As any parent will tell you, there are often moments – usually around meals and bedtimes – when you look into your children’s faces and see not innocents trailing clouds of glory but obligate brood parasites gleefully draining you of every resource you have. These moments tend to pass …
Unless you live in a certain English village in Winshire called Midwich. Then, my dears, you are stuck.
Sky’s new seven-part drama The Midwich Cuckoos is the latest adaptation (by David Farr, who did the same with John le Carré’s The Night Manager to much acclaim) of John Wyndham’s perennially popular 1957 sci-fi tale. Even if you have not read the book, or seen the equally famous 1960 film Village of the Damned (the one with all the creepy identikit children who would have been even creepier if the blond wigs hadn’t been so … wiggy) or John Carpenter’s 1995 take on it, or heard any of the many radio adaptations, you have probably absorbed the basics by osmosis.
Farr’s version does not deviate from the original premise, to the project’s detriment, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. One ordinary day in ordinary Midwich, there is a crackle of electrical disturbance, the traffic lights go a bit odd and citizens are suddenly rendered unconscious. Anybody trying to get into the village blacks out too, as the police and Home Office discover when their investigators and helicopters all drop like flies.
Life gets less ordinary still when the inhabitants wake up 12 hours later and find that every woman of childbearing age is pregnant. There is a lot of placing of hands on bellies and gazing in wonderment up at the sky as expressions of incredulous delight creep slowly across faces, instead of a more plausible mass panic. This is when you know you are in for eight hours of traditional fare rather than any dizzying innovation, and so it proves.
Reactions remain absurdly muted. Newcomers to the village Zoë (Aisling Loftus) and Tom (Ukweli Roach) are thrilled that Zoë is pregnant, having been told they were infertile. Jodie (Lara Rossi doing her best with a character whose entire description, I’d wager, consisted of the word “feisty”), sister-in-law of the local police chief Paul (Max Beesley – “stoic” for him), is less thrilled. Young Cassie (Synnøve Karlsen), who has apparent mental health and perhaps addiction issues, is immediately pro-baby, however it got there. Her mother, child psychologist Susannah Zellaby (Keeley Hawes), thinks, y’know, there might be a few wrinkles to come in this whole mass unexplained pregnancy thing.
There are. The handful of women who go for terminations have their minds controlled and walk away. Everyone resigns themselves to not being able to leave Midwich. When the babies are born they grow faster than normal and soon start to exhibit what no one near them seems to feel are terrifying tele-cum-psychopathic behaviours.
Via Samuel West as Murky Government Figure, it becomes clear that there is also a sinister backstory, but as that is even flatter than the forestory it need not detain us.
The new adaptation did not know it would be coming out in the wake of news that Roe v Wade and the right to abortion was about to be overthrown in the US. But it was certainly made in a world where women’s rights are under attack, where invasion by alien forces of one kind or another – from viruses to tyrannical leaders suddenly unleashing hell on their neighbours – and the question of how we protect and share dwindling resources are ever in our minds. To make such a pedestrian version of Wyndham’s book, instead of using its potent premise as a springboard for deep dives into motherhood, female autonomy or experience, or any of the other avenues it opens up, feels like a hugely wasted opportunity.
Sex-swapping the Zellaby character hardly makes up for it. To lean in to a Handmaid’s Tale vibe or use the production to examine some other dystopian vision wouldn’t dishonour the book; there’s plenty shifting about beneath Wyndham’s superficially “acceptable” story that could justify much darker takes than the “cosy catastrophist” (as Wyndham was dismissed by Brian Aldiss) is now known for. As it is, we are left with no more than an adequately told, already known story dragged out for at least two hours longer than necessary while using about 10% of the talent its actors have to offer. Damn.