Aliens in the Mind

A 6-part radio drama first broadcast at the start of 1977, Aliens in the Mind just about fits into the category of “kids with mind powers” that has become a bit of a theme on Mewsings. The reason I say “just about fits” is that the actual kid with mind powers, Flora Keiry, is pretty much a secondary character, the focus of the narrative being on the lead duo of brain surgeon John Cornelius and Professor Curtis Lark of the New York Institute of Paranormal Phenomena (played by Peter Cushing and Vincent Price), so this isn’t about the inner experience of a kid with mental powers in the same way as, say, The Chrysalids or Carrie.

The story starts with Cornelius and Lark arriving on the Hebridean island of Luig, to attend the funeral of their medical-school chum, Dr Hugh Dexter. There they find that not only were the circumstances of Dexter’s death somewhat suspicious, but he left them a hidden message, a record of his discovery that the island is the breeding ground for a new, mutant species of human. Most of these, having passed through an adolescent phase of mental disorientation known as “the Island Sickness”, become indistinguishable from other human beings, with no special powers. But a small number — perhaps only one at a time — become “controllers”, who can transmit telepathic orders which instantly turn the other, heretofore dormant mutants into mindless zombies bent on obeying the controller’s command.

Cornelius and Lark realise that Flora, an eighteen-year-old who never emerged from the mental disorientation stage of the Island Sickness, and so who has the mental and emotional maturity of a much younger child, is just such a controller, and manage to get her off the island and back to London to see if they can work out what’s going on. This, though, is only the start of a plot that soon moves into conspiracy thriller territory, bringing in Manchurian Candidate-like ideas of brainwashing as a means of achieving political ends.

Only a few months before, British TV had seen another take on The Manchurian Candidate, this time in the shape of Robert Holmes’s The Deadly Assassin serial for Season 14 of Doctor Who. The funny thing about this is that Aliens in the Mind, though not scripted by him, also came from Robert Holmes.

According to Richard Molesworth’s biography, Robert Holmes: A Life in Words, Holmes first came up with the idea behind Aliens in the Mind in 1967, when he submitted it as an idea for a TV series entitled Schizo. He then repurposed it as a possible Doctor Who script in 1968, around the time of writing his second adventure for the series (The Space Pirates), this time calling it Aliens in the Blood. Again, it failed to catch. He finally managed to get it commissioned in 1975 as a radio play, and intended to write it while on a Mediterranean holiday, only to have his wife fall ill, after which he had to spend all his spare time till his Doctor Who duties began again looking after her. As a result, Aliens in the Mind (as it was now titled) was scripted by Rene Basilico, with Holmes receiving a credit for the idea. (It’s a real pity he never got the write the scripts himself. Holmes loved a double act and created some of the most successful secondary characters in the classic era of Doctor Who, most notably Jago and Lightfoot from The Talons of Weng-Chiang. It would have been wonderful to hear what he’d have done with Cushing and Price.)

Although she’s not the main character, Flora still lives through the experience of your average “kid with mental powers”. From Firestarter to Stranger Things and The Institute, it’s the eternal fate of such kids to fall into the hands of scientists who want to study them, and who usually end up treating them as less than human. If Cornelius and Lark weren’t our main characters — and weren’t played with such suave charm as Cushing and Price bring to them — it would be easier to see just what they put poor Flora through. When she gets distressed and has doubts about leaving the island with them, they drug her. They take her to a psychiatrist who tries to hypnotise her, without telling her this is what they’re doing. Most of all, the pair make all the decisions for her, in the confidence that they, of course, are doing everything for her own good, despite the distress and danger they put her in. It would have been a quite different story if Flora had been the focal character. As it is, her personal story comes to something of a disappointing end as the series shifts out of weird SF and into conspiracy thriller territory for the final two episodes. (And ending with a Midwich Cuckoos-like opening out onto the wider stage: if this is happening here, what about the rest of the world?)

It’s a fun serial, mostly for Cushing and Price, who are given some (but not enough) friendly UK-vs-US badinage, as well as for its Doctor Who-ishness (a Brigadier is brought on near the end, and you just know he ought to be the Brigadier). Plus, its mix of political paranoia, distrust of corporations, interest in mind-powers — and, sadly, its unexamined sexism — place it very much in the 1970s culturally.

Flora is an interesting example of the “kid with mental powers” who’s both very powerful and emotionally immature, meaning she uses her abilities as a toddler might, with all a toddler’s impulses of childish enthusiasm and sudden fear, plus a complete lack of self-control, leading, without her intending it, to endanger herself and others. It’s a pity the story wasn’t more about her; but it’s also a pity we never got to see more adventures from Cornelius and Lark as played by Cushing and Price. And it would have been great to hear them scripted by Holmes himself.

Escape to Witch Mountain

Kids with psychic powers have become a bit of a theme on Mewsings, one that often goes hand in hand with kids-as-aliens (The Midwich Cuckoos), kids-plus-aliens (Chocky), kids-from-the-future (Sky), and kids-as-the-next-stage-in-human-evolution (The Tomorrow People). If nothing else, kids with psychic powers are often treated as aliens (or less than human, anyway) because of their differences (The Institute, Stranger Things, The Morrow books), and as a result their stories are often about a quest for a new home where they truly belong (The Chrysalids, Morrow) or at least an escape from the dehumanising situation where they’re being held (The Institute, Stranger Things).

I realised recently that my first encounter with the idea of psychic kids was probably Disney’s 1975 film Escape to Witch Mountain. It’s an adaptation of Alexander Key’s 1968 novel of the same name, and was a fairly successful film at a time when, I’ve read, Disney was in a bit of a creative and commercial slump. Certainly, it’s fondly remembered, and coming out as it did a short while before Star Wars would have meant it was a science-fictional kids’ film on hand to feed a generation of suddenly science-fictionally hungry kids, which must have helped.

I’ve long thought of the kids-with-psychic-powers “boom” of the 70s and 80s as being driven by the youth-centred social revolutions of the late 60s, as the theme packs in so many hippie ideas, ideals, and preoccupations, from the (literal) empowerment of the young and the villainisation of the establishment, to a belief in dormant psychic powers, beneficent aliens, and the desire to escape from a materialistic society. The theme was around before then (John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids was 1955, Zenna Henderson’s People stories were in magazines from 1952), but I think of it as being driven into the wider culture of films and TV thanks to creators inspired by, or at least touched by, those late-60s ideals.

I don’t really associate Disney with revolutionary ideas, though (the exceptions seem to be more about the fight against individual tyrants than criticising the socially-sanctioned tools tyrants use, such as King John’s exorbitant taxation in Robin Hood, or the Master Control Program’s restrictive security policies in Tron). And I don’t think either of the first two Witch Mountain films (Escape was followed by Return from Witch Mountain in 1978) have much in the way of social comment to make, and by the time of the 2009 reboot, Race to Witch Mountain, any elements that were once revolutionary (the fact that the government is the film’s main villain, for instance) had by then become so established as to be conventions rather than convictions. But they’re fun films, and still contain almost all of the elements of the other kids-with-psychic-powers stories I’ve mentioned.

This may make it look like Return from Witch Mountain is somewhat hauntological… It’s not.

Escape to Witch Mountain starts with siblings Tony and Tia (Ike Eisenmann and Kim Richards) arriving at an orphanage after the death of their adoptive parents. Tony can move things with his mind (though he generally has to be playing the harmonica to do it), while Tia can communicate telepathically with Tony, and with animals, and has precognitive flashes. Although they have a conversation about the need to hide their powers so as not to be ostracised, they don’t make much of an attempt to do so. Confronted by a bully and surrounded by the other kids in the orphanage, Tony thinks nothing of blatantly using his powers to win the fight. And none of the kids (except the defeated bully) seems to care much. But the film isn’t really about the alienation of being different, it’s about how fun it would be to have special powers. The main villain, greedy millionaire Aristotle Bolt, wants to use Tia’s precognitive powers to increase his already excessive wealth, but it’s only towards the end of the film, when the kids’ flight has led them to more rural areas, where a hick sheriff and hunting-mad locals think that because the kids are headed for Witch Mountain they must be witches and can be shot rather than captured, that there’s any real sense of danger.

In the book, Tony and Tia are more evidently different. Both have light-coloured hair, olive skin, and dark blue eyes. Their story in the book is a bit more grim (the orphanage is run by a cynical matron, and the fight with the bully involves a home-made knife), the main villain isn’t a rich capitalist but a communist agent, and Tia can’t speak except telepathically to her brother and animals. They are helped first by a nun, then by a Catholic priest, Father O’Day (who is turned into widower-with-a-camper-van Jason O’Day in the film).

Tony and Tia’s powers seem to have no limits in the films. There’s none of the sense, as with Stranger Things’ Eleven’s nosebleeds, that using their powers takes something out of them, and by the second film Tony is using his telekinesis to keep multiple people and heavy objects flying in different orbits all at once, as well as lifting trains and trucks and a massive weight of gold, and can even perform technically demanding tasks such as meddling with electronic circuitry, or making a car window reflect enough sunlight to blind his pursuers.

Although released in 1975, Escape to Witch Mountain feels like an early 60s film. The kids are trusting of all adults, are sweetly innocent (left to themselves, they use their powers to put on a telekinesis-powered puppet show), and the perils are mild. There’s a reassuringly trustworthy adult to parent them through most of their journey. Return from Witch Mountain feels a bit more 70s, though largely in the surface details (the music — funky wah-wah’d guitar and rock flute — and the fashions — Tia’s very sharp, very red, short trouser suit — for instance), and the few touches of 70s grit are highly Disneyfied. (Tia, for instance, is helped not by a reassuring adult but a denim-clad street gang of kids, though they’re a gang who only think of themselves as tough and streetwise, while clearly being anything but, and are quick to realise that really they want to go to school.) Both films were directed by John Hough, who also directed Twins of Evil for Hammer (and in the second film he’s joined by Hammer actors Christopher Lee and Bette Davis as his villains).

Things have certainly changed by the time of the 2009 remake of Return, Race to Witch Mountain. The idea of alien visitors with psychic powers has picked up too much cultural baggage, and this is very much a post-X-Files, post-Close Encounters film, with hazmat suits, media interest, plenty of references to conspiracy culture, and a Terminator-style alien robot assassin to make up for the lack of visual cool in the two alien kids looking just like humans. The main difference in feel to the previous two films is that the kids — called Seth and Sarah this time — feel very much like aliens. They speak in stilted English, know a lot more than the humans that help them, and are emotionally distant for most of the film. (They also have different powers from Tony and Tia. Sarah can read anyone’s mind, while Seth can alter his molecular density, to pass through solid objects or become solid enough to stop a car. He doesn’t have telekinesis, though.) The point of audience identification now isn’t the kids, but what the SF Encyclopaedia calls the “action hero as exasperated dad”, in the form of harassed cab driver Jack Bruno, played by Wayne “The Rock” Johnson. This film isn’t about being a kid who’s different and has cool super powers, it’s about being a single dad, having to juggle a low-paid job, a regrettable mob past, and a pair of demanding teenagers (alien teenagers, no less). It feels less like a kids’ movie, more a movie about having kids.

The Witch Mountain films (and there were a few other TV remakes, including one intended as a pilot for a series that never got made, as well as a jokey Blair Witch take-off directed by Ike Eisenmann (Tony from the original films)) don’t really say anything new or profound about the kids-with-psychic-powers theme, and in fact do a very good job of not including any of the deeper or more painful aspects of these stories (that it’s all a metaphor for being a sensitive, alienated child in a world that doesn’t really care, as exemplified by Carrie). But they were certainly part of the popularising of the idea, preparing a generation of kids to absorb the deeper themes of the likes of Chocky, ET, and perhaps from them to The Midwich Cuckoos, The Chrysalids, and so on.

The Institute by Stephen King

UK Hardback

Kids with psychic abilities are kidnapped and taken to the Institute, where they’re put through a series of demeaning and abusive medical procedures in “Front Half” before being taken to “Back Half”, where their abilities are put to use. They’re told that, once they’ve served their term, they’ll have their memories of the Institute wiped and be set free, but none of the kids are buying that. There’s rumours of a back half to Back Half, where the burn-outs are kept. And after that, well, the Institute has its own cremation facilities.

My first reaction on reading about The Institute was, “Ah, Stephen King does Stranger Things,” because of the psychic-kids-in-an-institute idea, though of course Stranger Things is the Duffer Brothers doing Stephen King, so really it came down to Stephen King doing Stephen King. Kids with psychic powers have been there in his fiction from the start (Carrie), and Firestarter was a key influence on both the character of Stranger Things’ Eleven, and Hawkins Labs where she’s held, but I wonder if watching the show sparked King off with a need to revisit the idea. (According to an article in the New York Times, he began writing the novel in March 2017, so that would have been between Stranger Things’ seasons 1 and 2.)

German cover

But the Institute is no Hawkins Labs, and its kids are nothing like Eleven. Most of the children have no conscious control of their powers, and even those that do, know how weak they are — the best of them can, by really concentrating hard, just about hold back the midges that hang around the rundown Institute playground, or get a vague telepathic sense when someone’s lying. So it’s a mystery why anyone would go to such an effort to kidnap a bunch of children with “psychic abilities that wouldn’t even pass an America’s Got Talent audition”.

The Institute itself is hardly hi-tech. It’s tired and rundown, and mostly just going through the motions. It’s not interested in scientific discovery. (One doctor’s allowed to experiment on the less promising subjects, but it’s strictly a side project.) The main purpose is to get the kids through a well-worn process — give them the necessary jabs, put them through the standard tests — and most of the staff have long since ceased to regard their charges’ humanity as anything but a nuisance. Most are casually cruel; the few who aren’t are outright nasty.

There’s a weird air about the Institute of belonging to another age. The snacks in the vending machines (which kids can purchase with tokens they’re given for good behaviour) include sweets from decades past (candy cigarettes, for instance), though I wasn’t able to pick up on all of King’s hints about this as, to me, all American snacks sound made up. The TVs in Back Half, meanwhile, show “only prehistoric sitcoms like Bewitched and Happy Days”. I was wondering if this was going to be a plot point, or even a joke about Stranger Things’ retro appeal, but in the end I think it was just King connecting these kids’ experience to his own childhood.

US hardback

The main character we follow in The Institute is Luke Ellis, a twelve-year-old prodigy who has minor, unconscious telekinetic abilities. He’s super clever, but the Institute doesn’t care about that. To them, he’s just another kid to be put through the grinder — to be processed, but also humiliated, controlled and broken along the way. One thing that really came through in the first half of the novel is how powerless these children are in a world where the adults don’t give a damn about them. Luke’s first task is to fight as hard as he can not to be institutionalised — not to give in to that sense of powerlessness and simply accept the situation, but also not to pointlessly rebel for the sake of it, which just ends in pain.

I haven’t read much criticism of King’s work taken as a whole, so it was only when I was halfway into the book that I realised how often the theme of incarceration, and escape at great odds, occurs in his work (in, for instance, “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption”, Misery, and Gerald’s Game, as well as being an early rite of passage for a number of characters in The Stand). All of these stories are about characters fighting unfair and often life-threatening imprisonment with a combination of cleverness and patient determination, and King seems to have a particular penchant for that sweet feeling of pure, abstract freedom which follows.

As the book goes on, there are growing hints that the Institute is doing what it does out of a genuine belief in a greater good, and not just the standard thought-stopper of “national security”. It made me feel the novel was heading towards an outright moral argument — could any ends ever justify such means? — but it never did, not in such abstract terms, anyway. Which is a pity, because I think it’s good to have even such basic moral arguments aired every so often. (Virtually every review and interview I’ve read about The Institute brings up the incarceration and separation of children from their families on the U.S.-Mexican border that started in 2018, so it’s not as if the novel needs to evoke the horrors of the past to find any relevance.)

The Institute is the best King novel I’ve read in a while. It may be in part thanks to its having only a very light touch of the supernatural — meaning King couldn’t indulge in the sort of over-the-top horrorshow pyrotechnics that have put me off reading him in the past (Duma Key, for instance) — but also thanks to some very tight plotting, with a large chunk of the novel switching between three very suspenseful situations all playing out at the same time. It made The Institute into a real page-turner.