Aliens in the Mind

A 6-part radio drama first broadcast at the start of 1977, Aliens in the Mind just about fits into the category of “kids with mind powers” that has become a bit of a theme on Mewsings. The reason I say “just about fits” is that the actual kid with mind powers, Flora Keiry, is pretty much a secondary character, the focus of the narrative being on the lead duo of brain surgeon John Cornelius and Professor Curtis Lark of the New York Institute of Paranormal Phenomena (played by Peter Cushing and Vincent Price), so this isn’t about the inner experience of a kid with mental powers in the same way as, say, The Chrysalids or Carrie.

The story starts with Cornelius and Lark arriving on the Hebridean island of Luig, to attend the funeral of their medical-school chum, Dr Hugh Dexter. There they find that not only were the circumstances of Dexter’s death somewhat suspicious, but he left them a hidden message, a record of his discovery that the island is the breeding ground for a new, mutant species of human. Most of these, having passed through an adolescent phase of mental disorientation known as “the Island Sickness”, become indistinguishable from other human beings, with no special powers. But a small number — perhaps only one at a time — become “controllers”, who can transmit telepathic orders which instantly turn the other, heretofore dormant mutants into mindless zombies bent on obeying the controller’s command.

Cornelius and Lark realise that Flora, an eighteen-year-old who never emerged from the mental disorientation stage of the Island Sickness, and so who has the mental and emotional maturity of a much younger child, is just such a controller, and manage to get her off the island and back to London to see if they can work out what’s going on. This, though, is only the start of a plot that soon moves into conspiracy thriller territory, bringing in Manchurian Candidate-like ideas of brainwashing as a means of achieving political ends.

Only a few months before, British TV had seen another take on The Manchurian Candidate, this time in the shape of Robert Holmes’s The Deadly Assassin serial for Season 14 of Doctor Who. The funny thing about this is that Aliens in the Mind, though not scripted by him, also came from Robert Holmes.

According to Richard Molesworth’s biography, Robert Holmes: A Life in Words, Holmes first came up with the idea behind Aliens in the Mind in 1967, when he submitted it as an idea for a TV series entitled Schizo. He then repurposed it as a possible Doctor Who script in 1968, around the time of writing his second adventure for the series (The Space Pirates), this time calling it Aliens in the Blood. Again, it failed to catch. He finally managed to get it commissioned in 1975 as a radio play, and intended to write it while on a Mediterranean holiday, only to have his wife fall ill, after which he had to spend all his spare time till his Doctor Who duties began again looking after her. As a result, Aliens in the Mind (as it was now titled) was scripted by Rene Basilico, with Holmes receiving a credit for the idea. (It’s a real pity he never got the write the scripts himself. Holmes loved a double act and created some of the most successful secondary characters in the classic era of Doctor Who, most notably Jago and Lightfoot from The Talons of Weng-Chiang. It would have been wonderful to hear what he’d have done with Cushing and Price.)

Although she’s not the main character, Flora still lives through the experience of your average “kid with mental powers”. From Firestarter to Stranger Things and The Institute, it’s the eternal fate of such kids to fall into the hands of scientists who want to study them, and who usually end up treating them as less than human. If Cornelius and Lark weren’t our main characters — and weren’t played with such suave charm as Cushing and Price bring to them — it would be easier to see just what they put poor Flora through. When she gets distressed and has doubts about leaving the island with them, they drug her. They take her to a psychiatrist who tries to hypnotise her, without telling her this is what they’re doing. Most of all, the pair make all the decisions for her, in the confidence that they, of course, are doing everything for her own good, despite the distress and danger they put her in. It would have been a quite different story if Flora had been the focal character. As it is, her personal story comes to something of a disappointing end as the series shifts out of weird SF and into conspiracy thriller territory for the final two episodes. (And ending with a Midwich Cuckoos-like opening out onto the wider stage: if this is happening here, what about the rest of the world?)

It’s a fun serial, mostly for Cushing and Price, who are given some (but not enough) friendly UK-vs-US badinage, as well as for its Doctor Who-ishness (a Brigadier is brought on near the end, and you just know he ought to be the Brigadier). Plus, its mix of political paranoia, distrust of corporations, interest in mind-powers — and, sadly, its unexamined sexism — place it very much in the 1970s culturally.

Flora is an interesting example of the “kid with mental powers” who’s both very powerful and emotionally immature, meaning she uses her abilities as a toddler might, with all a toddler’s impulses of childish enthusiasm and sudden fear, plus a complete lack of self-control, leading, without her intending it, to endanger herself and others. It’s a pity the story wasn’t more about her; but it’s also a pity we never got to see more adventures from Cornelius and Lark as played by Cushing and Price. And it would have been great to hear them scripted by Holmes himself.

Escape to Witch Mountain

Kids with psychic powers have become a bit of a theme on Mewsings, one that often goes hand in hand with kids-as-aliens (The Midwich Cuckoos), kids-plus-aliens (Chocky), kids-from-the-future (Sky), and kids-as-the-next-stage-in-human-evolution (The Tomorrow People). If nothing else, kids with psychic powers are often treated as aliens (or less than human, anyway) because of their differences (The Institute, Stranger Things, The Morrow books), and as a result their stories are often about a quest for a new home where they truly belong (The Chrysalids, Morrow) or at least an escape from the dehumanising situation where they’re being held (The Institute, Stranger Things).

I realised recently that my first encounter with the idea of psychic kids was probably Disney’s 1975 film Escape to Witch Mountain. It’s an adaptation of Alexander Key’s 1968 novel of the same name, and was a fairly successful film at a time when, I’ve read, Disney was in a bit of a creative and commercial slump. Certainly, it’s fondly remembered, and coming out as it did a short while before Star Wars would have meant it was a science-fictional kids’ film on hand to feed a generation of suddenly science-fictionally hungry kids, which must have helped.

I’ve long thought of the kids-with-psychic-powers “boom” of the 70s and 80s as being driven by the youth-centred social revolutions of the late 60s, as the theme packs in so many hippie ideas, ideals, and preoccupations, from the (literal) empowerment of the young and the villainisation of the establishment, to a belief in dormant psychic powers, beneficent aliens, and the desire to escape from a materialistic society. The theme was around before then (John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids was 1955, Zenna Henderson’s People stories were in magazines from 1952), but I think of it as being driven into the wider culture of films and TV thanks to creators inspired by, or at least touched by, those late-60s ideals.

I don’t really associate Disney with revolutionary ideas, though (the exceptions seem to be more about the fight against individual tyrants than criticising the socially-sanctioned tools tyrants use, such as King John’s exorbitant taxation in Robin Hood, or the Master Control Program’s restrictive security policies in Tron). And I don’t think either of the first two Witch Mountain films (Escape was followed by Return from Witch Mountain in 1978) have much in the way of social comment to make, and by the time of the 2009 reboot, Race to Witch Mountain, any elements that were once revolutionary (the fact that the government is the film’s main villain, for instance) had by then become so established as to be conventions rather than convictions. But they’re fun films, and still contain almost all of the elements of the other kids-with-psychic-powers stories I’ve mentioned.

This may make it look like Return from Witch Mountain is somewhat hauntological… It’s not.

Escape to Witch Mountain starts with siblings Tony and Tia (Ike Eisenmann and Kim Richards) arriving at an orphanage after the death of their adoptive parents. Tony can move things with his mind (though he generally has to be playing the harmonica to do it), while Tia can communicate telepathically with Tony, and with animals, and has precognitive flashes. Although they have a conversation about the need to hide their powers so as not to be ostracised, they don’t make much of an attempt to do so. Confronted by a bully and surrounded by the other kids in the orphanage, Tony thinks nothing of blatantly using his powers to win the fight. And none of the kids (except the defeated bully) seems to care much. But the film isn’t really about the alienation of being different, it’s about how fun it would be to have special powers. The main villain, greedy millionaire Aristotle Bolt, wants to use Tia’s precognitive powers to increase his already excessive wealth, but it’s only towards the end of the film, when the kids’ flight has led them to more rural areas, where a hick sheriff and hunting-mad locals think that because the kids are headed for Witch Mountain they must be witches and can be shot rather than captured, that there’s any real sense of danger.

In the book, Tony and Tia are more evidently different. Both have light-coloured hair, olive skin, and dark blue eyes. Their story in the book is a bit more grim (the orphanage is run by a cynical matron, and the fight with the bully involves a home-made knife), the main villain isn’t a rich capitalist but a communist agent, and Tia can’t speak except telepathically to her brother and animals. They are helped first by a nun, then by a Catholic priest, Father O’Day (who is turned into widower-with-a-camper-van Jason O’Day in the film).

Tony and Tia’s powers seem to have no limits in the films. There’s none of the sense, as with Stranger Things’ Eleven’s nosebleeds, that using their powers takes something out of them, and by the second film Tony is using his telekinesis to keep multiple people and heavy objects flying in different orbits all at once, as well as lifting trains and trucks and a massive weight of gold, and can even perform technically demanding tasks such as meddling with electronic circuitry, or making a car window reflect enough sunlight to blind his pursuers.

Although released in 1975, Escape to Witch Mountain feels like an early 60s film. The kids are trusting of all adults, are sweetly innocent (left to themselves, they use their powers to put on a telekinesis-powered puppet show), and the perils are mild. There’s a reassuringly trustworthy adult to parent them through most of their journey. Return from Witch Mountain feels a bit more 70s, though largely in the surface details (the music — funky wah-wah’d guitar and rock flute — and the fashions — Tia’s very sharp, very red, short trouser suit — for instance), and the few touches of 70s grit are highly Disneyfied. (Tia, for instance, is helped not by a reassuring adult but a denim-clad street gang of kids, though they’re a gang who only think of themselves as tough and streetwise, while clearly being anything but, and are quick to realise that really they want to go to school.) Both films were directed by John Hough, who also directed Twins of Evil for Hammer (and in the second film he’s joined by Hammer actors Christopher Lee and Bette Davis as his villains).

Things have certainly changed by the time of the 2009 remake of Return, Race to Witch Mountain. The idea of alien visitors with psychic powers has picked up too much cultural baggage, and this is very much a post-X-Files, post-Close Encounters film, with hazmat suits, media interest, plenty of references to conspiracy culture, and a Terminator-style alien robot assassin to make up for the lack of visual cool in the two alien kids looking just like humans. The main difference in feel to the previous two films is that the kids — called Seth and Sarah this time — feel very much like aliens. They speak in stilted English, know a lot more than the humans that help them, and are emotionally distant for most of the film. (They also have different powers from Tony and Tia. Sarah can read anyone’s mind, while Seth can alter his molecular density, to pass through solid objects or become solid enough to stop a car. He doesn’t have telekinesis, though.) The point of audience identification now isn’t the kids, but what the SF Encyclopaedia calls the “action hero as exasperated dad”, in the form of harassed cab driver Jack Bruno, played by Wayne “The Rock” Johnson. This film isn’t about being a kid who’s different and has cool super powers, it’s about being a single dad, having to juggle a low-paid job, a regrettable mob past, and a pair of demanding teenagers (alien teenagers, no less). It feels less like a kids’ movie, more a movie about having kids.

The Witch Mountain films (and there were a few other TV remakes, including one intended as a pilot for a series that never got made, as well as a jokey Blair Witch take-off directed by Ike Eisenmann (Tony from the original films)) don’t really say anything new or profound about the kids-with-psychic-powers theme, and in fact do a very good job of not including any of the deeper or more painful aspects of these stories (that it’s all a metaphor for being a sensitive, alienated child in a world that doesn’t really care, as exemplified by Carrie). But they were certainly part of the popularising of the idea, preparing a generation of kids to absorb the deeper themes of the likes of Chocky, ET, and perhaps from them to The Midwich Cuckoos, The Chrysalids, and so on.

The Chocky Trilogy

I always felt John Wyndham was something of a presiding spirit over the culture of the 1970s and early 80s, because the two genre tropes I most associate with him — “cosy” catastrophes, and mind powers (especially in kids) — achieved something of a peak at this time (thanks to SF-tinged shows like Survivors and Doomwatch for the catastrophes, and The Omega Factor and The Mind Beyond for the mind powers, as well as YA fiction such as H M Hoover’s Morrow series). Hard evidence didn’t arrive till the 80s, though, when proper Wyndham adaptations hit the screens. First there was the BBC’s Day of the Triffids in 1981, then Thames TV’s Chocky in 1984. The Wyndham estate were so pleased with the latter, they allowed its adapter, Anthony Read (who’d been script editor for Doctor Who in 1978, as well as writing for shows like The Omega Factor and Sapphire & Steel), to follow it up with a couple of sequels.

Chocky must surely have been commissioned on the back of the success of Spielberg’s ET, which came out in the UK in December 1982, but the show itself has a bleaker air, in part thanks to the rather melancholy, Eno-esque theme music (which no longer matched the show’s feel by its third series). Aside from a few 80s updates — a Rubik’s cube, Space Invaders on a home console, a Rodney Matthews poster on Matthew’s bedroom wall, and the way he does some Uri Geller-style spoon-bending early on — the adaptation’s pretty faithful to the book. Perhaps too faithful, as the book itself is quite episodic. The dramatic highpoint, Matthew’s kidnapping, takes place within about ten minutes of the final episode and gets a fairly limp resolution, and surely it, with its hints of ill-defined but oppressive government/corporate forces taking an interest, deserved to be brought more to the fore in a kids’ TV show. On the other hand, it’s nice that the low-key family-drama elements were given so much room to breathe.

Matthew (Andrew Ellams) chats with Chocky, from the first series

Chocky’s Children, from 1985, is perhaps a bit more satisfying purely as TV, even if, to be so, it has to drop the more atmospheric elements of the first series. Matthew, now Chocky-free but missing that sense of inner connection, goes to stay with his arty Aunt Cissie while his parents jet off on a business-and-pleasure trip to Hong Kong. (The little sister, meanwhile, gets left with the neighbours!) Following his post-Chocky interest in art, Matthew has been drawing various scenes from around the world — in surprising detail, considering he’s never been to them — one of which is a windmill. When he finds the actual mill in a field near his aunt’s house, he also meets Albertine, a young maths prodigy whose grumpy, over-protective father (who once had a stand-off with the police over his refusal to let his daughter be educated by anyone but him) is preparing her for an early entrance to Cambridge. The story comes to be about the relationship between these two sensitive, talented children, both of whom have been — knowingly or unknowingly — touched by Chocky’s influence. The oppressive government/corporate interest — now firmly corporate — is there from the start, and given the whole six-episode run to build more satisfyingly into a much more active kidnap-and-rescue than the first series.

Matthew and Albertine (Anabel Worrell), from Chocky’s Children

One thing that’s interesting about the way Anthony Read took his Chocky sequels, is how they seemed to naturally fall into line with other Wyndham novels. Matthew meeting up with, and finding he has a telepathic link to, another of Chocky’s protégés in Chocky’s Children brings in the secret, shared telepathic connection of The Chrysalids and the gestalt power of minds-combined from The Midwich Cuckoos. The next instalment, Chocky’s Challenge (broadcast in 1986), with its gathering of Chocky-influenced children from across the world, even starts to recall that other Wyndham sequel, Children of the Damned (the 1964 sequel to the Midwich film, Village of the Damned), but it’s the polar opposite of it in feel. With so many kids with even more explicit mind-powers (not just telepathy, but telekinesis and mind-projection to the stars), and a lot more appearances from Chocky (who even drops in to back up Albertine in her application for a research grant), the supernatural/spooky elements are no longer spooky or even unusual, and the more psychological elements — Matthew’s inner-world development from the first series, the relationship between him and Albertine in the second — are dropped entirely.

The kids from Chocky’s Challenge.

The story follows Albertine, now a (still very young) Cambridge graduate, wanting to bring Chocky’s gift of free-and-plentiful cosmic energy to the world. To do this, she applies for a research grant, wins the only one remaining, and assembles her team of Chocky-chosen kids from around the world (or the USA and Hong Kong, anyway). There’s no room, really, for character drama — except for a brief subplot with one boy’s search for his mother — and the feel is more along the lines of, say, The Tomorrow People, in that it’s an adventure story first and foremost. Only, where the threat in The Tomorrow People would be something strange or alien, here the main focus of the drama is… research funding. With the kids essentially super-powered, and guided by a highly intelligent mind from the stars, the only limiting factor is how they get the money to pay for the equipment and materials they need. (Nobody suggests asking Chocky for some cheap-and-easy invention they can flog for a quick cash boost.) For a while, the main villain is a rival astronomer who loses her grant to Albertine, and does her best to win it back. Meanwhile, the military only gain a hold on the kids because they can promise unlimited funds. Lessons the kids ought to be learning — such as Albertine’s very thoughtless ruining of Dr Liddle’s astronomical experiment, or the kids’ being too immature to handle the inevitable disappointments when their experiments don’t all go right on the first try — don’t get learned, and there’s a feeling that the kids are in the right simply because they’re telepathic kids, so they must be right. Or maybe I’m reading too much into it. But even so, I think the third Chocky series took the show too far from its more emotional/spooky roots. John Wyndham’s novel is, really, about how something special and unique in a child can get crushed by the forces of commercialism and social propriety; the third Chocky TV series was basically about the kids crushing all those forces thanks to their super-powered (but still morally and emotionally immature) minds. Fun all the same, though.

Reaching out to the stars… From Chocky’s Challenge.

The Chocky trilogy began with the feeling that it had one foot firmly planted in 70s kids’ telefantasy. The Chocky sound effect recalled the weird electronic sounds of The Changes, and it had enough environmental concern (the need for a new source of energy to replace our reliance on fossil fuels) to feel it was still waving the flag brandished by The Changes, Raven and Sky. But by the end, it had lost those elements, and so, perhaps, had the culture as a whole. There were a couple of New Zealand kids’ shows mixing alien influences, telepathy, and environmental concerns at the same time — Under the Mountain (1981) and Children of the Dog Star (1984) — but to my mind, kids-with-psychic-powers stories seemed to give way, as the 80s went on, to adaptations of fantasy classics, often based in the past (The Chronicles of Narnia, The Borrowers, Moondial), often better made, but perhaps less connected to the pressing issues of the day. Or it may be that, having grown up myself by then, I simply saw fewer of them. (There’s a psychic-twins TV series, The Gemini Factor, from 1987, that I’ll have to check out, for instance.)

And perhaps I’m reading too much into this, but as the idea of kids-with-psychic-powers is so closely tied to the notion of a new stage in human evolution — Bowie’s “homo superior” — it came with a feeling that, even without super-powers, kids had the potential of bringing something new into a world very much in need of fresh ideas and un-cynical outlooks. Part of me wonders if something of that empowering influence might have been lost when kids’ TV fantasy switched to classic adaptations (with The Box of Delights the first to be deliberately developed as an internationally marketable commodity), and the revolutionary ideals of the late 60s, which were so evident in those 70s shows, gave way to the more money-minded 80s. But even if so, it wasn’t permanent. The current generation, raised on tales of teens standing up to dystopian governments, has certainly been making itself felt, and rightly so. Now, if only some of them had super-powers…