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…

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.)

The Belgariad by David Eddings

Asked what he and his co-author wife Leigh had brought to the fantasy genre (in an interview by David J Howe for Dreamwatch magazine in March 1999), Eddings’ reply now seems about 180 degrees off target:

“Quite probably, our major contribution has been gritty reality. Our people get hungry; after a week of strenuous activity, they stink; they do argue with each other; the boy-people do notice the girl-people (and the girl-people notice them right back.) We tried our best to ignore Alfred Lord Tennyson and Tolkien and to return to Malory—which is where the good stuff is.”

Compared to the likes of Game of Thrones, “gritty reality” The Belgariad most certainly ain’t. Its characters may sweat and bicker, but none of the main ones die, and nor are they ever in any serious danger of doing so. All the good characters, though lightly flawed, are clearly good, and basically get on with each other. Only the clearly-telegraphed villain-types ever stab anyone in the back, and they get their comeuppance right away. Even the comparison to Malory is stretching it, as The Belgariad has nothing like the moment in Le Morte Darthur when King Arthur dies and suddenly all that’s good and noble goes out of the world, leaving it nothing but a bloody battlefield strewn with dead or dying knights being looted by opportunistic peasants. In The Belgariad, things go wrong only to be, at the end, set right back to how they were at the start — if not better.

Pawn of Prophecy, UK cover by Geoff Taylor

Eddings admired Tolkien (fondly calling him “Poppa Tolkien” in interviews, and including The Lord of the Rings on the syllabus of a lecture course on “The Modern Novel” he gave while teaching in the 1960s — see this article for some interesting insights into Eddings’ teaching days), but — particularly now we have the Peter Jackson films, whose success and style paved the way for Game of Thrones — it’s hard to judge The Belgariad as “gritty reality” compared to Tolkien’s harrowing epic of endurance in the face of overwhelming despair, or his insistence that power can corrupt even the noblest of souls. There are no serious betrayals in The Belgariad, and the series’ five book quest is hardly harrowing, its central character, the boy Garion, being pretty much constantly in the company of his super-sorcerer guardians, along with a solid cadre of highly capable helpers, to protect and guide him every step of the way.

What Eddings probably meant by “gritty reality” is that his characters, far more than Tolkien’s and Malory’s, come across as very ordinary. They bicker, they complain, they have a sense of humour, they make friends with one another, and they remain friends. The thing that really powers the books is the gentle everydayness of their emotional lives — in particular the boy Garion’s relationships with his Aunt Polgara and Grandfather Belgarath (both, in fact, age-old sorcerers whose relationship to him, though genuine, is far more distant), and his mostly comic romance with the Tolnedran Imperial Princess Ce’Nedra. Garion is, perhaps unlike any prior teenager at the centre of a world-saving fantasy epic, a real-seeming adolescent, given to moodiness, sulks, and stubbornness, as well as occasional bursts of good sense.

Queen of Sorcery, UK cover by Geoff Taylor

(The same goes for Ce’Nedra, and if The Belgariad does have a claim to have made an advance in the fantasy genre, it may be that it contains more interesting, active, and real-seeming female characters than the commercial fantasy epics that came before it. It’s no feminist landmark, but it certainly outdoes Tolkien and Malory, as well as Donaldson and Brooks, in this respect.)

Even Eddings’ millennia-old sorcerers — on the good side, at least — make sure we know that, deep down, they’re basically ordinary folks. After every grand gesture or (brief) moment of high poetry, someone says something to deflate the situation, to bring it back to normal, to let us know the characters know they’re putting it on:

“Dost thou question my word, Sir Knight?” Mandorallen returned in an ominously quiet voice. “And wilt thou then come down and put thy doubt to the test? Or is it perhaps that thou wouldst prefer to cringe doglike behind thy parapet and yap at thy betters?”

“Oh, that was very good,” Barak said admiringly.

Magician’s Gambit, UK cover by Geoff Taylor

If it’s comparable to anything, I’d say The Belgariad is most similar to Star Wars. Begun in about 1979, and published between 1982 and 1984, its five books came out mostly in the years between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and Garion’s learning to harness his burgeoning sorcerous abilities is strongly reminiscent of Luke Skywalker’s coming into his powers as a Jedi. The Belgariad’s “Will and the Word” is pretty much identical to the Force: only a few (Jedi/Sorcerers) can do it, and it’s all about imposing one’s will via mind-force on the world. Even the way Belgarath teaches Garion to do it — by having him move a big rock — is similar to Yoda’s getting Luke to try levitating his beswamped X-Wing.

But the main thing that makes the two so similar — apart from their huge success, of course — is the way both made no bones about their blatant reliance on basic templates from myth and fairy tale. Both Luke and Garion start out as orphaned farm-boys who come to learn that they have royal/Imperial connections and sorcerous power, and that their family history is deeply tied up in long-term world/galactic conflicts between good and evil. As Eddings says in his introduction to The Rivan Codex:

“I planted more mythic fishhooks in the first couple of books of the Belgariad than you’ll find in any sporting goods store.”

Castle of Wizardry, UK cover by Geoff Taylor

Inevitably, The Belgariad has come under a lot of criticism. One man’s archetype is another’s cliché, and anyone who didn’t fall under the series’ spell tended to be affronted by its commercial success and accused it of being nothing but a cynical rehash of genre clichés. (As also happened with Star Wars.) And it’s hard to argue against this, The Belgariad is so nakedly archetypal. Its fantasy world is nothing but a grab-bag of characteristic historical eras (in an interview with Stan Nicholls, Eddings called it “dropping three or four aeons of western European culture into a blender”), with its equivalent of Imperial Romans (Tolnedra) peacefully coexisting with Norman-era French (Arendia), Vikings (Cherek), Cossacks (Algaria), and a sort of overheated Weird Tales version of Ancient Egypt (Nyissa). (The ghost-haunted land of the Marags, presided over by an eternally-mourning god, is perhaps its most original and quietly powerful touch, in this respect.)

In addition, so that none of Eddings’ world-building goes to waste, the quest for the vaguely super-powerful Orb takes our heroes on a convenient tour through every land on the map. But to say this is contrived is to miss the point. The quest, in The Belgariad, is like a Hitchcock Macguffin — an excuse to get the story started, and to keep it going, while the real stuff happens. The search for the Orb isn’t really the point about The Belgariad, and all the time it’s going on you, as reader, if you’re captured by the series at all, don’t actually want them to find the Orb — not in the same way as, when you’re reading The Lord of the Rings, you really, really want the One Ring destroyed.

Enchanter’s End Game, UK cover by Geoff Taylor

What I think The Belgariad is doing while you’re following its characters on their vaguely world-shaking quest, is casting a readerly spell of gentle enchantment for the duration of its five books. It’s not a particularly forceful or wildly magical spell. Perhaps the best word for what it does is the simplest and least magical of all magical terms: it charms. Its charm is in the easy humour of its characters (sometimes belaboured — Eddings has a tendency to underline his punchlines not once but twice), their low-scale emotional ups and downs, and in the quiet but lasting development of their friendships, loves, and companionship. All this is leavened with a generous smattering of lightly thrilling adventure, and an evenly-paced uncovering of the series’ mysteries — about Garion’s identity, and the true nature of the quest they’re on — drip-fed at just the right speed.

The Belgariad perhaps only works if you come to it at the right age — Garion’s age, early adolescence. Fortunately, I did, and I have to say the books certainly worked their charm-spell on me, as well as convincing me of the undeniable power of a simple, fairy-tale coming-of-age narrative — and, perhaps only because I came to it when I did, it continues to work the same spell whenever I re-read it.

The Belgariad may not have the grit of Game of Thrones, it may not confront the darker forces that The Lord of the Rings does, but I’d certainly miss its charm, its air of comradely companionship, and its gentle fairy-tale power, if the genre were ever wholly given over to nothing but “gritty reality”.