Mounties does little to civilize the place. Swindlers like Soapy Smith (Ian Hart, “Luck”), prostitutes like Sabine (Conor Leslie, “Revenge”) and ruthless aspiring crime boss The Count (Tim Roth, “Lie to Me”) feed on greed, desperation and dashed hope that washes down the newly scarred landscape of the town.

Others, though, are as intoxicated by the possibilities of a new life as they are by the chance of striking gold. Belinda Mulrooney (Abbie Cornish, “Life Support”) was a laundry girl with little hope for the future back in the states. But in the Klondike, she’s the successful owner of a hotel and other businesses. Her bartender, Joe Meeker (Tim Blake Nelson, “Chaos”) is a decent man with relatively realistic ambition. All he really wants out of life is to taste an orange again. Father Judge (Sam Shepard, “August: Osage County”) believes in bringing the word of God to the moral wilderness. Then there’s that young writer who goes by the name “London, like the city,” first name Jack (Johnny Simmons, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower).

Dawson City is a microcosm, where humans are pitted against nature and against their own animalistic instincts. Because of the terrain, the population is trapped in the valley until the seasons change long enough to enable them to leave. Like it or not, they have to share space, scraping layers of earth away on small claims delineated by rope stretched between stakes of wood, hoping for a glint in the mud.

There is greed, and there is murder, and it doesn’t take long for hope to take a beating, even the especially energetic hope of two young men from the East.

We watch Haskell especially toughen from the callow youth that he was when he made the trek up the snowy mountainside. He fights to stay alive, to track down a murderer, and to protect his claim. But most of all, perhaps, he fights to keep his humanity, which he learns is far more valuable than gold.

“Klondike” is melodramatic, but feels more substantial because of minutely detailed scripts, by Paul Scheuring, among others, and fully realized performances.

The art direction by Trevor Smith, production design by Ken Rempel, set decoration by Paul Healy and makeup by Gail Kennedy must be singled out for their contributions to the look and feel of the miniseries.

“Klondike” was shot on location, and the cinematography is spectacular, so much so that at times, it’s almost like watching a top-grade travel documentary. As jaw-dropping as the visuals are, though, we’re always reminded of how remote and potentially deadly the Klondike was at the end of the 19th century. The camera swoops over nearly vertical mountain ridges and down into impossibly deep ravines. The blinding purity of a lake of snow and ice nestled between two mountains is broken only by a tiny dot of black, moving slowly. As the camera descends, the dot becomes a man, standing on the footboards of his dogsled, heading into the white unknown.

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