Klondike is a coup for Discovery

It looks like the Discovery Channel has hit ratings paydirt with its new Klondike series. Or found gold. Or struck it rich.

It looks like the Discovery Channel has hit ratings paydirt with its new Klondike series. Or found gold. Or struck it rich. Or one of the many other cheesy gold rush metaphors that reviewers around North America are using this week. Discovery has more than 300 million subscribers worldwide and the series is attracting a lot of attention.

We gathered a bunch of Yukoners together on Monday night to watch the premiere. It was ripping melodrama, if occasionally a bit dodgy on the history front (more on that later).

Klondike is a coup for Discovery. They have drunk the CBC’s milkshake. CBC gets a billion dollars a year in funding to tell Canadian stories and somehow it is Maryland-based Discovery that comes out with a big-name television drama about the Klondike Gold Rush.

Even sweeter for shareholders of publicly-traded Discovery, whose market capitalization is over $15 billion, is that they managed to talk the government of Alberta into handing over a bunch of tax dollars to help them do it.

One result of all this is that an inattentive viewer might not realize the gold rush happened in Canada. “The Yukon” gets plenty of mentions – with the proper “the” in front of it – but its exact location is a bit hazy. This, strangely, has historical parallels. As the Klondike Gold Rush museum in Seattle points out, most of the people who went over the Chilkoot were American. Many were surprised they had to go through customs.

Having our friends in Alberta insinuate themselves into the Klondike action also has historical precedents. Remember how Edmonton’s annual festival was called Klondike Days? And how Edmonton boosters in 1898 encouraged people to travel to Dawson via Edmonton and the Mackenzie River? (It was a truly awful idea, in case you haven’t looked at a map lately.)

The story revolves around some really great actors going to the Klondike. Could you find a better man to play a Klondike villain than Tim Roth? Abbie Cornish is charismatic as Belinda Mulrooney, the Irish-American entrepreneur who made one fortune in Dawson and then a second in Fairbanks. Richard Madden, fresh from getting chopped to bits at his own wedding in Game of Thrones, plays a young man seeking his fortune.

Jack London, Soapy Smith and various other historical characters also make appearances.

The series’ executive producer is Hollywood legend Ridley Scott, of Alien, Gladiator and Blade Runner fame. It is filmed in the Rockies west of Calgary. While the Rockies are small by Yukon standards, Discovery mostly gets away with filming in Alberta. Many of the shots are absolutely spectacular and look “Yukon-y.” They also invested heavily in filming the Golden Stairs scenes on real mountainsides. Watching the actors push sleds, boxes and packages uphill in the snow brings alive how arduous the Chilkoot really was.

History enthusiasts such as I will object that the dates were all over the place and that the real gold rush didn’t have quite as many six-guns, wolf chases and supermodels as Klondike. The Chilkoot scenes managed to capture the spirit of the time, but Dawson City is portrayed as a combination of Soapy Smith’s Skagway and the Wild West. Far from being the Land of the Midnight Sun, summertime Dawson is portrayed as being so dark and rainy that one Yukoner viewer quipped that it “looked more like the North Vancouver Gold Rush.”

The Mounties show up about halfway through the gold rush pulling a jail similar to the one the Keystone Kops drag around Whitehorse at Rendezvous. “Verging on ridiculous” is how another Yukoner described the scene where the Mounties tell a character his Dawson claim is on Tlingit holy ground. An absurd campfire scene involving the “local” Tlingit chief follows.

Outside television viewers probably won’t care about any of this.

As a drama, the show has its moments. It is more melodrama than a carefully crafted Jane Austen character study, but it carries on at a rollicking pace. I happen to be a writer of historical Klondike adventure novels myself, and I understand the need to tell a good story. It’s just too bad for Yukoners that there were so many distracting unforced history and geography errors. The characters were growing on me by the end of Monday night’s show, so hopefully the next two episodes will continue to get better.

This column is supposed to be about business and policy, so let’s wrap up with those topics. The Klondike Gold Rush was, after all, about money.

The first business opportunity that comes to mind is Abbie Cornish’s wardrobe. The series does not make it clear how she managed to carry so many stylish ensembles over the Chilkoot, but the women who saw Klondike were jealous as they put on their fleeces and duct-tape-patched down coats and went home. Some local fashionista should start sewing.

The bigger opportunity is about the Klondike Gold Rush itself. Yukoners sometimes get jaded about the gold rush. There are plenty of people who think it is a tacky and embarrassing cliche. For example, the gold rush nowadays often gets a very light treatment in the Yukon government’s tourism marketing campaigns.

So it has been interesting to watch the actors and reviewers talk about the topic to the media. It clearly resonated emotionally as a great story. Ridley Scott put it this way: “Klondike was the last great gold rush; one which triggered a flood of prospectors ill-equipped, emotionally or otherwise, for the extreme and gruelling conditions of the remote Yukon wilderness. The personal adventures are as epic as the landscape, where ambition, greed, sex and murder, as well as their extraordinary efforts to literally strike it rich, are all chronicled by a young Jack London himself.”

The Klondike Gold Rush gives our tourism industry a big marketing “hook” to place alongside our mountains and rivers. Smart Yukon marketers will figure out how to capitalize on this, hopefully before the Alaskans. We don’t want to end up like the CBC, with our Klondike milkshake slurped up by the Americans.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. You can follow him on Channel 9’s Yukonomist show or Twitter @hallidaykeith