New sci-fi series ‘Endlings’ has eerily prescient extinction theme

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TORONTO — Amid climate crisis concerns and youth activism from the likes of Greta Thunberg, it was a given that the conservation message in the new CBC/Hulu tween series “Endlings” would be timely.

But Emmy-winning Canadian creator J.J. Johnson could not have foreseen just how relevant the sci-fi adventure show’s extinction theme would be when it premiered this past Sunday, as heartbreaking images swirled on social media from Australia’s bushfires that have killed 26 people and countless wildlife.

“We have an image from the beginning of our show that’s on a desolate alien planet and the clouds are orange, and when you put it side by side with what’s happening in Australia, they look identical,” Johnson, who grew up in Elmira, Ont., said this week in a phone interview.

“So it’s a little bit of fiction matching reality. But we’re clearly in desperate times, clearly we need to make changes, and we need to start thinking on a global level. So I’m happy that this show is hopefully becoming part of that conversation, but clearly we all need to be doing a lot more to shift what’s going on.”

Airing Sundays on CBC and premiering on Hulu on Jan. 17, “Endlings” is set 20 years in the future and features a mix of live-action and CGI.

Kamaia Fairburn, Edison Grant, Michela Luci and Cale Thomas Ferrin star as foster kids who encounter strange things around their farm. The reason: An alien ship has crashed in the area in its attempt to preserve “endlings,” which are the last survivors of near-extinct species. Among those “endlings” is Tuko, the last African elephant in existence.

Neil Crone plays the patriarch to the group of kids.

Johnson, a founding partner of Sinking Ship Entertainment who has won several Emmys for various children’s series, said he created “Endlings” after reading a report from the World Wildlife Fund a few years ago warning that elephants would go extinct in the wild in the next 20 years.

“It was just a shock to me,” he said. “I think both because I just didn’t think that was ever a possibility, and at the same time I was a new dad, we just had our daughter, and I just couldn’t not do anything.

“I didn’t want to be part the generation that lost elephants.”

Johnson shot the first season in Guelph, Ont. A second season of the series, which is targeted at families and particularly viewers ages 9-14, has already been greenlit.

Johnson said he used to feel powerless and overwhelmed about the environment but now believes simple actions taken every day can make a difference.

Eco-friendly initiatives on the “Endlings” set include meatless catering one day a week, a compost, biodegradable coffee cups, and no plastic water bottles.

In October, Sinking Ship Entertainment also announced a partnership with the non-profit organization International Fund for Animal Welfare and pledged $250,000 to support elephant conservation work in Africa.

There’s also an “Endlings” fundraising campaign that Johnson hopes will raise $1 million for elephant conversation.

Johnson also plans to touch on the same subject matter in his next show, for which he’s working with renowned conservationist Jane Goodall.

He hopes “Endlings” will spark conversations amongst young audiences and their families, not only about conservation but also about using the power of their voices to find a purpose and overcome personal obstacles.

“There were a few articles coming out about environmental shows and the responsibility they have to not increase kids’ anxiety about the environment, and I think for me it’s the exact opposite,” Johnson said.

“Kids are feeling anxious about the world, they just don’t know what to do with that feeling. And that’s what I think, as content creators, we should be talking about. It’s not pretending that they shouldn’t feel anxious. We should all feel anxious. It’s how do we channel that anxiety to something good.”

Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press