Directors – (Episodes 1&2) Alice Troughton, (Episode 3-5) Jennifer Perrott & (Episode 6&7) Börkur Sigthorsson, Teleplay (Episodes 1-2&6-7) – David Farr, (Episode 3) Sasha Hails, (Episode 4) Laura Lomas & (Episode 5) Namsi Khan, Created by David Farr, Based on the Novel by John Wyndham, Producer (Episodes 3-5) – Pat Karam, Photography – (Episodes 1&2) David Katznelson & (Episode 3&4) – Seppe Van Griken, (Episode 5) Simon Chapman & (Episode 6-7) Anna Patarakina, Music – Hannah Peel, Visual Effects – The Flying Colour Company (Supervisor – Dom Thomson), Special Effects Supervisor – Neal Champion, Production Design – (Episodes 1&2) Tom Bowyer & (Episode 3-7) Nick Palmer. Production Company – Route 24/Snowed-In Productions/Sky Studios.
Keeley Hawes (Susannah Zellaby), Max Beesley (Paul Haynes), Aisling Loftus (Zoe Moran), Lara Rossi (Jodie Blake), Ukweli Roach (Sam Clyde), Samuel West (Bernard Westcott), Synnøve Karlsen (Cassie Stone), Cherrelle Skeete (Bryony Cummings), Georgie Thorne (Hannah Moran), Lewis Reeves (Curtis Saunders), Billie Gadsdon (Evie Stone), Jude Ible-Thompson (Nathan Blake), Hannah Tointon (Rachel Saunders), Rebekah Staton (Mary-Ann Phillips), Anneika Rose (Amrita Chohhan), Erin Ainsworth & Natalia Harris (Lily-Grace Phillips), Aditi Pothuganti (Sunny Chohham), Jude Muir (Joe Saunders), Jade Harrison (Deborah Haynes), Mark Dexter (Stewart Mclean), Darcie Smith (Charlotte McLean), Evan Scott (Connor Colter), Alec Nichols (Max Fenner)
The small English village of Midwich is abruptly affected by a zone that causes everybody inside to fall asleep. Authorities rush to the scene but then several hours later everybody awakes, seemingly unaffected. Not long after, it is determined that all of the women of child-bearing age that were within the blackout zone are pregnant. The authorities step in and attempt to maintain an absolute veil of secrecy over what happened. When some of the women attempt to abort the children, something causes them to be unable to go through with this, while the pregnant women find they are unable to leave Midwich. The children are born but grow up into being cold, superior and alien. Child psychologist Susannah Zellaby, who was outside the zone but whose daughter Cassie was affected, is brought in to help the parents cope. Susannah observes that the children form a gestalt group mind. However, she also observes that the children are capable of uniting their minds to deal with any threat by forcing people to kill themselves. They are also manipulating and dividing their parents so as to attach themselves to those they know will protect them.
John Wyndham (1903-69) was a British science-fiction writer who came to prominence in the 1950s with works like The Day of the Triffids (1951), The Kraken Wakes (1953), The Chrysalids (1955) and The Trouble with Lichen (1960). Wyndham specialised in novels where everyday middle-class Britain (of the 1950s and 60s) faced an overwhelming catastrophe.
One of Wyndham’s best-regarded works is The Midwich Cuckoos (1957) about a village where women are impregnated by a mysterious alien force. (The cuckoos of the title refer to some species of the bird that lay their eggs in the nest of other birds). Soon after publication, this was filmed as Village of the Damned (1960), which is regarded as a classic work of the era. This had a sequel of sorts with Children of the Damned (1964), although here the children are much more sympathetic. The original was later far less effectively remade by John Carpenter and transferred to the USA with Village of the Damned (1995). (See below for other screen adaptations of John Wyndham’s works).
This was a new version of the story that aired on the UK’s Sky Max network in seven episodes of between 45-60 minutes each. This version was created by David Farr, the writer/producer who wrote the screenplays for Hanna (2011) and HHhH (2017), as well as directed The Ones Below (2015). Farr has worked in television, creating, writing and producing tv series such as The Night Manager (2016), Troy: Fall of a City (2018) and the tv version of Hanna (2019-21).
The biggest change that The Midwich Cuckoos makes over the previous film versions is that it has been reconceived as a more woman-centred work. Two of the three directors are women. Outside of the episodes written by David Farr, all others are written by women. This is most noticeable when it comes to Gordon Zellaby, the central character of the book who was played by George Sanders in the 1960 film (and Americanised with Christopher Reeve in the 1995 film). In all other versions, Zellaby is a local man whose wife becomes one of the pregnant women, whereas here the character is rewritten as a woman (Keeley Hawes) whose daughter becomes pregnant.
The other major change that comes in is that the village of Midwich has become a more diverse complement with a variety of African and Indian faces seen amongst those affected and the children. This had a racist online backlash with people reacting against the replacement of the all-blonde children of the two previous films with ones who weren’t. (For all such objections, it should be noted that the children who appeared in Children of the Damned were an ethnically mixed group). I don’t wish to at all side with this argument, although what I will say is that when the all-blonde children were introduced in 1960, they were seen as representing a metaphor of Aryan superiority and the spectre of Nazism. Now, with the children here lacking the same all-white, all-blonde looks and subtly raised foreheads, they are just regular children. (The one aspect that is retained is their glowing eyes). You cannot help but wonder how much more insidious and sinister an effect it would have been if the series has kept its complement of Caucasian, African and Indian mothers only to have the children they produce still be ones that were white, blonde and coldly superior.
Perhaps the one amusing thing that the children here do is all adopt school uniforms. Although school uniform is more widespread in the UK, in countries like the US and Canada, it comes with undeniable overtones of people in exclusive boarding schools. Whether it has the same resonance in the UK, I don’t know, but outside of it, the appearance of the children in their school blazers comes with an undeniable overtone of class privilege.
You could even argue that this is a Covid-era version of the story. After all, the story now gets an addition to the plot where the sinister government steps in and forces all of the people in Midwich to stay in their town, while the alien force itself seems to act to prevent any of the townspeople from leaving. Later we see the soldiers that come under the children’s control as being the only ones that are masked up. This leaves you wondering if this is a version of The Midwich Cuckoos that has a covert anti-masking agenda.
The mini-series does some things undeniably well. Of the three filmed versions, it handles the initial blackout probably the best. All the other versions have this over and done with fairly quickly at the start of the show, whereas this draws the mystery of what is happening out for an entire hour-long episode as we see government agencies trying to determine the nature of the zone. On the other hand, the episode goes and blows its effect with the unintentionally funny end of the episode where all the women wake up and start clutching their midriffs in unison. I am no expert on matters gynaecological but isn’t it meant to be some months in before one starts to notice signs of pregnancy, not a matter of hours after the act of impregnation occurred?
The second episode starts in better where the writing gets the shocked reaction of the women waking up to find they are pregnant better than any of the other versions – including teenagers who were partying and a woman who says that she hasn’t had sex for years. The only thing I was surprised to see the mini-series doesn’t include, which it has far greater freedom to these days, is showing a woman who is a lesbian waking up to find they are pregnant. Unlike all the other alien or diabolical pregnancy stories that get made on American shores – see Pregnancy Horrors – this doesn’t see the topic of abortion as a taboo subject and has several of the women immediately try to go off and get one (even if the alien force thwarts their efforts).
This is also a version that has been written sixty years after Wyndham was writing and the first Village of the Damned came out and has the benefit of several decades worth of child psychology and good-parenting manuals to draw on. The children are not quite as emotionless. Interestingly, their powers are not as omniscient – they still form a psychic gestalt and can control minds but they no longer have the ability to read the minds of others. This means the dropping of the vivid climax of the 1960 film where George Sanders tried to protect himself from their intrusion into his mind by focusing on the image of a brick wall.
On the other hand, this does make some of the children’s attacks on others seem a little petty. They kill a dog that barks at them; try to kill a boy because a father tells one of the children to get off a swing; and cause Aisling Loftus to bash her head into a wall because they don’t like her attitude. Part of this is the series format that requires the story to draw the basics of what made up a 90-minute film out to four times the length. The middle of the show is taken up by dramas between several families and the way the children manipulate them and isolate one parent from the other, including forcing Anneika Rose into a refrigeration van and manipulating Kelley Hawes into pursuing Billie Gadsdon down a train track so that she can be removed from the case.
By Episode 5, the story goes off at a left field tangent that is completely different to Wyndham and any of the other film versions. [PLOT SPOILERS] Here we learn that this is not the first appearance of the children and that they previously appeared in Russia in 1973 but that the town was wiped out by a bomb. (Although, Wyndham did have the invasion occurring simultaneously in four other locations around the world, including a town in Russia). A later plot spoiler reveals that they are being aided by one survivor who has infiltrated the British government.
This serves to turn the children into something far more sympathetic. Now they are no longer cold and superior; they are just alien children who are reacting to the hostile way that humanity has treated them in the past and have done so for defensive purposes – very much the central theme of Children of the Damned. This also takes from the 1995 film the idea that one of the children doesn’t want to belong to the gestalt. This greater sympathy is still not enough to change the story – this version ends with the same plot to blow up the children, although the way it is depicted here is by no means as effective a scene as it was in the 1960 film (and the 1995 film to a lesser extent).
Other John Wyndham screen adaptations The Day of the Triffids (1962); the alternate world film Quest for Love (1971); the BBC tv mini-series The Day of the Triffids (1981); the children’s tv series Chocky (1984) about an alien visitor; the alternate world film Random Quest (2006); and the BBC tv mini-series The Day of the Triffids (2009).