On Children of Dune

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I really enjoyed the mini-series, Children of Dune, which spurred me to read the novels Dune, Children of Dune, God Emperor of Dune, and some of Chapterhouse: Dune. I am also quite familiar with two actresses in it: Susan Sarandon and Alice Krige. According to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer review:

“When religion and politics ride in the same cart, the whirlwind follows.”

Thank you, Frank Herbert, for wrapping up the world’s dilemmas — past, present and future — into that succinct statement. Basic truths like this drive the six-book “Dune” series, stories that combine philosophical aphorisms with poetic fantasy, and continue to fascinate decades after they were written.

Now how about a line that shows why the Sci Fi Channel‘s six-hour miniseries “Frank Herbert’s Children of Dune,” which starts Sunday at 9 p.m., plays well on television? Delivered on the heels of a treacherous kiss, no less.

“Time to settle accounts,” Paul Atreides (Alec Newman) whispers in sister Alia’s (Daniela Amavia) ear, setting off a slow-motion sequence of birth and death. Alia cleans house with a series of hits as Paul’s concubine Chani (Barbara Kodetova) gives birth to twins. Surely the montage was supposed to evoke Coppola, although it looks more like a glimpse into Enya’s nightmares.

Oh, we’re just having a little fun, simplifying the machinations of House Atreides into the actions of a space mafia. There’s more than just love, sex, betrayal and power plays at work here. “Dune” gives you a couple of messianic figures and a seer gone wild, too.

Still, familia-flavored melodrama makes “Children of Dune,” exciting to watch. Common couch potatoes will delight in the show’s dark operatics, especially when cloaked in exquisite special effects. Herbert devotees should be pleased with the outcome, although rampant dissection and nitpicking will be unavoidable.

Airing over three consecutive nights, “Children of Dune” combines “Dune Messiah” and “Children of Dune” into the same production. And if you haven’t read them, or seen Sci Fi’s first rendition of “Dune” in 2000, the exposition that follows is bound to confuse.

Twelve years after “Dune,” Paul Atreides, Muad’Dib, has become an all-seeing god-emperor, carrying out a bloody crusade across the known universe to maintain control of the all-powerful spice. Muad’Dib’s quest to consolidate his family’s power has perverted his divinity, and in bringing water and plants to his desert planet home, he’s slowly killing it. To bring back peace, justice and the sandworms, he contemplates a quest called the Golden Path, only alluded to in dreams.

Muad’Dib leaves that duty to his weird wonder twins Leto II (James McAvoy) and Ghanima (Jessica Brooks). Many would block their ascendance to power, including the treacherous Bene Gesserits, former Fremen allies, the exiled Princess Wensicia (Susan Sarandon) and their own aunt Alia. Her loose grip on sanity turns her from an icy regent into a cruel dictator who cuckolds her faithful lover, the resurrected Duncan Idaho (Edward Atterton), and can’t even trust her own mother (Alice Krige).

It’s complex, this rhapsody in taupe. But under the direction of Greg Yaitanes, “Children of Dune” doesn’t feel weighed down by its ponderous story line, where its predecessor did. What really keeps you engaged are Ernest Farino‘s special effects. He won an Emmy for his efforts on “Dune,” and tops that accomplishment here. The visuals are so incredible they demand a large screen viewing.

“Children of Dune’s” only annoyance is in the cast’s insistence upon inexpressive acting. Fear may be the mind killer, but in this show power serves emotional strychnine — the more royal the character, the stiffer the expression. Princess Irulan (Julie Cox) looks as if she passes ice cubes each morning. Then again, she only makes Sarandon’s scarce Wensicia more delightful. The exiled princess may be the villain, cooking up deadly schemes, but we’re right along with her in having a good time.

This is only a small quibble with a special that provides much-needed splashy relief from the post-sweeps doldrums of middling programs. “Children of Dune” is another great Sci Fi confection that’s satisfying, sweeping and short enough that you won’t feel the television is taking your life hostage. (We’re still recovering from the 20-hour “Taken.”)

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