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Discovery's 'Klondike' taps into the scripted miniseries market

TelevisionEntertainmentGold and Precious MaterialMetal and MineralTelevision IndustryRichard MaddenMedia Industry

The Discovery Channel has struck pay dirt with reality shows such as "Gold Rush," "Gold Fever," "Jungle Gold" and "Bering Sea Gold." Now Discovery is digging for treasure in a new vein with its first scripted miniseries, "Klondike."

The period drama, which premieres Jan. 20, is set during the Klondike Gold Rush and stars Richard Madden, formerly King of the North Robb Stark on "Game of Thrones." His character, Bill Haskell, eagerly abandons a life of East Coast comfort to seek adventure and fortune in the rugged Yukon Territory.

What's the fascination with gold at Discovery?

"The genre is successful for us," says Eileen O'Neill, Discovery Communications group president and a "Klondike" executive producer. And with any tale about the quest for gold — reality-based or scripted — there's the irresistible appeal of man versus nature and man versus man.

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"You see these terrible, terrible choices that individuals and sometimes couples had to make," O'Neill says. "Do they continue following their dream under extraordinary circumstances or do they get out?"

The dream of achieving instant wealth with a pick and shovel lies at the heart of "Klondike" as it re-creates the human stampede to Canada's northwest wilderness in the late 1890s. While most of the more than 100,000 miners returned home empty handed, a lucky few struck it rich.

"But those riches came at an extraordinary cost," O'Neill says. "The brutality of the weather and the animals in that environment — let alone the people. The miners paid a huge price."

Given that other cable networks enjoy a head start in the scripted-drama game, is Discovery at a disadvantage? Brad Adgate, director of research for Horizon Media, doesn't think so.

"Networks like History Channel have proved there is an appetite for historically based miniseries that attract 10-million-plus viewers," Adgate says.

And while the field of scripted drama is getting crowded, he notes, "a quality series well-written and well-acted will get audience — especially in the era of social media."

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The screenplay for "Klondike" was primarily written by one of the executive producers, Paul Scheuring ("Prison Break," "A Man Apart"). Based on Charlotte Gray's book, "Gold Diggers: Striking It Rich in the Klondike," the epic tale focuses on the struggle for wealth and survival in Dawson City, a remote and initially lawless boomtown.

Directed on location in Alberta by Simon Cellan Jones ("Treme," "Generation Kill"), "Klondike" co-stars Abbie Cornish ("Sucker Punch") as Belinda Mulrooney, a savvy entrepreneur who dominates the hotel, restaurant and sawmill businesses. Also featured are Academy Award nominees Sam Shepard ("The Right Stuff") and Tim Roth ("Rob Roy"). Shepard plays Father Judge, a Catholic priest risking it all to save wayward souls. And Roth is the Count, a ruthless land baron employing a gang of cutthroats.

Madden often worked in harsh environments during his three seasons on "Game of Thrones." But he says the challenges were far greater during four months of location work on "Klondike." He faced snowstorms at an elevation of 8,000-feet, freezing rain and endless mud, plus 17-hour filming schedules.

One of his tougher stunts involved being knocked out of a boat in river rapids and swimming to shore in frigid water. And after making it to land, he's surrounded by wolves.

"I was nearly hypothermic at the end of one of those days," the Scottish actor recalls. "I couldn't do a take because I was shaking too much."

When filming shifted to a lower elevation for the Dawson City scenes, Madden figured his job would become easier. He didn't anticipate the unrelenting downpours.

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"It was so wet. Water was just running off me," he says. "That wasn't a rain machine. That was weather. I never thought I'd say it, but I wished I was back on the mountain."

What surprised Madden in researching his role was the support miners frequently provided for each other, sharing what little they had with strangers. Extreme conditions brought out the worst — and best — in people.

"What really inspired me about this script is the overriding factor of human kindness," Madden says.

"Klondike" begins in 1897 as childhood friends Bill and Byron Epstein (Augustus Prew) graduate from college in New York City. They could have played it safe by pursuing comfortable but probably boring careers on the East Coast. Instead, they head west into the unknown, following the advice of poet Ralph Waldo Emerson.

"Do not go where the path may lead," Emerson famously wrote. "Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail."

With high spirits and high hopes, Bill and Byron begin a trek of more than 4,500 miles to Bonanza Creek, where large deposits of gold were discovered the previous summer. Don't waste your time hunting for treasure in Colorado and other more accessible locations, they're cautioned. By the time a strike is reported in the newspapers, the gold is gone.

Standing between the would-be miners and the Klondike promised land is treacherous Chilkoot Pass. Bill and Byron load a year's worth of supplies on a sled and slowly haul it up the slope, traversing a route too steep for pack animals.

They laughingly compare themselves to Sisyphus, the mythological figure forced to roll an enormous boulder up a mountain, only to powerlessly watch it roll back down.

"The difference is, we chose to be here," Bill says. "For him, it was punishment."

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