Thursday, 27 February 2014

Growing Up With Wyndham... (The Day of The Triffids & Chocky)

During the 1980s, back when I was a child, two BBC science fiction series distinctly stick in my mind. These are 'The Day of The Triffids' and 'Chocky'. These were small screen adapatations of the novels 'The Day of The Triffids' (1951) and 'Chocky' (1968), both by prolific British science fiction writer John Wyndham at either end of a very successful career.

Until fairly recently they were just the shadowy recollections of a child. The Triffids series was all about deadly walking plants that hunted down and killed whoever they found, while 'Chocky' was all about an alien's relationship with a young boy and a Dad who just wanted to help and understand. Thinking back I was afraid of the plants, and I thought the Dad in 'Chocky' was the best Dad that ever existed.

'The Day of The Triffids' was a six half-hour episode drama series that came out in 1981. Having watched it on DVD, the triffids, are, for want of a better word, crude to say the least, almost laughable by today's standards but even fake looking they were solid. A CGI triffid would be even more laughable.

A quick summary - a meteorite storm blind the population of the Earth except for a lucky few, like the protagonists Bill Masen and Josella Payton. With society breaking down, the triffids, a hybrid plant life farmed for oil, break free and begin hunting down and eating the blind populace. This comes under Wyndham's umbrella themed 'cosy catastrophe'. The protagonists are sighted and therefore 'empowered' members of what remains of society who have to decide what to do next. Do they help who they can until eventually they are overcome by the magnitude of the task, or do they try to create a new society, leaving many behind in the process?

There are lots of moral questions in 'The Day of The Triffids' but basically, the main one is about the nature of society itself. We can only care for underprivileged and the disabled when the machinery is in place to do so, when that machinery is ruthlessly dismantled, society has to discard all but the working components of itself in order to survive. It's a harsh lesson that neither the book or the tv series shy away from. Survival becomes paramount and morality has to change. It can no longer exist as it did, the absolutes are no longer compatible with what has to happen. Tough love, and yet there is a matter of fact tone to all this that made the TV series chilling, perhaps even more than the man eating plants.

'The Day of The Triffids' has since been remade in 2009 with Dougray Scott as Bill Masen. Unlike the 1981 series the plot is not faithful to the book and some of the plot twists are laughable. In this version Masen's father is involved and there are nuns who leave out parishioners as food for the triffids. That's not the book, that's just horror. In the 1981 series, Masen if forced to look after a group of the blind only for them to die around him or disease. He finds Josella and has a family while holding out against the triffids for years. The harsh realities do not need plot gimmicks to be successful, they just are.

The final memory of that 1981 series that really grinds is the sound the triffids make, a sort of disgusting organic rapid drum beat that when you hear it, you know death is coming.

'Chocky' on the other hand, is less about horror and more about growing up. Matthew Gore's mind is invaded by an alien and his parents David and Maty try to cope. In a nutshell - alien meets boy, alien puts boy in danger, boy is kidnapped, alien decides to leave boy so boy will be safe from the evil men who would exploit him. Father comforts boy while mother is relieved it is all over and he is back to normal.

This series was made in 1984 and the theme music and opening credits were 'unearthly' disquieting. Basically they depict something alien, observing our world as it merges with the face of a young boy. Again this is a six part half hour BBC series which was very faithful to the subject matter. But 'Chocky' is far from a 'cosy catastrophe', it is rather all about the process of questioning and learning. It is also about how one parent, the mother, will hold their child back, afraid for them, wanting to protect them, but is ultimately unwilling to understand them. The other parent, the father, asks as many questions as his son, seeking to understand what has invaded him, and with an open mind, is not quick to judge, but simply wants to help if he can. 
Wyndham is a clever man, the questions Chocky asks about why the cow can't work out how to open a gate are the sort of questions any child might ask as they try to understand and define the world around them. As adults most of us no longer ask these questions, the world is as it is simply because it is. We don't really know why and we never try to find out, like the cow who refuses to open the gate. The alien is in essence a child, and the question it asks are just as innocent and as thought provoking as any a child would ask. I watched this series as a child and at the time it made me think deeply about a world that I didn't and still don't understand.

There are of course, a few gimmicks, the blue ethereal light that represents 'Chocky'. (In the novel Chocky was only ever a voice in Matthew's head.) Also Chocky allows Matthew to share viewpoints, by concentrating Matthew can see what Chocky sees and draw it, creating paintings which are like the way we see but subtly different. Chocky is a superior being, amused by our backwardness but nevertheless instilling our lives with value. She saves Matthew's life when he is about to drown by showing him how to swim. She also makes the sacrifice of leaving him after he has been kidnapped in order to guarantee his safety. Chocky has values, and it is inferred, she has more values than many of the unscrupulous members of humankind.

But like I said, at the time I thought it was as much about Matthew's relationship with his father as it was with Chocky. The total trust between them demonstrating the sort of relationship we all want to have with our fathers.

Some science fiction stays with you forever. The less said about the non book version sequels to Chocky the better.

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