AAs any parent will tell you, there are often times – usually around mealtimes and bedtimes – when you look into your children’s faces and don’t see innocent people dragging clouds of glory. , but brood parasites forced to blithely drain you of all the resources you have. These moments tend to pass…
Unless you live in a certain English village in Winshire called Midwich. So, dear ones, you are stuck.
Sky’s new seven-part drama The Midwich Cuckoos (Sky Max) is the latest adaptation (by David Farr, who did the same with John le Carré’s The Night Manager to great acclaim) of the sci-fi tale Always Popular from 1957 by John Wyndham. Even if you haven’t read the book, or seen the no less famous 1960 movie Village of the Damned (the one with all the scary composite kids who would have been even scarier if the blonde wigs hadn’t been if… wiggy) or John Carpenter’s 1995, or heard one of the many radio adaptations, you’ve probably absorbed the basics by osmosis.
Farr’s version does not deviate from the original premise, to the detriment of the project, but let’s not rush. On an ordinary day in ordinary Midwich, there’s a crackle of electrical disturbance, traffic lights get a bit strange, and citizens are suddenly rendered unconscious. Anyone who tries to enter the village also faints, as the police and Home Office find out when their investigators and helicopters all drop like flies.
Life becomes even less ordinary when the locals wake up 12 hours later to find that all the women of childbearing age are pregnant. There are plenty of hands on stomachs and wondering gazes skyward as expressions of disbelieving joy slowly creep over faces, instead of more plausible mass panic. That’s when you know you’re getting eight hours of traditional fare rather than some dizzying innovation, and that’s proof.
The reactions remain absurdly silent. Newcomers to the village Zoë (Aisling Loftus) and Tom (Ukweli Roach) are overjoyed that Zoë is pregnant, after learning they are infertile. Jodie (Lara Rossi doing her best with a character whose whole description, I’d bet, consisted of the word “feisty”), sister-in-law to local police chief Paul (Max Beesley – “stoic” to him), is less pleased. Young Cassie (Synnøve Karlsen), who has apparent mental health and possibly addiction issues, is immediately pro-baby, but she got there. Her mother, child psychologist Susannah Zellaby (Keeley Hawes), thinks, you know, there might be a few wrinkles to come in this whole unexplained pregnancy thing.
There are. The handful of women who opt for layoffs control their minds and walk away. Everyone is resigned to not being able to leave Midwich. When the babies are born, they grow faster than normal and soon begin to exhibit what no one around them seems to experience as terrifying tele-psychopathic behaviors.
Via Samuel West as a figure in the troubled government, it becomes clear that there is also a sinister backstory, but since it’s even flatter than the forest, it needn’t hold us back.
The new adaptation had no idea it would be released following news that Roe v Wade and abortion rights were about to be overturned in the United States. But it has certainly been done in a world where women’s rights are under attack, where the invasion by extraterrestrial forces of one kind or another – from viruses to tyrannical rulers suddenly unleashing hell on their neighbors – and the question of how we protect and share dwindling resources is never on our minds. To make such a pedestrianized version of Wyndham’s book, instead of using its powerful premise as a springboard for deep dives into motherhood, autonomy, or female experience, or any of the other avenues it opens up, seems be a hugely wasted opportunity.
The sex swap with Zellaby’s character hardly makes up for that. Leaning into the vibe of Handmaid’s Tale or using the production to examine another dystopian vision wouldn’t dishonor the book; there are plenty of changes beneath Wyndham’s superficially “acceptable” history that could warrant much darker takes than the “cozy doomsayer” (as Wyndham was fired by Brian Aldiss) is now known for. As it stands, we’re left with a well-told and already well-known story, dragged on for at least two hours longer than necessary while using about 10% of the talent its actors have to offer. Damn.