The X-Files

I recently re-watched the first two seasons of The X-Files, and was soon wondering why I’d never worked my way through the whole thing, all eleven seasons of it. After all, it produced some neat little bites of weird TV, like its take on The Thing in the first season episode “Ice”, or “Eve”, about a supposedly discontinued eugenics programme that turns out to be still live and in the wild, and which packs a film’s worth of story into 45 minutes. The show came up with some pretty good monsters, too, like Eugene Tooms, who could slip through narrow chimneys and ventilation ducts, as well as build himself a hibernation retreat out of newspapers and bile (Mulder: “Is there any way I can get it off my fingers quickly without betraying my cool exterior?”); or the human-sized parasite Fluke from “The Host”, the episode with my favourite line of the series, as a sewage-processing plant manager says: “Five hundred and sixty thousand people a day call my office on the porcelain telephone.” I particularly enjoyed the more comedic episodes, such as “Humbug”, about a series of murders in a community of circus performers (where Mulder, receiving a dressing-down from a dwarf for judging by appearances, gets judged in turn, and is told he looks like a government employee), or “Die Hand Die Verletzt”, about a school PTA made up entirely of Satanists. That story, as well as poking fun at itself by having Mulder and Scully caught in a shower of frogs, also contains what is perhaps the series’ most harrowing scene, as a distraught teenage girl describes, at some length, her history of ritual Satanic abuse — made no worse when it turns out to be a delusion.

But after reaching the end of season two, I knew exactly why I’d stopped watching it. Far too quickly, The X-Files clogged itself up with its own “mythology”. To my mind, the show was best when it saw itself as a sort of anthology series, like The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, though one framed as a detective show, with Mulder the believer and Scully the sceptic turning up to witness the weird and tragic events in other characters’ lives each episode. (Like poor Max Fenig, a UFO-junkie who drives around the country in his camper van chasing saucer-sightings in the story “Fallen Angel”. The pathos goes up a notch when we learn Max has epilepsy and perhaps schizophrenia, and this may be the root of his lonely outsiderism; then it goes up another notch when we learn his health problems are probably a side-effect of his being ruthlessly used by aliens who simply need a living body in certain places at certain times, and don’t give a damn about the effect on Max as a human being.)

Max Fenig considers his likelihood of surviving the episode

But that the show would always have got bogged down in its own mythology, I think, was a foregone conclusion, thanks to its contradictory treatment of two key areas of interest: aliens and conspiracy theories.

Shows like Gerry Anderson’s UFO or the US series The Invaders had focused on the covert invasion of Earth before. But they set up their rules from the start: how the aliens could be told apart from humans (they have no pulse), what they wanted from Earth (to harvest human organs), and so on. In these shows, the aliens were a single species, with a single intent. The X-Files seemed to want to tackle a different aspect of aliens, the whole Fortean spectrum of weirdness surrounding them. In alien episodes in the first two seasons, there’s no consistent picture of what these beings are, what they want, or how they operate. Rather, they’re free to be as bizarre, creepy, mind-blowing and strange as each story needs them to be, making the whole alien phenomena closer to religious visions and mental illness, fairyland and dreams, than the stuff of a science fiction thriller. Aliens, in The X-Files, seemed at first to be just one more unexplained mystery, and their unexplainedness was the point.

As the show went on, though, it became obvious it also wanted aliens to be part of a government conspiracy — in other words, it wanted these weird and incomprehensible beings to have a comprehensible side: a definite plan, and therefore a definite purpose, and so a definite form, a definite technology, and so on. But they could only be so at the expense of their other role as near-supernatural incomprehensibilities. Their “comprehensible” side, then, would need to explain all the deliberately-unexplainable weirdness that made them so X-File-ish, and that was going to take a lot of explaining. Inevitably, it was also going to generate a lot of show-mythology.

The torch, not the gun, is these FBI agents’ most important weapon, but it can only ever shine a little light into the darkness

Ditto conspiracy theories. Although they appear to be explanations of the world, conspiracy theories are really about the frightening strangeness of the world, with their air of clandestine darkness, paranoia, and vast, unseen manipulative forces. The point about conspiracy theories is not that they resolve into one single set of true-but-hidden facts, but that they present a “Big Picture” fuzzy enough to absorb all the weirdness you can throw at them (all the aliens, all the motives, all the alliances and conflicts), leaving you with a sense that it adds up, so long as you don’t actually try to add it up. To do so would destroy all that crucial-but-foggy pseudo-meaningfulness the “Big Picture” provides. Ultimately, conspiracy theories aren’t about facts and final truths, they’re about freedom from facts. They’re about the momentary high of “everything you know is wrong”, and the freedom that brings. (Not freedom from government control or alien invasion, but freedom — and a temporary one, at that — from your own hangups and disappointments, limits and shortfalls, fears and normal human vulnerabilities before the incomprehensible thing that is reality.)

Mulder can’t quite get the point

In The X-Files, the idea is that the government know “the truth”, and Mulder is trying to catch up, find proof, and make them admit everything that’s going on. But when you look at how the government in the show behaves, you realise they aren’t a source of facts and confirmations, but of rumours, contradictions, betrayals, reversals, smokescreens and runarounds. They’re just one more source of weirdness, one more entrance to the labyrinth. The moment Mulder starts trying to get to the root of these hints of government conspiracy, he enters what Robert Anton Wilson called “Chapel Perilous”: the place where there are no single answers, just an endless multiplication of weirdness. And so, conspiracy theories became just another generator of never-to-be-resolved mythology for the show.

I think it would have been better if The X-Files had stuck to the ultimately weird nature of both its alien and conspiracy strands from the start. Sure, to Mulder the world contains individual cases of weirdness that he will investigate, hoping the “facts” he acquires will add up to a grand truth his shady superiors in the government already know, but we, as viewers, would see he’s got it all wrong: “The Truth” is not “out there” — it’s far out.

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Mandog

Before The Changes, there was Mandog

(…Or is it Man Dog? The on-screen titles separate the two words, as does the Radio Times/BBC Genome, but the novelisation, and most subsequent reference sources, call it Mandog.)

It started with producer Anna Home (who would eventually become Executive Producer of Children’s Television at the BBC), commissioning Peter Dickinson to come up with an idea for an original TV drama for children. He provided at least three outlines, one of which, initially titled “Clever Dog”, was turned into this six-part series. It was filmed in the summer of 1971 (entirely on location, in Southampton), and broadcast at the start of 1972. (It was on the back of the success of this series that Anna Home decided to adapt Dickinson’s Changes trilogy.)

The story focuses on a group of three teenagers: school-friends Kate Saumarez and Sammy (Samantha) Morris, and Kate’s older brother Dunc (Duncan), who is now one year out of school and about to start work as a TV repairman. Kate and Sammy see a man apparently teleport himself through a garage door near their school, then teleport himself out again. They recruit Dunc to help follow this man and find out what’s going on, and in the best Famous Five tradition bring along Sammy’s dog Radnor (named after the district in Wales where Sammy’s parents spent their honeymoon). Their sleuthing ends at a car dump, and Kate insists they go inside, even though it means climbing through a hole in the surrounding fence. (Kate uses a wheelchair, though can get by for a short while on crutches.) Inside, they’re confronted by a man called Levin, and soon surrounded by his six companions. Kate just comes out with it and tells him they saw one of this group, who turns out to be called Justin, teleporting himself into a garage. Levin, dropping his obviously fake Irish accent for something more stiff and strange, strong-arms the kids into the group’s surprisingly technological headquarters beneath all the wrecked cars and scrap metal, and explains.

Levin, leader of the Group

This group (who call themselves “the Group”) are from the year 2600, a time ruled by a secret police organisation known as the Galas. The Galas were having Levin develop a time machine for their own nefarious ends, but as soon as he succeeded, he and his Group friends used it to escape to the 1970s, so they could build another time-device, return to the future, and free their era of the Galas’ control. They’re only a short while away from completion, after which they’ll leave our present forever. They can’t harm Kate & co., because any one of them might be a distant ancestor, but they do need to ensure the kids’ silence. The scheme they come up with is one that will simultaneously punish Justin for giving them away (which he has done once before, apparently), and hopefully ensure the kids’ silence: they’re going to swap the minds of Justin and Radnor the dog. Radnor will enter Justin’s body (and then be kept asleep, because a dog in a man’s body would be really hard to explain), while Justin will enter Radnor’s body and accompany the kids home. It will be a sort of penance for Justin (they say this is a common punishment in their time) and an exchange of hostages. The two will be swapped back when the Group are ready to return to their future.

Radnor the dog and Justin, becoming Mandog

It all feels like a rather over-elaborate set-up — are we really supposed to believe that in the future, criminals are regularly mind-swapped into dog’s bodies as a punishment? — but it gets the story set up for a mix of lightly comic and adventurous shenanigans. On the one hand, there’s Sammy having to explain away Radnor’s suddenly more intelligent behaviour. (He refuses to eat dog food from a bowl on the floor, instead sitting at the breakfast table wanting cereal or bacon and eggs.) On the other, once Radnor — who Sammy calls “Mister” from here on, because she knows he’s not Radnor, and calling him Justin would be silly — spots one of the far-future Galas in the town, evidently looking for the Group, the kids becoming involved in a series of adventures trying to foil the Galas and help the Group. (Levin explains that the time-machine he left in the future would have had enough power to transport a few more people, so he’s sure not many of the Galas will have made it to the 1970s.)

Kate and Sammy

Mandog feels like a transition point between the kids’ TV of the 1960s — which McGown and Docherty in The Hill and Beyond: Children’s Television Drama characterise as mostly “kids in anoraks on bikes, accompanied by a dog or two, roaming the countryside in search of smugglers and bank robbers”, which Kate & co.’s adventures with the Galas certainly feel like — and the more progressive kids’ dramas of the 70s, with their mixing of the science fictional/fantastic with realistic modern settings and social concerns. Throughout their adventures, we see the kids getting on with their normal lives: Dunc starts a new job, attends his long-distance-running club, and buys himself a secondhand moped; the girls do their homework and start to find themselves boyfriends. At one point they discover that the Galas have ensconced themselves (claiming to be Syrians on a trade mission) in the home of Mary Ndola, a black girl in the year below them, who is clearly frightened of these strange men. The kids recruit Mary to get Dunc inside her house (in his new job as a TV repairman) to confirm these are the Galas, and then the Group scare them away — by the distinctly un-science-fictional and un-dramatic method of writing them a threatening letter.

Radnor, a.k.a. Mister

It’s not as experimental as the series that really marked the renaissance in kids’ TV drama two years before, The Owl Service (though, like that serial, it uses actors in their twenties as teenagers, unlike later shows like The Changes, Children of the Stones, and so on, which used child actors). And the science fictional/fantasy element isn’t as weird (or horrific) as those later shows. We know the kids aren’t really threatened — the worst the Galas can do is use their hypnotic powers or pencil-like stun gun, because the Galas can’t afford to disrupt their past any more than the Group can — and it isn’t until the Group have departed that the kids suddenly wake up to the fact they haven’t asked Levin what the future is like, nor have they really thought about whether the Group were actually telling the truth. Perhaps the Group were the baddies and the Galas the goodies? As Dunc says, “All they were bothered about was who was in charge — and it had to be them.” The only confirmation that they backed the right side is that a handful of silver medals arrive from the future (concealed as free gifts in a cereal packet) with “Hero of the Liberation”, “Heroine of the Liberation”, and (for Radnor) “Dog of the Future” written on them. This could well prove the Group’s good nature (after all, Levin could have just forgotten about them). But, at the same time, I can’t help noting how similar “Levin” is to “Lenin”. I’m sure Stalin handed out silver medals, too.

But, though not much is made of it in the story, I feel that Justin, following his time as Radnor the dog, was changed. Before the transference, he said he’d rather die than be punished in such a humiliating way. But perhaps the enforced reconnection with his animal side — the Group do sound slightly future-robotic with their stilted phrasing, implying a sort of imbalance on the intellectual side — has had some humanising effect:

“It is a relief to be able to look at things with my own eyes again — a dog’s vision is so different. But if you only knew how you all smelt!” Justin laughed. “Goodbye, Duncan, and my regards to Sammy and your sister. I have learned much from you all.”

There’s only one episode of Man Dog available to watch that I can find — and that in time-coded fuzzy-VHS quality on YouTube — so I’ve relied on the novelisation for most of the story details. (The novelisation was by Lois Lamplugh, based on Peter Dickinson’s scripts.) The novelisation, though, differs in small ways from the one TV episode I’ve been able to see, so it might not be a totally accurate guide to the TV series.

Cover to the novelisation

I’ve been wanting to find out more about Mandog/Man Dog since reading about it as a precursor to The Changes, as it feels like a crucial transition story into that peculiar style of 1970s kids’ telefantasy that includes Sky, The Changes, Children of the Stones, and so on: rich in ideas, often weirdly horrific stuff that mixes science fiction & the fantastic with an almost kitchen-sink-style realism, exploring themes of environmental precariousness and social change, and big questions about the oppressive influence of the past, as well as the potentially unpleasant possibilities of the future. Mandog isn’t, perhaps, as thematically heavy as those later shows, but it certainly feels like it has one foot firmly planted in (or one leg cocked over?) the new style of the 1970s. It has, after all, music by the Radiophonic Workshop. (On Wikipedia, the music is credited to Delia Derbyshire, but as @phantomcircuit pointed out on Twitter, the theme music is by John Baker. It’s called “Factors” on the 1968 BBC Radiophonic Music album, so it presumably started life as library music.)

It would be nice to see it cleaned up and given a DVD release, though as it hasn’t picked up the same sort of reputation as The Changes and Children of the Stones, it’s unlikely. And, of course, it could even be that not all the episodes survive.

(There’s a “Musty Books” look at Mandog over at The Haunted Generation that’s worth a read.)

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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…

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