TV REVIEW: THE MIDWICH CUCKOOS (2022), some spoilers

Figure 1 – Midwich Cuckoos First Edition (British)

Before I begin, let me congratulate our R. Graeme Cameron, who has won the Canadian Aurora Award for Fan Writing! Well done, Graeme!

Back in the late 1950s, when I was a wee lad, I read everything in the library that was even vaguely science-fictional. That’s the reason I read Moonraker, by Ian Fleming, years before anyone ever heard of James Bond—it was in the science fiction section (two bookcases) of the Tyndall Air Force Base Library in Panama City, Florida in the late ‘50s, early ‘60s. They also had two or three books by a British writer named John Wyndham (I later found out that was a pseudonym, or cut-down version of the writer named John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris), namely Day of the Triffids, Out of the Deeps, and Re-Birth (the latter two were the Americanized titles of books originally called The Kraken Wakes and The Chrysalids, respecively; looking it up, I believe Re-Birth has a Richard Powers cover! Woo-hoo! Even at that age (about 11 or 12, I think) I was already familiar with many SF artists. But I digress.)

Figure 2 – Midwich Cuckoos poster for Sky

The book (Figure 1) was about a small village in England which suffered the oddest alien invasion yet: invasion by pregnancy. It was published in 1957, an era which probably would be alien to today’s North American youth; there were no computers, fewer TVs, the Soviet Union was in full sway, and society was way different from what it is today. (One of the complaints against the book from Damon Knight was that the language was somewhat prissy and sentimentalist, though he fails to realize that publishing SF in Britain in 1957 meant one had to deal with manners and mores of the time. He also found it boring, though as a younger reader I did not.)

Anyway, the book dealt with a (fictional) village in rural England where suddenly the whole village falls unconscious for a day; it’s discovered when accidents happen on the only roads leading in or out of Midwich. The Army takes over for the government and, upon experimentation, it’s found that the area is covered by a hemispherical “dead zone,” where any living creature entering it falls immediately unconscious, though recovery is instant when said animal (or human) is brought back outside the zone. The zone lasts for about a day, then suddenly disappears. Shortly thereafter, it’s found that any female (human) of suitable age inside the zone has become pregnant.

When the children are born, there is nothing to distinguish them from any ordinary children, except that they are very smart and develop several times faster than (shall I say?) “human” children. Eventually, it’s found that they have a telepathic bond with each other (and some limited power to read human minds) and react violently to any perceived threat by killing whatever seems to be threatening, whether it be human or animal. It’s also discovered that this “cuckoo” situation has happened in a number of places around the world, including behind the Iron Curtain.

Eventually, no surprise, the children become a threat to normal humans and are killed with the complicity of one of their teachers. This was a very different kind of invasion story from the usual, and made great fodder for the movies. It was filmed twice as Village of the Damned (1960 and 1995) as well as a sequel, Children of the Damned (1964). In the movies, the children are easily identifiable by their identical platinum blonde wigs… er, hairdos. It was also made into radio plays several times in Britain (1982, 2003, 2017).

Because of the changed times and attitudes and, I guess, the public’s new hunger for “sci-fi” movies and series, it was inevitable that it should be remade and updated; I’m glad that it was Sky rather than Netflix or Amazon who’ve done it, frankly. Because Sky is a British company, the adaptation was bound to be somewhat more faithful to the original than any American adaptation. Yes, I know that sounds rather snobby, but don’t forget, I’m a bit OCD, so I’m mostly happy to see more faithful adaptations of books into movies wherever possible.

Sky has made a seven-episode series which more or less follows the familiar pattern; the main departure is the addition of a character who will make it possible for them to do a second series; I hope you won’t be disappointed to learn that the final episode was both definitive and open-ended. During this series, we see the children (who don’t, thank Ghu, wear platinum blonde wigs!) at several stages of their development—and the showrunners have done a marvelous job of matching faces and “looks” of the children from their early (about 1 year) to their late (about 10 years) development. A number of things are front and center that probably wouldn’t have happened in 1957; for example, mixed-culture couples, and so on. There are many explorations of things like women’s rights/gender themes, and how some parents whole-heartedly accept their children, despite DNA tests showing that only one parent’s DNA is in each child—and some don’t accept them at all, viewing them indeed as “cuckoos.” (As you probably know, the cuckoo is known to lay its eggs in other birds’ nests, and as the baby grows, it throws out or overwhelms the birds’ own babies, taking over the nest and forcing the parents to raise it instead of their own babies. It’s called “brood parasitism.”)

The movie is well led by a number of actors who, being British, aren’t that familiar to me, but I thought the cast did a terrific job. Standouts for me were Keely Hawes, as Dr. Susannah Zellaby; Max Beesley as DCI Paul Haynes; Synnove Karlsen as Cassie Stone (Zellaby’s daughter); and a number of the older children, though I can’t tell you all the little actors’ names. I have to say that I really enjoyed this series—it sucked me in and kept me watching, though some of the middle was a little bit draggy.

Figure 3 – Invasion of the Star Creatures poster

Now comes my painful duty to warn you off a movie. Don’t be fooled by the colour poster—the movie (all 69 minutes of it) is in glorious black-and-white, even though the MGM logo that precedes it is in colour. This will give you a hint of the quality of this film: the first title card says “R.I. Diculous presents” and it goes on from there. Despite the poster, there are only two (“count ‘em, two!”) “giant” alien women in the film—in fact, there are only three women total, and one is “the colonel’s” secretary, who has a bit part (unless, as I suspect, one of the “vege-monsters” was a woman) and only says stuff like “The Colonel will see you now.” Be warned: you will never get these 69 minutes back, though you may desperately want to. We watched this in the hope that it would be a cute, or funny, or nostalgic 1960s “sci-fi” film. To quote Jordan Peele: “Nope”!

The movie concerns the misadventures of two US Army privates, sort of an extremely low-rent Lewis and Martin, named “Philbrick” (Bob Ball) and “Penn” (Frankie Ray Penelli), who work on a California missile base. Their sergeant (Trustin Howard) is a jive-talking cool cat (remember, this is 1962) who takes them to see the colonel, Colonel Awol (Mark Ferris), who sends them to inspect a crater formed by “the biggest atomic bomb ever set off in the United States,” in which a previously unknown cave has appeared. Inside the cave is a 3- or 4-level set of “rocky ramps” or trails (badly constructed), into which the soldiers plunge—going up and down and sideways in a routine inspired by the Marx Brothers, I’m sure, but having none of the wit or charm of the previous. This back-and-forth chase is repeated enough throughout the film in order, I’m guessing, to pad out the movie to its already too long 69 minutes.

Inside they meet two “giant” alien women, Professor Tanga (Dolores Reed) and Dr. Puna (Joanne Arnold), and their “army” of vegetable men (they are grown hydroponically and are “indestructible” and extremely strong; they do all the scut work around the alien base.) The women explain that their planet is too small, so they’re the advance force to prepare the Earth for takeover, to save us Earth people from ourselves, as we’re too stupid to live. The sergeant and his four soldiers are taken over and “zombified,” but our two heroes escape (not without another chase up and down the rock trail set), pursued by vege-men. (Penn [I think] exclaims that it’s the first time a salad has tossed him.) During the ensuing chase, Penn gets to do his Jimmy Cagney, his Edward G. Robinson, and his Peter Lorre impressions (if he did any earlier, I missed ‘em). They were adequate impressions.

Attempting to stop Puna and Tanga’s takeoff, the two meet up with a small group of “Indians” on horses, only one of whom speaks any English. Everyone smokes a “peace pipe” and also gets drunk. Or maybe this is after they discover that the colonel and Philbrick are both members of a club based on a TV or movie spaceman, and Philbrick outranks the colonel in the club. So is the head “Indian,” (Native American) but he’s a “General” in the club, so the group including the colonel has to drink and smoke. Leaving the others lying on the ground, Philbrick and Penn make it to the cave, kiss the women and save the world. There’s more to it, but I’ve run out of ways to talk about this movie without savaging it. So go ahead, watch it—but don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Do you have anything to say about this? Go ahead—vent! You can comment here or on Facebook, or even by email (stevefah at hotmail dot com). All comments are welcome! (Just be polite, please.) My opinion is, as always, my own, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories or its owner, editor, publisher or other columnists. See you next time!

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