Sky

SkySky (first broadcast in 1975) manages to tick just about every box in the 70s kids’ TV checklist: standing stones, the next step in human evolution, psychic powers, Merlin, magic, advanced technology masquerading as magic, warnings about mankind’s over-reliance on technology, environmentalist predictions of coming disaster, even a hint of class tension.

It starts with the blue-eyed, golden-haired alien Sky (and if he looks a bit like an Axon, perhaps that’s because the show’s writers, Bob Baker and Dave Martin, wrote The Claws of Axos for Doctor Who) appearing in the middle of an English forest, only to be immediately attacked by the surrounding greenery. Found by young Arby Venner, the leaf-smothered Sky pleads: “Take me away from living things.”

An alien and far-future time-traveller, Sky has missed his intended era, and now finds himself rejected by the very life-force of a world he does not belong to. Begging to be taken to “the Juganet” (“The Juganet is a circle. The circle is a machine. The machine is a crossover point. The point is a paramagnetic intersection. That is where I must be.”), which he can use to jump to the correct time, he claims (when asked by Arby’s sister, Jane) that despite his seemingly helpless state, “I suppose, in your terms, I am to be a god.”

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Meanwhile, the “animus of the organism” — the riled life-force of our world — manifests itself as the black-cloaked Ambrose Goodchild, whose purpose is to track down and do away with this unwanted alien by any means, be it by summoning more smothering greenery, or posing as a surgeon so he can operate on him. Arby, Jane, and the slightly posher boy next door, Roy Briggs, do their best to help the importunate Sky, despite having no idea what he’s on about most of the time.

Luckily, there’s a mad Welshman to hand. (And that’s another 70s kids’ TV box checked: mad Welshman who knows.) Old Tom may be touched in the head (“He’s supposed to be simple.” “No. It is you who are complicated.”), but he can hear Sky’s thoughts and see Sky’s telepathic pictures, and he once visited a place that looks like this Juganet thing, though he can’t recall where, or what, it was. So Arby and Jane borrow their dad’s Land Rover (they’re late teens: Arby drives a Land Rover and Roy’s got a motorbike), kidnap mad Tom and the hospitalised Sky, and take them on a jaunt to Glastonbury Tor. Which, it turns out, isn’t the Juganet, but is getting close.

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Sky is a bit like E.T. Only, whereas E.T. isn’t above a little emotional bonding while he tries to phone home, Sky is only interested in his human helpers when he wants rescuing. Once he’s recovered, he wants to be left alone so he can find the Juganet and leave this age that he knows only — and ominously — as “the Decline”. His task is to help humankind after “the Chaos”, not before it. As far as he’s concerned, before it, we’re beyond help.

Sky is, it seems, intended as a chastening reminder that our modern age is but one tiny step — and, most likely, a mis-step — on its way to some future evolution we can’t even begin to appreciate. He believes “It is the destiny of all intelligent beings to stand outside space and time,” and that modern man’s mistake is to “believe in machines”:

“You do not reach the stars with rockets, any more than you invent radios by shouting at the sky.”

Goodchild, on the other hand, seems even more reactionary:

“…the way to intelligence is the way to destruction… You have made man an alien. An alien force throttling life on this planet.”

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Sky could almost be a prelude to The Changes, shown at the start of the same year (Sky was ITV, The Changes BBC). The coming “Chaos” could be the “Changes”, in which a Merlin-like force (Goodchild’s first name, Ambrose, links him with Merlin) initiates a UK-wide revolt against machines. Both shows seem to be both rejecting hippie back-to-nature idealism (Sky is taken in, briefly, by a hippie couple awaiting a mystic traveller foretold in the prophecies of Merlin; he repays their kindness by disillusioning them, then attracting enough creeping greenery to destroy their caravan), while also wagging the finger at our love of technology.

What happened between the 1970s and the 1980s, when the whole idea of technology as a step too far seems to have been quietly dropped? (As were standing stones, and mad Welshmen.) There’s a real feeling that these 70s kids’ TV shows — Sky, The Changes, to a lesser extent The Moon Stallion — were grappling with issues that aren’t to be found in their 80s equivalents (The Moon Dial, Elidor, The Box of Delights), which were just as, if not more, magical in content (no more technology masquerading as magic, though — it was pure magic all the way), but don’t seem to be addressing social issues beyond the coming-of-age adventures of their protagonists. And so, while perhaps those 80s shows are that much more timeless, they don’t necessarily have the unity, depth, and cultural relevance of the best of the 70s ones. Or is that just my own nostalgia?

Children of the Stones

Oops, a bit more 70s TV. This 1977 series belongs to that subgenre of horror/science fiction stories (which includes John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos, Ramsey Campbell’s The Hungry Moon, and the Jon Pertwee Doctor Who story The Daemons) in which a village is isolated by a magical barrier, so that some evil/alien force can gather its strength before moving on to take over the rest of the world. With Children of the Stones, the evil force is, oddly enough, happiness; those villagers affected greet each other with a “Happy Day”, know what each other is thinking, and tend to be inordinately good at maths. But of course the reason this happiness is evil is that it’s one man’s idea of happiness, imposed on its subjects without their consent.

It’s the end of this 7-part series that really makes it a children’s serial. This isn’t a criticism; it’s just that you need to have a certain amount of awestruck credulity (or childlike sense of wonder) to accept the final explanation for what’s going on. The bowl-shaped rock beneath the village is a transmitter for pure evil? So that it can be sent towards a black hole? Right.

I’m not ruining the story by revealing this, because Children of the Stones is best accepted as you’d accept a weird dream — for its sense of mystery and menace, not its logic. This is particularly true for the way the story comes to an end, because I really have no idea what happened there. Something to do with time. All very odd. But before that you have plenty of the sort of thrills and weird chills any devotee of 70s horror TV and film will love: a mysterious stone circle, an old painting depicting an ancient ritual being held there, a mad lord-of-the-manor type with an oddly purposeful interest in astrophysics, a boy with burgeoning psychic visionary powers…

Peter Demin and Gareth Thomas as son and father in Children of the Stones

For me, the best part of the series was the relationship between the two main characters, the father and son who arrive as outsiders in the village. There’s something very affecting about the way they get on with each other, how naturally they work together, and the trust they have in each other, that takes their characters that little step beyond the usual sort of stock relationships encountered in this type of story.

And here’s a nice little YouTube clip of Stewart Lee using Children of the Stones and The Changes (reviewed on a previous Mewsings) to discuss how the representation of teenagers on TV has changed from the 70s.

The Changes

In a previous Mewsings I wrote about King of the Castle, one of two kids’ TV series I had vague but persistent memories of seeing in the early 70s, but which I hadn’t seen or heard of since. The other one, The Changes, isn’t out on DVD, so I didn’t think I’d get a chance to revisit it, till Paul left a comment to my King of the Castle post, directing me to SurrealMoviez, which has links to download all ten parts (from one of The Changes‘ rare reruns, on UK Gold). I duly downloaded them, burned them onto a pair of DVDs, and have just finished watching them.

First off, the main thing I remembered about the show (which was broadcast between January and March 1975, meaning I’d have been three and a half years old at the time — amazing that I remember any of it at all, but then again I remember Tom Baker’s first Doctor Who episode, which was a few months earlier) was a shot, from below, of an electricity pylon, along with some weird music, which I found particularly scary at the time. I thought, from the way this image had stuck in my head, that it was going to turn out to be part of the title sequence, but actually the pylons only really feature in one of the early episodes, along with a brief reprise in a psychedelic montage in the final episode. It’s funny to think how one very brief (and, in the story, not particularly important) moment can stick with you for so long. (Though it was at the end of an episode, so it may just be that it was left hanging, with all its attendant anxiety, in my young brain.) Something similar happened with Alan Garner’s Weirdstone of Brisingamen, which I read for the first time at primary school. For years after, I had a distinct memory of there being a long, involved chase through some rhododendron bushes, but rereading the book in my twenties, I was puzzled to find that rhododendron bushes were only mentioned very briefly. I have the sneaking suspicion that, at that young age, I didn’t so much follow the stories of TV programmes and books, but just used them as a springboard for creating my own fantasy worlds and stories… (And as far as The Weirdstone of Brisingamen is concerned — a book, incidentally, which is celebrating its half-centenary this year — I wonder if it was just the encounter with that wonderful word, rhododendron, so peculiarly yet aptly spelled, that caught my imagination!)

Back to The Changes. The series is very much part of that “cosy catastrophe” tradition of disaster SF, which I certainly have a fondness for, though it features one of the strangest types of “disaster” I’ve come across: people develop a sudden, uncontrollable hatred for all the products of technology, driven by waves of a strange noise that drives them to attack all machines. Even the mention of technology threatens to drive people into a rage. Some flee the country (it seems to be only Britain that is affected, though no help arrives from the outside), leaving the country mostly depopulated. The main character, a young teen called Nicky, gets separated from her parents, who manage to get on a boat to France, and so she is left to fend for herself in de-technologised Britain.

The story breaks down into three sections. (This turns out to reflect the series’ origin in a trilogy of novels written by Peter Dickinson.) In the first, Nicky accompanies a group of Sikhs, who are unaffected by the anti-technological rages, but who are shunned as “Devil’s Children” by the now superstitious English. In the second section, Nicky leaves the Sikhs to try and rejoin her parents in France, but finds herself waylaid and accused of witchcraft by a religious fundamentalist who’s gained a hold on one community. The final section sees Nicky discovering the source of the anti-technological rages that have been gripping the nation, and finally understanding why they happened. After nine episodes of build-up (in which the reason for the “Changes” is never really addressed), the potential for the final explanation to be a let-down was all too possible, but I was pleased to find the programme’s makers managed an explanation that answered all the questions but still preserved enough mystery to be satisfying on all counts (and which took a seemingly science-fictional series into fantasy territory, which may have disappointed some, but I always prefer it when the ultimate explanation isn’t entirely rational, or entirely resolved).

Watched today, it’s inevitable that The Changes seems slower-paced than what we’re used to seeing now (or even when compared to contemporaneous Doctor Who), but I didn’t find it quite as awkwardly paced as King of the Castle — perhaps because it was less reliant on just the one young actor, but also perhaps because the gentler pace fits the story’s theme of regression to a pre-technological age. There were a few genuinely gripping moments, for instance when I wondered how the characters were going to get out of this or that situation. Aside from the initial premise, there are no fantastical elements in The Changes, so all threats and challenges the characters face have to be solved by them thinking their way through and coming up with a plan, which I like in a story, because it allows me, as reader/listener, to think my own way through the situation, and try to work out what I’d do in the protagonist’s place. (Always a good way of involving the reader in the story, I think.) Plus, there’s lots of location work placing the story quite firmly in the English countryside — something I’ve always loved in UK film & TV shows.

Another good point about the show is that, despite the anti-technology premise, the series isn’t itself anti-technology. It may even have come from a sort of reaction against the rather fuzzy-minded hippie thinking that if only we could get rid of all that nasty modern stuff, everyone would be a lot happier. It’s quite obvious in The Changes that any such clearout would result in a lot less ease in our day-to-day lives, not to mention the potential to regress into superstitious, even fascistic, ways.

Now, next up on my long-lost wanna-see list: if only I could find a DVD or download of Fantastic Journey. All I remember from that is Roddy McDowall with a glowing fork, and I want to see more!