TV Rewind: How Syfy’s Forgotten Dune Miniseries Made the Most of Herbert’s Complex StoryTV Features Dune
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Last month, the New York Times published a cover story titled “The Man Who Finally Made a ‘Dune’ That Fans Will Love.” Would you believe this wasn’t the first cover story about Frank Herbert’s esoteric sci-fi epic? Back in 2003, Warren Berger published an interview with several cast and crew members that worked on the then-airing follow-up to Syfy’s (née Sci-Fi Channel) 2000 adaptation Frank Herbert’s Dune. In the interview, Executive Producer Richard Rubinstein, who had previously worked on well-received TV adaptations of Stephen King’s The Stand and The Langoliers, says “there’s a wonderful marriage to be had between long, complicated books and the television miniseries.” He envisioned a future where the miniseries, which then-Syfy President Bonnie Hammer refers to as “a lost genre,” becoming a mainstay thanks to the rise in interest in epic, multipart features like Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Though the idea didn’t quite pan out for Syfy, both Frank Herbert’s Dune and Frank Herbert’s Children of Dune received several Emmy nominations, taking home three in total. Both series set rating records for the channel, doubling their previous highs. Frank Herbert’s Dune achieved crossover success in bringing in atypical audiences for the channel, including an older audience of male viewers as well as a high volume of women. In a way, this was Dune’s first big mainstream break, proof that slower, high concept sci-fi could rule the airwaves alongside space operas of a more directly adventuresome sort. So why, then, is Frank Herbert’s Dune so ill-remembered?
I don’t believe Dune is an unadaptable novel, as many critics have leveled against the recent movie—I think it comes down to a matter of priorities in filming. By and large, I quite enjoyed Denis Villeneuve’s 2021 take on Dune, but much of the movie’s reception seems inflated by worship of the film’s production value, which seems to have eclipsed the conversation in near totality. Frank Herbert’s Dune comes packaged with pitiful CGI (were the practical effects of Lynch’s movie that bad?), strange costuming decisions, and occasionally shoddy cinematography, but it undeniably carries with it the spirit of Dune. To new viewers, however, Frank Herbert’s Dune is dangerously close to seeming soapy, coming from a time where the phrase “made-for-TV” was a death knell. Despite this, these two series were not cheap to produce, accounting for a collective $40 million budget. That meant each part cost more than the average then-airing Star Trek: Enterprise episode, which are estimated to have been around $1.7 million. The steady increase in big budget TV and movies has, perhaps, given a skewed view on what “production value” really looks like—the more expensive productions become too big to fail, too glossy to deny, which leaves behind more (comparatively) humble works like Frank Herbert’s Dune. But does that necessitate that the more expensive version is the one that gets it right?
Dune is, at its core, a story about manipulation. The Bene Gesserit inserruct themselves in every sector of nobility, hoping to affix just the right dose of genetic material to bring about the Kwisatz Haderach. Houses Corrino and Harkonnen hope to lull House Atreides into false comfort to ultimately destroy them. Baron Harkonnen uses his brutish nephew Rabban as an easy scapegoat to Trojan Horse his more favored heir Feyd-Rautha into Arrakis as a more beloved ruler. Much of this is present in every screen adaptation of Dune so far, but, as of now, Frank Herbert’s Dune is the only of the three to touch on the messiah legend present in the Fremen culture, which is exploited (knowingly or otherwise) by Paul as a means to achieve Divine right over the people of Arrakis.
A sinister theme lying deep within Dune is the difference between myth and reality. Every facet of the story is somehow predicted, whether through Paul’s prophetic dreams or whispers of legends to come. The strength of the story lies in the unreliability of Paul’s divinity—is he truly a messiah, or is he an opportunist trained in Bene Gesserit and Mentat ways such that he could appear as one? In Lynch’s Dune, the path towards vengeance is paved with righteousness, which is perhaps the movie’s greatest failing. Kyle MacLachlan’s Paul Atreides barrels his way into extremism without being questioned by the narrative; it seems to buy into the stories peddled by the Bene Gesserit. In Frank Herbert’s Dune, however, the self-fulfilling prophecies laid out by the many factions guiding the story come across as coincidental at best, giving way to fascistic monarchy—a direct threat to the plutocratic system of nobles that guide the corporatized galaxy.
An overcast of political strain should weigh over the epic, adventuresome plot beats of Dune, an aspect missing from Villeneuve’s movie. Scenes of summits between the Padishah Emperor’s court are notably absent from his adaptation, greatly centering Paul’s perspective over any other that could further contextualize the greater world outside Arrakis. Frank Herbert’s Dune leans in even harder than the novel in certain respects, writing in many scenes focusing on Princess Irulan, whose historical records are a framing device for the novel’s narration. Irulan is completely absent from Villeneuve’s adaptation insofar.
Technically a minor character in the original novel, her writings serve as the opening to Lynch’s film, a role in which actress Virginia Madsen referred to as a “glorified extra.” In the miniseries, Julie Cox as Irulan is unquestionably a major highlight. She serves as a sympathetic eye in which to view House Corrino as her father plots with the Harkonnens for the downfall of House Atreides. Many of the performances in the miniseries are quite lacking—Alec Newman as Paul comes across as preternaturally frustrated, and William Hurt seems woodenly disinterested in the plot as Leto—but Cox brings a certain vivacity to an otherwise dense story. Much of the strength in Dune lies in the women guiding the plot from behind-the-scenes, and Irulan is undoubtedly a key player not to be trifled with alongside Jessica and Reverend Mother Mohiam.
There are other glimmers of great performance here; Ian McNeice commands his role as Baron Harkonnen, capturing the vile indulgence and vanity of a feudal lord, and Jaroslava Šiktancová does much in her short appearance as Shadout Mapes to feel memorable as a member of House Atreides (despite her bequeathing of the crysknife to Jessica being omitted). Unfortunately, the cast is glaringly white with most of its actors being British or Czech, which spotlights some of the colonial aspects of the production like the Chinoiserie garb of the Harkonnens. The script mostly holds water, but does over-explain all of the world’s moving parts at times, and occasionally has some truly hilarious line readings, such as “there is an ancient saying… never judge a book by its cover.”
Nevertheless, Frank Herbert’s Dune is a worthy take on the novel, if occasionally stymied by its Shakespearean ambitions. If you found yourself disappointed with Villeneuve’s film, or if you’re just looking for more Dune to indulge in, it’s a wonderful alternate take on the highly interpretive original text. Forget everything you know about Dune going into it and sink into this formative version of Herbert’s fascinating, complex world.
Frank Herbert’s Dune is available on DVD or possibly on YouTube, we couldn’t say…
Austin Jones is a writer with eclectic media interests. You can chat with him about horror games, electronic music, Joanna Newsom and ‘80s-‘90s anime on Twitter @belfryfire
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