Literal Bone-Chilling

Game of Gold Rush: Klondike Is Discovery Channel’s Scripted Historical Drama

Discovery Channel’s first scripted mini-series paints adventures in the Klondike Gold Rush of the 1890s. But can Klondike compete with Mad Men and Game of Thrones?

Dan Power/Discovery Channel

Like most poor men with dreams of making it big, Klondike begins at a card table.Remember Titanic? When Jack Dawson and his buddy, Fabrizio De Rossi, without a dime to their names, won tickets aboard the ship over a dusty poker hand? Then giddily ran to the dock just before it embarked? All they had was a dream of going to America, of escaping the rote life they had become accustomed to, and within moments it turned into reality.

Well, Bill Haskell (Richard Madden, who plays Robb Stark on Game of Thrones) is the Jack Dawson in this scenario. He realizes he’s destined for more and meets his pal at a shady underground card game with some cash. His friend wins a few hundred bucks over a hand of Fan Tan and, just like that, they’re on a train with $750 and a vague idea of what their futures could look like. And after a quick bar stop, it has been decided: they’re going to take home the gold, literally.

Klondike, Discovery Channel’s first-ever scripted miniseries, paints adventures during the Klondike Gold Rush of the 1890s as six strangers fight for money and ultimately their lives. It’s a new move for Discovery, following in the footsteps of other cable networks like FX and AMC. Based on Charlotte Gray's book Gold Diggers: Striking It Rich in the Klondike, Discovery sought out to thrill audiences in the same sort of way they’re excited over the reality series Gold Rush.

“We asked ourselves a really simple question: ‘what are the stories out there that we haven’t told yet?’” executive producer Dolores Gavin says. “Then we started thinking about the gold rush—we already have Gold Rush, but what about the real gold rush.”

After the script was produced, the historical miniseries became a reality. “It was the strangest thing,” Gavin says. “You have this script and you give your baby out to the world. And then you just wait. That was the longest weekend, we were on eggshells. On Monday, the phone just started ringing.” Then came assembling the key players. With a mindset of casting more up-and-comers, Discovery ultimately landed Tim Roth, Sam Shepard, Abbie Cornish, along with Richard Madden to lead the pack, among others.

Over the course of 55 days, the actors faced severe conditions. Aside from erratic weather patterns, which ranged from freezing temperatures to mid-70s in a matter of hours, and high altitudes, Madden and co-star Augustus Prew literally hung off the side of a mountain for 16 hours straight.

“I’m not kidding, they were hanging off the side of the mountain saying their lines,” Gavin says. “A lot of people thought we couldn’t do it. I remember looking at the scene and noticing in the background there was something out of focus and there was a silence and then David Zucker said ‘those are the clouds.’ They had actually climbed up above the clouds.

Though clearly dangerous, it’s scenes like this one—in addition to one with Richard Madden and some wolves, for the Game of Thrones fans—that make Klondike so exciting to watch. The realness, from the expression of fear and literal bone-chilling—although Madden oddly enough makes the trek without a hat (his hair looks great, though)—is what sets the show apart. In fact, not only were no stunt doubles involved, but not one scene was filmed indoors.

“I tried to convince myself that it’s just a big set and they can turn off these river rapids whenever they wanted,” Madden told Entertainment Weekly. Abbie Cornish, who plays Belinda, couldn’t believe the intensity of the set. “It’s like a time capsule,” Gavin recalls the star. From the streets to the minor details, Dawson City and the Klondike were able to truly come to life.

Discovery is able to capture the man versus nature battle almost poetically. There’s a softness to the brutal environment that makes it easy for the audience to feel connected. “The Klondike is a beast that claims everybody,” Gavin says, and it’s evident throughout. Sure, there’s women and booze and violence and the idea of ultimate wealth that inevitably becomes an integral part of the script, but it’s the rawness of tackling the Earth that’s so captivating. The ornate costumes don’t hurt, either.

Madden and Prew’s characters, who describe themselves as “two men with nothing in their pocket, but a handful of hope,” face boat capsizing, wild animals, and snow avalanches—and that’s just the pilot episode. While there are guns, crazy whores, and corrupt officials that pose a threat, it’s the adventure through the trails that’s riskiest of all. As one helpful stranger advises them, “you don’t negotiate with nature.”

Hopefully it works out better for them than Titanic’s Jack and Fabrizio.

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Klondike premieres on Discovery January 20 at 8|9c.