Codename Icarus

Another kids’ TV drama that has lingered in my memory, Codename Icarus (1981) is a quite different beast from Break in the Sun, which I wrote about a couple of years ago, though the two share a structural similarity. Written by Richard Cooper, and directed by Marilyn Fox (who, among her other credits, directed the 1988 BBC adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, as well as working on over a hundred episodes of Jackanory), is a Cold War thriller, mixing defence-of-the-realm espionage, government corruption, and the development of a new “ultimate weapon”, with a story about the exploitation of exceptionally intelligent youngsters.

It starts with 4th-year student Martin Smith (Barry Angel) being berated by his maths teacher in front of the class for his stupidity, only for Martin to solve a difficult problem effortlessly on the blackboard. Refusing to believe it, the teacher accuses him of cheating and has his parents brought in to see the head teacher. Martin, meanwhile, sneaks into the school’s computer room to tap in some complex equations he’s been working on, and is surprised to have the computer talk back, challenging him to solve a problem of its own. Which he does, easily.

Barry Angel as Martin Smith

His well-meaning working-class parents can’t understand why they’ve been called in. The head teacher says Martin is disruptive and a poor student, but they know him to be very clever and well-behaved. Asked what’s going on, Martin later tells his father he hates his maths teacher because “He never once said that maths was beautiful.” The next time he sneaks into the computer room, Martin is confronted by John Doll (Philip Locke), the man responsible for sending through that problem the computer challenged him with. Doll is head of Falconleigh, a school for exceptionally gifted children, and he tells Martin that’s where he should be.

Philip Locke as John Doll

Meanwhile in the grown-up world, British weapons tests have been going awry when missiles have been exploding way before they hit their target. Commander Andy Rutherford (Jack Galloway), part scientist, part spy-catcher, is put on the trail of finding out why. Consulting with his scientific advisor friend Frank Broadhurst (a.k.a. “the Fat Man”, though he’s hardly overweight by modern standards; played by ’Alo ’Alo’s Gorden Kaye), Andy is told there isn’t any technology that could be used to remotely set off a missile from any practicable distance, but he latches onto the idea that someone, somewhere, is pushing the bounds of science, and when he hears about the Icarus Foundation, an international charitable trust that runs schools for the most scientifically gifted young minds, he decides to investigate. (And this is the structural similarity with Break in the Sun I mentioned above: we have a kids’/teen story running in parallel with an adult story, with the two coming together at the end.)

Commander Andy Rutherford (Jack Galloway) and Sir Hugh Francis (Peter Cellier)

Martin starts at Falconleigh, where he learns that pupils are addressed as “sir” or “ma’am” by their teachers (who they in turn call by their surnames, with no “Mr” or “Miss”), and there aren’t lessons, but “challenges” which they’re allowed to work on as they like. (Though, if they don’t work on them obsessively, teachers tend to turn up and prompt them to do so.) Martin meets a fellow pupil, Susan Kleiner (Debbie Farrington), whose speciality is biology, and whose initial response to being asked her name is, “We don’t have particular chums in this place.” The next day, after at first ignoring him, she finally says, “We don’t have to talk to people, you know. Not at breakfast.”

(I’m pretty sure, if Codename Icarus were made today, something would be made of the fact that many of these socially-awkward gifted Falconleigh children probably have Asperger’s.)

Martin and Susan (Debbie Farrington)

After being set a few challenges in his area of interest (subatomic physics, worryingly), Martin is told to attend “the Game” at the school’s otherwise unused squash court. Here, Falconleigh’s usual balance of power between teacher and pupil is reversed. Now, the teacher — not calling their pupil “sir” — probes, tests and mocks their charge, trying to find their psychological weak points. If that’s not enough, a few brainwashing techniques are thrown in. To ensure loyalty to the Icarus Foundation, pupils have their fears of the outside world exaggerated and their own confidence (in anything other than the abilities that got them into Falconleigh in the first place) undermined.

Martin plays “the Game”, with Peter Farley (Geoffrey Collins). These scenes in particular stuck with me.

The Icarus children’s “challenges” are being set by a man whose aim is to use their answers to create the “ultimate weapon”, though not for the purposes of world-domination, more because of some confused motives about how his own scientific gifts were misused by his country’s government during the Second World War, resulting in him losing his erstwhile genius. And, ultimately, this is what Codename Icarus is about: the gifted children’s talents are being exploited while they’re still fresh (the “Fat Man” puts forward the idea that most genius-level scientists do their best work when young, and many gifted minds “burn out” before too long), and also while they’re vulnerable enough to be exploited. Martin comes across as having a substantial teenage chip on his shoulder, seeming to despise anyone who doesn’t understand maths as he does, while being spikily defensive about the idea that the beauty of maths should ever be misused, and feeling that any attempt to merely use his gift might take it away from him. “All I want is to release that which is in you,” John Doll says, and goes on to underline the mythical Icarus metaphor: “To free your spirit and mind, so they can climb. Fly.”

To further underline it, Martin’s one and only hobby is birdwatching, and we get to see him scream a (thankfully silent) “No!” when he sees a pigeon drop dead mid-flight after it passes over one of Falconleigh’s mysterious out-buildings.

I don’t know, might this man be a villain? John Malcolm as Edward Froelich

Although the adult storyline, about the international arms race, gives Codename Icarus its heft, it’s the teen angst element that gives it its real meaning. I have to admit I (nowadays, anyway) find Martin Smith a little annoying, but that is, I suppose, part of his character. (I also find the dialogue written for him a bit mannered. It’s very cut back, in places, as though he was meant to play it surly and uncommunicative, but Barry Angel plays him with a bit more passion, and his dialogue can just end up sounding artificial. But only in places.)

Nevertheless, it has stuck with me from when it was first shown. (I’m assuming I saw it on its initial run in December 1981. It was repeated in April to May of 1984, but I have a vague memory of being pleased to find it being repeated, so maybe I saw both 5-episode runs.) I remember loving the idea of being taken away to some special school, sequestered from the rest of the world, where your genius is allowed full reign. Surely a little nuclear-level world-endangerment wasn’t too much of a price to pay? Sigh. If only I’d actually been some sort of genius…

Stranger Things

Stranger Things season 1 poster by Kyle Lambert

Although the most obvious (and avowed) influences on Stranger Things are the early works of Steven & Stephen (Spielberg and King), I think the real core of the show’s success comes from a less obvious direction, and one not rooted in the show’s celebrated evocation of the 1980s. Because, for me, the impact of Stranger Things comes not from nostalgia but from its depiction of childhood, both as a time of extreme vulnerability to the darker forces of the world (as experienced to the greatest degree by the characters of Will and Eleven), and of imaginative engagement in the world’s wonder & strangeness (the D&D boys, whose Dungeons-and-Dragoning has perfectly prepared them to deal with a world of monsters, parallel dimensions, and mind-powered super-kids). Innocence, in our post-Game of Thrones era of TV where cynical, self-interested characters are the norm, and are often the shows’ heroes, is a very rare quality, perhaps because it’s so difficult to do convincingly (without lapsing into sentiment or mere victimhood, for instance). But when it is done convincingly — and when it’s brought face-to-face with real darkness — it has genuine power. The most obvious recent example I can think of, and the thing that feels, to me, closest in many ways to Stranger Things’ success (including its reliance on a very talented young cast), is the Harry Potter films.

This is perfectly brought out by another Netflix series, the German-made Dark (from 2017), which at times seems like it was created as a result of someone describing Stranger Things (perhaps down a crackly phone line) to Werner Herzog in one of his more sombre moods. It contains many of the same elements of Stranger Things: missing children, a small-town setting, a sinister government scientific establishment where science-fictional experiments seem to be going on, a link to the 1980s (Dark opens in the present, but some episodes are set in the 80s, and there’s a strong generational link to that decade), supernatural travel between two realms, flickering electric lights, abandoned railway tracks through woodland, and your by-now-standard emotionally damaged police detectives. But whatever the similarities, the differences in tone are polar. Dark, for instance, has plenty of montage sequences in which we see various characters isolated in states of lonely misery, with the occasional couple hugging in a desperate need for solace, all backed by the more dour kind of pop song. (Stranger Things does do this, when a body is removed from the quarry lake and Peter Gabriel’s version of “Heroes” plays in the background. But Dark seems to do it at least once an episode, and not as a moment of dramatic climax, more as a feeling that this, in the world of Dark, is what daily life feels like.)

Dark (which, at the moment, I still haven’t finished watching, so it may change) is all about how people are fundamentally isolated from one another, and how everyone picks up dark secrets and emotional wounds as they enter adult life, which further isolate them and undermine their attempts at relationships. Stranger Things (which I’ve now watched twice through in the time it’s taken me to get halfway through Dark) is about the complete opposite: how facing darkness can bring people together, and how the way to overcome the darkness is, ultimately, to break through the barriers of isolation and make human connections (most obviously, for instance, in Eleven’s learning to trust other people after her horrendous upbringing at the Hawkins National Laboratory, but also in the way memories of kindness are used to break through the Shadow Monster’s control of Will in season 2). Stranger Things’ catchphrase is, after all, “Friends don’t lie.” I’m not sure if Dark has a catchphrase. It’s a show that’s more about silence; perhaps its image of dead birds falling from the sky would serve.

Having said that, I do think Stranger Things’ darkness is properly convincing. On first watching it, my initial impression was that someone had made a list of all their favourite scenes from 70s and 80s horror and kids’ adventure movies, particularly of the Spielbergian variety, and arranged them into a workable story. But then I realised the show’s creators were using those scenes’ existing associations to give them an interesting twist, usually taking them in a more disturbing direction. Even when the reference seems just a subtle joke — as when Mike, Lucas and Dustin dress Eleven in a blonde wig, echoing the way, in ET, Eliot’s sister dresses ET in a blonde wig — it can’t help adding an emotional resonance. ET in a wig is funny because it’s a ridiculous image; Eleven in a wig underlines the fact that she’s been treated throughout her young life as somewhat less than a human being (her shaved head and number tattoo have obvious associations with Nazi concentration camps), which has left her as much an alien in our world as ET was. There’s a palpable sense that, in looking through Mike’s sister’s bedroom, or being dressed in a play-box blonde wig, she’s been given a tiny glimpse of the upbringing she was denied.

The sort of darker twist I mean can be seen in another ET parallel. In Spielberg’s film, when Eliot’s mother comes home while Eliot is showing the alien his Star Wars toys, Eliot has ET hide in the closet, which becomes a joke when his mother looks in the closet, sees ET, and assumes he’s just another toy. In Stranger Things, when Mike and El are at Mike’s house (he’s showing her his Star Wars toys) and his mother comes home, Mike has El hide in the closet but she’s terrified, as it reminds her of the isolation cell her “Poppa” Dr. Brenner would lock her in if she didn’t do what he wanted. The scene feels that much darker for being an echo of ET’s light comedy.

The best parallel, for me, was another ET swipe, when the kids, reunited after the first season’s quarrels, are escaping from the “bad men” of Hawkins National Laboratory on their bikes. In the equivalent scene in ET, when it looks like the kids are finally cornered, ET uses his powers to lift them into the air so they can fly away, still pedalling. It’s the film’s signature wonder-moment. In Stranger Things, a much more down-to-earth and practical El lifts an oncoming government van and throws it at their pursuers. ET is an alien temporarily stranded on our world; El is a young girl forced to become a weapon by government “bad men”.

The theme of innocence brought up against darkness is at the heart of many of my favourite films, and certainly the ones that affect me the most, including Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, and the more recent book & film of A Monster Calls. (Another favourite, Amelie, contains no supernatural darkness, but is still about an innocent, in this case a young woman facing the much more mundane darkness of loneliness. In fact, Alien is about the only one of my top favourite films I can’t fit into the innocence-versus-darkness theme, but perhaps that’s because it’s even more primal, being about sheer survival.) Anyway, Stranger Things (seasons 1 & 2) certainly grabbed me in the same way, and I hope it manages to keep some of that innocence going in future seasons.

Play for Today: Z for Zachariah

It’s been a while since I wrote about “things that frightened me as a kid”, but I thought I’d revive the practice for a Halloween mewsings. The Play for Today adaptation of Robert C O’Brien’s 1974 novel was broadcast on 28th February 1984 (and this was the last year for Play for Today, a strand of one-off dramas that had been broadcast by the BBC since 1970). I didn’t see it at the time, but was shown it, perhaps later in the same year, in an English class at school — meaning it also falls into the narrower category of “things that frightened me in the classroom”, which includes a forced watch of another 1984 teleplay, Threads (still the bleakest thing I’ve ever seen), and a far more pleasant classroom watch of the 1977 BBC adaptation of Dracula. (And I’ll also add to the list a story a supply teacher, Mrs Mud (or perhaps Mudd), told us at the end of one day in my penultimate year at primary school — probably making it up on the spot— called “The Ear”, about a man persecuted by a reanimated Van Gogh-style severed ear.)

This adaptation of Z for Zachariah moves the events of the novel from the USA to a remote valley in Wales, whose isolated weather system protects it when the rest of the world is destroyed and/or poisoned in a nuclear war. 15-year-old Ann Burden’s parents go off to check for survivors in the locality but never come back. Ann (Pippa Hinchley) soldiers on, keeping the farm as best she can, then one day sees a weird tent set up on the road that leads into the valley.

She retreats up the mountainside and watches as a man in a radiation suit (Anthony Andrews), lugging a survival kit on wheels behind him, enters the valley, tests the water, and, finding it radiation-free, disrobes and jumps into a stream. Ann, watching, realises his mistake — the man only tested one stream, which she knows to be clean, but didn’t test the other, the one he’s jumped into, in which she found dead fish. (One stream has its source in the valley, the other brings in water from outside.) The man soon falls sick with radiation poisoning, and Ann overcomes her fear to come down from the mountains and tend to him.

He describes the symptoms of his coming sickness to her:

“It goes through stages. First you have two or three days’ vomiting. Second stage, radiation causes intercellular ionisation. Molecules within the cells are destroyed. Cells can no longer grow or divide. Plus, you’ll be much sicker. With a high fever. Blood cells are damaged. They can no longer reproduce, resulting in anaemia. No resistance to germs or infection… Susceptible to… mild impurities in food and water, resulting in vomiting, and, more seriously, dysentery.”

He is John Loomis, an organic chemist who, before the bombs dropped, had been helping develop a form of magnetised plastic. The magnetism wards off radiation, hence his radiation-proof suit and tent, which allow him to survive in the post-holocaust world. In his fever, it soon becomes evident that his story of how he got the suit may be more complicated. There were two researchers — John, and a man called Edward, who was his senior on the project — but only one suit.

As he recovers from the sickness, John tries to instil in Ann a sense of the delicacy of their situation. This valley, he says, is now a colony, the one chance for the human race to survive. He gets her to think about the sort of crops they’re going to need — wheat for flour, beets for sugar. And, somewhat mockingly, he says of her regular visits to the valley chapel: “Next time you go to your church, pray for a bull calf.”

Things take a darker turn after Ann celebrates her sixteenth birthday. She wakes up one night to find John sitting on her bed, touching her. She escapes his assault, and the next day offers a truce, saying she’ll continue to help farm the valley, but she’ll be living elsewhere. John, though, starts to impose control, keeping the key to the tractor, padlocking the local shop they’ve been using for supplies and, finally, using Ann’s own dog to track her to her hiding place. The play ends with Ann taking John’s radiation suit and survival kit and leaving the valley to find other people, rather than continue to live with this dangerous man.

It’s a bleak story, feeling like one of the darker one-off episodes of Terry Nation’s Survivors from the previous decade. It’s hard not to watch this adaptation of Z for Zachariah and feel pretty little hope for mankind. John Loomis seems too little like an unbalanced individual, too much a representative of men in general, or scientists in general, or adults in general, casting them all as a bunch of control-hungry rapists and murderers.

Reviews of the teleplay over at IMDB rate it low in comparison to the book, certainly for its lack of moral shading (the book is written as Ann’s diary, and she can be read as an unreliable narrator, a possibility the TV adaptation doesn’t address), as well as the general coldness of the two main characters’ relationship. But I suspect it got the green light at the Beeb not because of its potential for moral complexity but for its basic message — one that was desperately hammered home throughout the 1980s, in a barrage of pop songs (“Two Tribes”, “99 Red Balloons”, many others), films and TV dramas (Threads being the main one, but the nuclear threat was omnipresent, and the standard threat in thrillers like Edge of Darkness and Defence of the Realm), documentaries (two major ones about nuclear war were shown the same week as Threads), and so on — that nuclear war is BAD, that it could be the END OF EVERYTHING, and, if it happens, it’s all MANKIND’S FAULT.

We can become fond of and familiar with most characters from supernatural horror. No one, I think, would be too shocked at seeing a kid dressed up as a vampire for Halloween. But I can’t imagine anyone ever being comfortable at seeing a kid dressed up in a radiation suit, with a clicking Geiger counter in their hand…

Play for Today: Z for Zachariah can be watched at Daily Motion. (It’s just under two hours long.)