How The Midwich Cuckoos Explores the Politics of Parenthood

Creator David Farr and director Alice Troughton on how their new adaptation of John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos explores the nuances of parenthood.

Midwich cuckoos
Photo: Sky

In John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos a remote village is inexplicably plunged into darkness and all the residents rendered unconscious. When they wake, all the women of childbearing age are suddenly pregnant. The children they give birth to are white haired aliens with powers of telepathy between each other. Talk about village of the damned (or rather perhaps don’t – creator David Farr likes the first half of the 1960 film version but not the second half and can’t stand the John Carpenter 1995 update).

This new version though, a seven part series for Sky, has updated Wyndham’s story and places a major focus on the differing relationships between parents and children (even when those children are aliens). Den of Geek sat down with Farr and episodes one and two director Alice Troughton to discuss attachment, body politics and that extraordinary birthing scene.

What’s your relationship to the source material and what was the inspiration for doing a new adaptation?

David Farr: I read it when I was 12 and The Day of the Triffids was on telly around then. This was by far the one that hit me the most. I just loved it. I was born in a small town, I grew up in a small town. It was the 80s and it was that kind of weird Thatcherite time when everything was too good to be true. I always felt that we were all on tranquilizers. It was that kind of vibe in my town.

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I wanted to update it, obviously, so I moved it to a commuter town away from the rural thing. That in turn means of course it is not as remote. So then you have to think about updating the children. If they’re all blonde aliens in our world, people will know in seconds. And that becomes a lot less interesting. They have to be able to hide in plain sight.

And then the final part of it was I really felt it was such a brilliant story about women about motherhood and about attachment or non attachment to your child. And it felt so exciting and fertile and Wyndham hadn’t really gotten there that much. He does a bit, very quickly, very cursorily and I wanted to focus majorly on that so we shifted Zellaby across from the “lecturer man” if you like, to the “listener woman”. And that was a great role for someone like Keeley and then we had to get an amazing director who sees that all. Alice came storming through the door insisting she was the only person who could possibly do it and she had exactly the obsessional idea around these sorts of ideas that we needed. 

Alice what was your introduction to Wyndham? 

Alice Troughton: I was like David! I was lying in bed at 13 reading Wyndham and kind of wanting access to the world of sci-fi. As a fan, as women you were the assistant or you were off screen. Wyndham is brilliant and I would say that in fact, Cuckoos is a favourite book, but it’s not my favourite book. I would say The Chrysalids was my favourite book. He was writing for his time in Midwich. He was writing very male gaze whereas in The Chrysalids he was writing from the point of view of the “other”. I thought that that was incredible. So you bring that 1950s zeitgeist and the Cold War aspect bubbling under and you push that into the 21st century and it needed that uplift and reinvention and relevance to our time. I read David’s script and I didn’t give him any peace. I battened down the door saying, “I have to do this. This is just amazing.” And luckily they let me do it. 

How important and significant was it to make it politically current?

DF: There’s nothing more political, as we’re seeing right now, than the act of giving birth or not giving birth and the choice over the body. So actually, that was one of the most interesting things, the episode two abortion sequences, which was really important to place us in a state where that choice is available and suddenly is rendered not available through this external force. 

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It places the children in a very particular light which then you forget about. And suddenly they’re born and they’re sweet and they’re lovely, but actually, we know that that mind, that force has done something very extreme in that moment. That there is this constant very subtle political resonance. And that continues all the way through, the choices that they make around their parents, particularly their mothers, around attachment, around lack of freedom, around control would be the best word to use. They are a coercively controlling force. 

AT: David with the character Zoe really showed that because she’s our outlier. And she’s the one that really has the unease and the flicker of “this is not right, there’s something not right”. We had great fun researching things like zombie ants, which are ants that get infected with a virulent fungus that makes the ant go to the top of a particular piece of grass, the highest one and then it will spore out from there, killing the ant as it spores. 

So there were nature examples, not just the cuckoo, about parasitic and symbiotic relationships that go into it. Zoe, just the Kool Aid doesn’t work. With Zoe it doesn’t and she just never gets bound into it. So it’s really interesting to tell her storyline and her unease. 

DF: She’s the rebel, in a kind of the existential sense. 

AF: Is it outlier? David, you’re much better, is it outlier?

DF: Outlier. Yeah. Sort of. I mean, I think she’s a bit more conscious is the only thing I’d say because an outlier can be an outlier because they’re just not in the Venn diagram. But she’s a bit more consciously the rebel. She’s like, “I stand against that”. Even though everyone else is saying no, it’s fine. I think a lot of horror and a lot of science fiction has that. That idea that you have to stand there and say no, this is what I see. And this is dangerous. 

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Curtis is also skeptical but because he’s a man he gets to leave and go and live somewhere else. 

DF: But also, in his case, it’s not because he’s “seen”. He hasn’t got to know the child. It’s just not his. So his reaction is an animal act of ownership. That kid is not mine. I don’t want it anywhere near me. I think it’s good Curtis exists, because I don’t want to suggest that this is just about the victory of the liberals. If you know what I mean. I think it’s important that you can have different political positions. But he’s not perfect. He’s far from a perfect soul, Curtis. I certainly didn’t want to in any way make him a hero. He’s not a hero. 

Do you see this as a horror? 

DF: I kind of say it’s a sci-fi but it has no lasers, no planets. And it’s a horror, Yes, to an extent but it doesn’t have much gore, for example. It has a little bit here and there. 

AT: Dark, disturbing, thrilling… And I think disturbing is genre wise. But you know, in America, they never let you say what genre it is. They say it’s a genre piece rather than a horror. I think that that’s where we want to caveat it because being a genre piece just means that you can bring your own expectations to it. I don’t want people coming in expecting it to be horror and then [being disappointed]. Yet, it could be homo Deus coming. You know, is this the next iteration of humanity? We know we’ve got to evolve to the next species. It’s an evolutionary story. I don’t want to burden people with the preconceptions of what this might be so that they go “I don’t want to watch sci fi, I don’t want to watch horror” because actually, we all need to watch these, because they’re archetypal stories. They tell us a lot about us as a species. I would call it a genre piece that’s dark, thrilling and disturbing.

DF: Because it’s also a community drama, as well, isn’t it? It’s about a community under pressure. So I don’t mind all the words being attached but I don’t want to only choose one.

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Do you take a stance on the kids?

DF: We do take a stance but we also listen to their arguments. One of the main reasons why we chose not to go with the very obvious white haired, totalitarian children is even in the film, and it’s a wonderful film, the old film does run out of steam because you just know everything about the children very quickly and there’s no real development. The interest was to create genuine bonds and attachments possibly both ways and have a nature/nurture discussion. You can be born of a particular organism but if you spend a long period of time inside a nurturing family household, it changes you. And it has to change you. Unless you’re not alive. And this consciousness is alive. It’s an organic thing. 

AT: Paul and Jody’s Cuckoo, Nathan is… You don’t know why he’s the more humanized cuckoo. But he is the more humanized Cuckoo. Is it nurture? Is it nature? It’s such huge arguments. Also, the other thing I think this really cleverly doesn’t do is go “Oh, human race you’re bloody marvelous and everything else is awful.” The Cuckoos really don’t understand us. 

How did you find shooting that incredible birthing sequence?

AT: I have to say I really wanted to do the birthing sequence. It was something I was very passionate about getting out there because we just don’t see it. You know, I mean, you can’t do giving birth to aliens without giving birth to aliens, and I found that a really interesting kind of challenge as a director. 

We had the most incredible actors in that. I was so bowled over by those women, I mean they gave everything to that scene and that’s what makes it. I think they were just brilliant. But I mean, it was conceptual, which is not a pun. I felt it really important that we actually do see the pain and the struggle and the bonding that happens afterwards. It really felt like it bookended the first two episodes really well and gave you that frisson to go forward into the next time jump basically. 

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