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…

Game of Thrones

No spoilers here, except to say I found the final series a bit of a let-down.

But it’s hard to see how it could have been otherwise, as what drove Game of Thrones through the previous seven series was its constant air of “one step forward, two steps back”: characters only got closer to what they wanted (usually power or revenge) through a sacrifice of equal or greater proportions, whether it was betrayal of someone close to them, the relinquishing of power for revenge (or revenge for power), or through some ordeal of pain or humiliation. And every gain had consequences. The series began some time after a king had been deposed and another put on his throne — a deceptively quiet point before a whole series of new consequences began. So any ending that didn’t feel it was just a pause before more complicated consequences began could only feel false. The whole point about Game of Thrones is that nothing is ever resolved.

Power is pretty much an inbuilt theme in fantasy. It’s there in every fairy tale that ends with its hero or heroine becoming a prince, princess, king or queen. Many of the best works of fantasy (The Lord of the Rings, A Wizard of Earthsea) are about the renunciation of power. Game of Thrones was, in a way, about the fact that renouncing power isn’t an option if you’re born into it — if you have it, you have to use it or be destroyed by those who want it.

I never binge-watched Game of Thrones (though I was often tempted to), but when each season ended, I always felt a certain relief. I loved some things about the show — the moreish storytelling, and the way it conjured that fatalistic, down-to-earth sword & sorcery feel, where notions of honour, loyalty, and a practical, grim humour were set against genuine villainy — but couldn’t help feeling a sort of moral grubbiness at the same time. This, I think, was because the show forced you to side with characters whose morals you didn’t agree with, but you’d end up siding with them just to find some refuge in the relative security of their power. At times — the Red Wedding, the Walk of Shame — the show actually seemed to be doing its best to traumatise its audience. I tended to watch it with a constant anxiety that they were going to kill off the few characters I’d been unable to prevent myself from caring about. Which, I suppose, meant it was doing something right, because I was caring about some of the characters.

This is what eight seasons of Game of Thrones does to you

Fantasy has always had a strong moral dimension. Conan could be brutal and disdainful, but he wasn’t, I don’t think, cynical. Instead, he was surrounded by people who were cynical (and civilised — cynicism going hand-in-hand with civilisation for Robert E Howard), who were there to highlight the brutal honesty of Conan’s own barbaric outlook. Michael Moorcock’s Elric is the first sword & sorcery hero I can think of who was cast as an antihero — he betrayed his own people, letting them be slaughtered because they’d ousted him as Emperor, in a very Game of Thrones-style move — but for most of the stories, though he was tragic and fatalistic, he’d generally act morally. (Though I haven’t read any Elric for a while, so I may be wrong.)

Magic, and the hands-on influence of the gods, was minimal in Game of Thrones, and when it did appear it was either one more aspect of the human desire for power (as with the Red Priestess), or it represented the only thing that trumped the human desire for power, the ever-encroaching onslaught of doom (as embodied by climate change — I mean the White Walkers). Game of Thrones owes a lot more to Renaissance tragedy and Shakespearean history plays than, say, Lord of the Rings. The show was about the Machiavellian messiness of how humans wield power — i.e., badly — without any help, one way or the other, from gods or magic. (And speaking of Shakespearean history, much as I enjoyed Game of Thrones, I thought Wolf Hall outdid it on virtually every count, and it, being based on history, didn’t need gods or magic. Religion, yes; but actual gods, no.)

It’s tempting to draw some sort of lesson from the fact that the previous sword & sorcery TV show that was a worldwide success was Xena: Warrior Princess, which was everything Game of Thrones wasn’t: hardly anyone ever got killed (it was the sort of show where baddies, once they’d been thoroughly trounced, scrambled to their feet and ran off), the main characters were all clearly good people (though Xena herself was a redeemed baddie), and the themes were friendship and understanding. Its best episodes, in my opinion, were the straight-out comedies, where humour (usually slapstick and farce) saved it from being schmaltzy. It could, at times, be genuinely heartwarming. Game of Thrones could never be described, I don’t think, as heartwarming, and its comedy was more along the lines of a grim and fatalistic joke punctuated by someone’s violent death, or just lots of swearing.

But I don’t think you can draw that lesson, if only because to do so you’d have to prove the last five years of the 20th century were presided over by a Xena-esque heartwarming sense of humanity. It was probably as Machiavellian, and as heartwarmingly human, as nowadays — as humanity has always been. Xena escaped the tangles of Game of Thrones because Xena was a superhero — both morally good and more powerful than almost anyone else — which is the only way to escape any genuine complications related to power. And it’s good to have the Xena-like examples to strive for, but you also need, alas, those Game of Thrones-style reminders of what people are really like, too.

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…