This week saw the premiere of the mini-series Klondike on the Discovery Channel. I watched the first episode, and felt no desire to watch the rest. The filmmakers, likewise, had no desire to create a historical drama that truly captured the Klondike Gold Rush. From the very first scene showing men clambering the Chilkoot Trail through a blizzard in June, the mini-series aggressively ignores any pretense of authenticity despite the producers’ talk of historical accuracy in the months leading up to the release. This is the filmic equivalent of Edmonton’s Klondike Days, a cartoonish portrayal of frontier life–unsurprising, since the show was shot in Alberta rather than the Yukon Territory.*
I represent a miniscule section of Klondike’s audience as someone who grew up in the Yukon, who took summer jobs in Yukon heritage in-between working on my BA, and who worked at Yukon Archives rifling through nineteenth-century newspapers printed in Dawson City. For other viewers, high production values, an excellent cast, and the promise of gunplay was probably enough to draw them in. I only felt dissonance as the episode lurched from one ridiculous situation to the next, starting with the aforementioned gaff on the Chilkoot Trail, the reduction of the Whitehorse Rapids to a minor, insignificant obstacle, relocating Soapy Smith from Skagway to Dawson City (Skagway, Alaska, the actual lawless town of vigilantes during the Gold Rush, doesn’t exist in this series), the absence of Samuel Steele, replaced by an ineffective Superintendant who can’t keep the incoming unruly prospectors in check (something Samuel Steele was justly famous for doing quite well), the decidedly strange portrayal of Belinda Mulrooney as a gunslinger (many of the characters, in fact, bear the names of real historical counterparts, but scarcely resemble them)…the list goes on. The only thing missing was a line of prostitutes doing the can-can, an invention of the Yukon’s Tourism Department in the 1960s.
I can understand twisting history to fit the demands of the story–in this case, a watered-down version of Deadwood. The historical inaccuracies are, really, my smallest complaints about Klondike. What really irritated me was the depiction of the landscape, the Yukon itself, and the people in it. That is, the place I grew up in, and where I live now. Repeatedly we see snow in mid-summer, as if we were caught in perpetual springtime or else biting winter with nothing in-between. The local tribes around Dawson City, in the show, are Tlingit, and not the Tron’dëk Hwëch’in–a completely unnecessary change with no reason behind it. The portrayal of Native Americans is likewise ripped from a John Wayne western, erasing the vital contribution of Native American packers and guides like Skookum Jim in the initial discovery and following Gold Rush. Most noticeable, for me, was how many of Klondike’s scenes take place in pitch-black night at the height of summer. There is a reason the Yukon is sometimes called The Land of the Midnight Sun; days are extraordinarily long in the summer, to the point where, in Whitehorse, you can read by glow of natural sunlight on the horizon when the clock strikes midnight. When our protagonist Bill Haskell stares in awe at the Northern Lights, we get a pretty enough scene–but one that would never happen at that time of year, one reserved for the prolonged nights of winter.
Schizophrenic weather that fluctuates from pounding rain one day to sprinkling snow in the next only compounds this fairyland aspect of Klondike even when the show tries so desperately to assert its reality with the meticulous attention to detail in clothing and the reconstructed Dawson City set. These were mistakes that serve no purpose for the narrative, they simply stand as a testament to how little the filmmakers cared. What we do get is a mythic Klondike enveloped by American perceptions of the Old West. Lone settlers against the harsh, unforgiving elements, even if nothing in the show mirrors the much harsher realities of life in the Klondike in 1897. This is the transplanted California Gold Rush, but bound even tighter to the frontier ideal in that, besides one tribe of Tlingit, the Yukon is completely uninhabited save for the prospectors heading north. It’s just waiting there for young men to make their fortune. Even the most iconic local jargon of the Yukon–the green Cheechakos yet to survive a Yukon winter and the hardened Sourdoughs (some of whom had been prospecting in the Yukon for years before the Gold Rush) who mocked them–doesn’t enter the dialogue of the first episode. It is instead an amalgam of frontier tales, far closer to Robert Service’s poems rather than the nonfiction book Gold Diggers the show is ostensibly based on, only Robert Service imbued his poetry with a real love for the Yukon landscape that Klondike utterly lacks.
This isn’t surprising, considering Ridley Scott was a producer on Klondike, and his own directorial work on historical dramas has shown a similar disregard for the locales in which they take place. Gladiator is a historical mess saved by an arresting narrative; its Rome resembles the Paris of Napoleon III more than ancient Rome. Kingdom of Heaven puts Jerusalem in the middle of a desert (a mistake likewise made by its Norwegian imitator Arn), turning Palestine into the Sahara. Klondike, however, does not tell a story extenuated in any way by its production choices. What it devolves into is a crime drama in the Old West.
There are hundreds of stories from historical accounts of the Klondike Gold Rush far more interesting than this; even the real historical characters in the show are repurposed to tell a story less compelling than those found in their own lives. Instead of real people, fictional or highly fictionalized characters like “the Count” become focal points in the unfolding narrative, to no other purpose than to imitate certain other shows on HBO.** It will, at least, get more people interested in exploring the real history of the Klondike Gold Rush. But Klondike left a bad taste in my mouth. Even though I was prepared to be disappointed, I wasn’t prepared to be this disappointed.
*Such stand-ins can work, and often do. The Bear was shot in the Alps and yet feels like British Columbia, where it’s supposed to take place.
**It is especially odd that the filmmakers chose to centre the plot around a murder. There were no recorded murders during the Gold Rush; wildlife, starvation, cold and disease were was the greatest dangers to a prospector’s life.