The Discovery Channel have staked their claim in the world of big budget television with the handsome and well-acted historical adventure Klondike (2014) – the channel’s first scripted production. Under the welcome supervision of executive producer Ridley Scott and veteran small-screen director Simon Cellan Jones, this is an immensely enjoyable ride, easily overcoming the occasional plot hiccups. Game of Thrones alumni Richard Madden headlines as Bill Haskell, a recent colleague graduate with boundless enthusiasm and pep, who ventures northwest with best buddy Byron Epstein (Augustus Prew). The duo hope to strike it rich by mining gold in the region of Yukon, Canada, east of the border.
The harsh snowy landscape Haskell and Epstein must first traverse proves to be hazardous and potentially lethal, but it’s nothing compared to the struggles which await them at their final destination. The encampment and nearby town in which the two friends begin their long and arduous process of mining for gold presents innumerable physical challenges, but the unscrupulous, greedy and politically-motivated residents turn out to be their biggest area of concern. Thankfully, the duo find allies in an enigmatic preacher (grizzled old-hand Sam Shepard), a fellow prospector (Tim Blake Nelson), and a feisty, strong-willed mill owner (Abbie Cornish), who is waging her own power struggle with a violent and trigger-happy rival property developer, The Count (played by British actor Tim Roth).
Klondike’s makers have conjured up an authentic and epic vision of a fascinating era, and though the series is rich in historical accuracy (the treacherous, mud-encrusted mining environment will have you reaching for the nearest bar of soap) this attention to detail never feels at the expense of story. The superb, authentic-looking cast also help sell the reality of that world, with the rugged likes of Nelson and Shepard appearing as though they could have very well come from those streets. Roth once again excels with his simmering menace act, and Madden further solidifies his star-in-the-making status – his on-screen chemistry with the underrated Cornish being particularly appealing.
A number of converging narrative threads are woven successfully together, and the series evolves into a slowburn murder mystery, steeped in the brutality and lawlessness synonymous with the Gold Rush. If a couple of Klondike’s character arcs appear to wilt away a little towards the end, it’s a minor issue in an otherwise riveting series. If the Discovery Channel can conjure up a similar mix of historical and dramatic high stakes with any future offerings, they could very well find themselves in healthy competition with those respected, content-rich networks.