Review by Tim Robins
Sky Max’s adaptation of John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos couldn’t be timelier, although the author’s novel – about the aftermath of a mysterious alien “invasion”, instigated by impregnation of women hosts – has always spoken to societal concerns around women’s bodies and women’s anxieties around pregnancy.
The Handmaid’s Tale author Margaret Atwood has recalled that Wyndham’s novel “was published in 1957, just as I was 17 and going off to university, so it was a good time for me to be thinking about the consequences of being impregnated by an alien while unconscious, then giving birth to an alien species that ruins your life.”
Atwood added, “The Midwich Cuckoos was certainly a graphic metaphor for the fear of unwanted pregnancies as experienced by teenage girls of that pre-birth-control era.” Today, as states in America seek greater control over women’s reproduction, Wyndham’s science fiction horror has lost none of its power to disturb.
The new adaptation follows the book by retaining the location of Midwich, an otherwise unremarkable, fictional, English market town. However, like real life market towns, Midwich has undergone expansion to a population of 11,000 souls. This is far from the sixty cottages and smaller houses described in Wyndham’s novel. Despite this, the TV series retains the claustrophobia of small town life, while acknowledging that society has moved on and market towns are bigger, more diverse and more interconnected with the outside world than decades past.
One night, an area of Midwich is cut off from the rest of the world by a barrier within which every living thing falls inexplicably asleep. Upon waking, women in the town find that they have literally fallen pregnant. When born, their children develop quickly and manifest telepathic powers, which they use to manipulate the behaviour and feelings of the villagers including their parents. They use them against animals, other villagers and their parents, too, and it gradually becomes clear the uncanny offspring, the titular “cuckoos,” form an alien invasion with its own, opaque, demands and goals.
The characters have also received a contemporary brush up. We are led into the story by newcomers to the village Zoë (Aisling Loftus) and Tom (Ukweli Roach). After their alien-induced sleep, the couple are thrilled that Zoë is pregnant, having been told they were infertile. But the excitement turns to fear, as their daughter tries to turn the couple against each other and then prevents them from leaving the village, a scene jarringly presented at the start of the first episode – an unnecessary hook. The couple share the limelight with a growing relationship between the local police chief Paul (Max Beesley) and child psychologist Susannah (Keeley Hawes).
Although Hawes has been the focus of much of the pre-publicity, the children are particularly important to the success of the production. Kaylin Luke, Marshall Hawkes and Erin Ainsworth are among the scarily convincing alien offspring. Adaptor David Farr has wisely eschewed the blond wigs of earlier productions, a move that makes the children even more uncanny.
Unlike the new season of Stranger Things, which superficially replays the 1980’s obsession with bullying, and High School cliques comprised of the most popular kids, the Midwich Cuckoos are a clique of swotty outsiders, unashamedly embracing opportunities to learn and conform to their otherworldly agenda. In this, The Midwich Cuckoos is Revenge of the Nerds meets The Twilight Zone’s “It’s a Good Life”.
At times, the new adaptation has a soap opera quality that serves to involve us in the character’s lives, relationships and parental concerns. The children’s behaviour is strange enough to mark their otherness, yet their very ordinariness gives credibility to their parents’ genuine care for their off-spring. Indeed, the production invites us to see parallels between the aliens and the parents’ other beloved offspring.
This production walks a tightrope between the alien and the familiar without, for me at least, falling into the tritely quotidian. This is helped by Emmy Award nominee Hannah (Game of Thrones: The Last Watch, The Deceived, Freegard) and Hannah Peel’s creepy score, which gives the domestic scenes a profound sense of unease.
I was a little disappointed by the police procedural plot and its eventual uncovering of an international conspiracy involving similar events across the world – something noted in the original text.
I know feelings that this or that government body is up to something with our lives still pervade these pandemic times but I’ve seen this trope before. At best, this aspect of the plot evokes the spirit of Nigel Kneal’s Quatermass series, but without his reactionary fears of irrationality and mob mentality. There are more interesting themes that could have been explored, particularly the way the “Cuckoos” seem to impose gender norms on their parents; you know one mother is asking for trouble when she decides to wear a nose ring.
Despite all the updating, there is something old-fashioned about the way Wyndham’s story has been reworked. Take out the creepy children, and you are left with the kind of prime-time drama ITV or the BBC might screen. But that is part of The Midwich Cuckoos’ subversive pleasure – the sci-fi-horror nests itself in familiar drama tropes, then proceeds to take their place.
I am guessing some will find this adaptation trashes Wyndham’s work, but I think the heart of his novel remains intact. It was a pleasure to watch an English dystopia in lieu of the alienating nostalgia of Stranger Things and Star Trek: Strange New Worlds – and there’s not a superhero in sight.
• The Midwich Cuckoos (described in places as “Season One”) is available on Sky Max and NOW on subscription – and will be released on Blu-Ray and DVD on 8th August 2022
Dear reader a review is an opinion, not a statement of fact – other opinions are available, including yours
Further Reading, Watching and Listening
The album features selections of the show’s original score composed by Emmy Award nominee Hannah Peel (Game of Thrones: The Last Watch, The Deceived, Freegard)
• The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham Imprint: Penguin | ISBN: 9780141033013
The Midwich Cuckoos is the classic tale of aliens in our midst, exploring how we respond when confronted by those who are innately superior to us in every conceivable way
Writer David Farr and director Alice Troughton explain the reason behind their gender-swapped, career-swapped Dr. Zellaby
The Midwich Cuckoos – Film Adaptations
The Midwich Cuckoos has adapted into several media, such as film (twice as Village of the Damned, in 1960 and 1995), radio (1982, 2003, and 2017)
Directed by Wolf Rilla, the lead role of Professor Gordon Zellaby was played by George Sanders. The screenplay was written by Stirling Silliphant, Wolf Rilla and Ronald Kinnoch
Directed by Anton M. Leader, written by John Briley. Six gifted children are found to pose a threat to the world in this chilling horror story. The Children, who all live in England but are from different parts of the world, are normal in all respects except that they are geniuses with acute psychic powers. They have more in common than their IQ, however: none of them have fathers, and no one seems to know where they came from. A psychologist (Ian Hendry of TV’s The Avengers) attempts to find out more…
Directed by John Carpenter, written by David Himmelstein (and John Carpenter, uncredited). Something is terribly wrong in the tiny village of Midwich, California. After an unseen force invades a quiet costal town, ten woman find themselves pregnant.
Local physician Dr. Alan Chaffee (Christopher Reeve, Superman) and government scientist Dr. Susan Verner (Kirstie Alley, Cheers) join forces when the woman simultaneously give birth… and a reign of terror begins…
The Midwich Cuckoos – Radio Adaptations
• The Midwich Cuckoos (1982)
An adaptation by William Ingram in three 30-minute episodes for the BBC World Service, first broadcast between 9th and 23rd December 1982. Directed by Gordon House, with music by Roger Limb of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. You will find it repeated on BBC Radio 4 Extra
Adaptation by Dan Rebellato in two 60-minute episodes for BBC Radio 4, first broadcast between 30 November and 7 December 2003. It was directed by Polly Thomas, with music by Chris Madin.
A CD version of this was released as a boxed set with other Wyndham adaptations in 2017 by BBC Audiobooks
Adaptation by Adapted by Roy Williams, first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 31st December 2017 and 7th January 2018. A bold version of John Wyndham’s science fiction classic by Graeae Theatre Company, directed by Jenny Sealey. Working with co-director Polly Thomas, this production was the first time a Deaf director had directed a drama on Radio 4.
Professor Zellerby and his eight year-old daughter Michaela survive the strange blackout of Midwich one afternoon in September 2009.
Nine months later, some extraordinary children are born. Zellerby starts tracking their amazing development, secretly reporting on them to concerned government authorities. Michaela finds herself caught between her difficult relationship with her father and the Cuckoo children, who immediately learn to sign and therefore communicate with her better than her own father.
John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris
John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris (1903-1969) is one of the most important and widely read British writers of science fiction. Wyndham began publishing science fiction in the 1930s but it was only after World War Two, following refinements to his writing style and subject matter, that he gained critical and popular acclaim.
The only collection of John Wyndham’s literary papers and manuscripts. The Archive also contains one of the very few sets of correspondence that the author did not destroy.
• The Penguin Collection held at The University of Bristol contains some archival material relating to the publication of Wyndham’s books. A bibliography of Wyndham’s works can be found on the Fantastic Fiction site
• Check out the brilliant The Art of Penguin Science Fiction web site for covers of The Midwich Cuckoos and other SF books published by Penguin
Midwich Main: The Uncompleted Sequel
John Wyndham’s “Midwich Main” is an uncompleted sequel to The Midwich Cuckoos, commissioned by MGM. It’s set almost sixteen years after The Midwich Cuckoos, breaking off just as the reader realises that the protagonist, Richard Gayford, is under the control of a friend of one of the randomly distributed, apparently alien Children he has been asked to investigate.
Wyndham abandoned the novel because, according to correspondence in Liverpool University’s Special Collections and Archives, he felt it was leading into developments that would be little more than a rerun of the original story
Before the project was stalled by litigation, author Stephen Gallagher started to develop ideas for a contemporary TV adaptation of John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos for producer Marc Samuelson. At that time Marc’s company had a long-term option on all the Wyndham material that still lay within the Estate’s control. He reveals here how he looked at “Midwich Main” as a possible core for a contemporary adaptation.