Runtime: 90 minutes Discs (CD version): 2
John Wyndham’s aliens are never in a hurry. His keynote novels are hallmarked by invaders, benevolent or otherwise, that arrive by stealth rather than in spacecraft; via spores in Day Of The Triffids; as a brood of golden-haired, super-powered children following a plague of xenogenetic pregnancies in The Midwich Cuckoos (filmed twice as Village Of The Damned); and in the 1968 novel Chocky, in the form of the bizarre ‘possession’ of a 12-year old boy by an intelligence that seems to be communicating from a distant planet by some manner of technologically-enhanced telepathy.
Young Matthew Gore’s parents are alarmed when they find out about their slightly-reclusive adopted son’s ‘invisible friend’, an asexual presence that demonstrates little patience with the shortcomings of primitive human technology and counts in binary – since the decimal system seems to be based on ten fingers that it may not itself possess. Is the lad succumbing to schizophrenia and psychosis, or is there some basis to the increasingly tempting notion that he is in contact with a ‘superior’ intelligence?
Either way, the visitor is almost as unwelcome to its host as to the boy’s increasingly desperate parents, tormenting Matthew with a stream of questions about Earth, alternated with confusing disclosures of technologies far beyond his grasp – or that of the human race. Pivotal among these confidences is that called ‘XXXXX’, which threatens to obviate all currently-devised Earth methods of propulsion.
When the alien intelligence apparently intervenes to save the life of Matthew and his sister during an accident on a frozen lake, word begins to emerge that Matthew is a bit more than just ‘strange’. Interest from local papers and finally radio and television prompt the parents to seek evaluation by an eminent psychiatrist. During the consultation, the doctor starts an impromptu hypnosis session without the absent parents’ permission, and within twenty-four hours, the troubled boy disappears, presumed kidnapped or a suicide…
The value of Wyndham’s proto-exemplary narrative prose is inevitably lost in dramatisations of his work, and this is unfortunate, since his dialogue veers between muscularly cinematic and over-intellectualising. Nonetheless the strength of his luminous imagination overcomes these shortcomings.
The author’s more popular works, such as Triffids and Cuckoos can prove too broad and cinematic to transfer easily to radio, with the risk of intrusive over-description breaking the audio-drama spell, but the invisible alien of Chocky is well-suited to both low-key screen adaptation –the 1984 Thames TV children’s version spawned two sequel series – and radio treatment. This 1998 production from the BBC is well-acted and produced, and often quite chilling, with only one occasion of ‘description overload’ (during a spectacular walk in the Welsh valleys).
Modernising touches are few; not many are needed, and it is not until well into the 90-minute runtime that references to a contemporary TV advertising campaign and the mother’s job as a web-designer intrude into a timeless and simply-told story. The only adaptation decision that may confuse is how exactly the musically-inclined Matthew is able to synthesise the voice of his alien chum with his home-brewed studio when acting as a ‘medium’ for Chocky to talk to someone else besides him, a clumsy modern flourish.
Emergent Wyndham fans, introduced to his work and excited by his apocalyptic masterpieces, should prepare themselves for a far more homely and domestic tale of alien invasion which is heavy on exposition and which avoids dramatic flourishes, even to the point of completely omitting scenes of what is potentially the most exciting part of the story – Matthew’s disappearance.
Even so, a strong and convincing cast combine with first-rate production to guarantee a few chills to fans both of science-fiction in general, and of this well-respected author, who expounded in the canon of his work an intelligent and thought-provoking vision of a complacent mankind unprepared for societal change in the form of new technology and alien creeds.
Chocky is available from January 7th as CD and digital download. See the BBC Shop for more.