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…

The Omega Factor

OmegaFactor_titleThe early 1970s was obsessed with black magic and devil worship; by the end of the 1980s, this had somehow given way to the dolphins, rainbows and crystals of the New Age. Somewhere in between (at 8:10p.m. on the 13th June 1979, to be exact), the BBC began a ten-part series about a secret government agency, Department 7, whose task it was to look into ESP and the paranormal — telepathy, telekinesis, past lives, ghosts, séances, brainwashing, the power of sound to evoke the terrors of the past, and out-of-body experiences. It could be seen as a round-up of all the 1970s’ more outré preoccupations, with its best episode (‘Powers of Darkness’) in full occult mode (opening with a ouija board, ending with a blood sacrifice on a church altar), while ‘Visitations’ brings out the full scientific ghost-hunting toolkit last seen in Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape (1972), and ‘Child’s Play’ has a super-powerful psychic child just beginning to understand his powers (a sort of private school mix of Stephen King’s Carrie with The Medusa Touch) — all served up with lashings of government/corporate paranoia (as in ‘St Anthony’s Fire’, about a big company testing dodgy new foods on ex-hippies).

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The first episode has freelance journalist Tom Crane (played by James Hazeldine — later the dad in ITV’s Chocky) researching some Sunday supplement articles on the paranormal by arm-twisting a bibulous, plummy old satanist called Oliphant into revealing the current whereabouts of ‘the man that Crowley wouldn’t meet’, Edward Drexel. Drexel (played by Cyril Luckham, the White Guardian in Doctor Who the year before) is currently posing as an antiquarian bookseller in Edinburgh, so Crane goes north to try to get him to give a demonstration of psychic power. When Crane picks the case of a missing local woman as a possible subject, Drexel says Crane ought to be able to find her himself. Soon after, Crane wakes from dozing over his reporter’s notepad to find he’s written, in his sleep, a couple of names, which, along with a dream-vision he’s just had, lead him to the woman’s body. Crane, it seems, has mental powers of his own, and Drexel isn’t the only one to have sensed this — it turns out Crane’s wife’s best friend, Dr Anne Reynolds (Louise Jameson, a year out of Leela-leathers) is part of Department 7, and they’ve been trying to awaken Crane to his psychic powers for some time.

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At the end of the first episode, Crane is recruited to work for Department 7. By this point, he’s out for revenge on Edward Drexel, who he blames for the death of his wife (at the end of the first episode), after Drexel’s mediumistic young woman companion, Morag, suddenly appeared in the middle of the road in her nightie/wooly dress, making Crane swerve his car into a tree. At this point, I thought I knew how the series was going to play out: Drexel would be the arch-enemy, popping up from behind each week’s supernatural escapade, while the dead wife would never be mentioned again, except to give our hero some motivation and a bit of emotional depth; meanwhile, the coast would be clear for a romance with Dr Anne. But, to my surprise, the show had a bit more depth and character than that. Drexel does pop up again, but is soon dealt with once and for all. And there is a slow-developing romance with Dr Anne, but Tom Crane takes a lot longer to get over his wife’s death than your average TV series hero, and Anne also has undefined feelings for the other main character of the series, Dr Roy Martindale (John Carlisle). Crane and Martindale’s relationship, meanwhile, is almost as interesting as Crane and Anne’s, as Crane is constantly refusing to do what Martindale asks him to do, not to mention questioning Martindale’s methods and morals, which gets the otherwise urbane and assured Martindale into the occasional tizz.

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I have to admit, Roy Martindale is my favourite character in the series. All of the main three are well-realised. Tom Crane, perhaps because he’s the hero-figure, is the least three-dimensional. He has his principles and sticks to them, meaning there isn’t really another side to his character (apart from the way his free-spiritedness constantly rubs against the institutionalised nature of Department 7), but I think James Hazeldine’s earnestness and on-the-level portrayal adds a warm dose of humanity to the hero figure, making him constantly likeable. Anne Reynolds, on the other hand, is always able to see both sides of the (many) arguments between Crane and Martindale, and as much as she’s on Crane’s side, she’s also on Department 7’s, and is often telling Martindale when Crane’s gone off on his own — as he does pretty much every episode. (Towards the end of the series, I wondered how he kept his job; he refuses on principle to do what he’s told, often spending half of each episode sulking on Anne’s sofa, before running off to investigate something he’s been warned away from.) Roy Martindale is the most flawed of the leading three, and perhaps that’s what makes him the most interesting. He’s totally focused on the new ground they’re breaking in psychic research, and is always being brought up short whenever Crane reminds him of the moral issues he’s blithely overlooking. Martindale tries to educate Ann Reynolds’s tastes in music towards the more experimental and modern (while Tom Crane can be heard playing Dark Side of the Moon while standing in front of his brother’s Uriah Heep poster), and obviously assumes, for the first half of the series, that she’s more interested in him than in Crane. Even towards the end of the series, when we’re starting to feel Martindale must have a shadow side, he can occasionally be found defending, to his own bosses, the very views he’s just been arguing against with Crane. Plus, I like his rat-like grin.

OmegaFactor_Drexel

Throughout the series, there are rumours of an organisation known as Omega who might be looking to use people’s psychic powers for some more nefarious purpose than Department 7’s ‘defence of the realm’ mandate, and the final episode brings them into the open, ending with enough of a hint that a second series might have been in the offing.

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But it wasn’t. The Omega Factor had just one series, and one showing of it, and doesn’t seem to be mentioned much in discussions of 70s horror/SF TV. Despite being around at the time it was shown, I only heard of it recently. It is, of course, often compared to The X-Files, but I think it’s more the sort of thing I’d have liked The X-Files to be: a bit more subtle, and with more dramatic development of its characters. Big Finish audio have just started releasing a series of new stories featuring Dr Anne Reynolds, though sadly without Tom Crane, of course, as James Hazeldine died in 2002.