Chocky is a 1968 John Wyndham
(The Day of the Triffids
) novel about an extraterrestrial intelligence that makes telepathic contact with an English schoolboy, told from the perspective of the boy's adoptive father. The story is known (and well-regarded) by many Generation X
Britons thanks to Thames Television
's adaptation of the novel into a children's drama serial in the early 1980s. There has been renewed interest in the story in recent years, with the resurgence of science fiction
on television, nostalgic reappraisal of 1980s media in general (including other seminal shows such as Knightmare
), and persistent rumblings that Steven Spielberg
has acquired the film rights.
The novel begins with the narrator and his wife starting to notice changes in the behaviour of their twelve year old son, Matthew. Matthew has started asking odd questions (Why are there two genders? Why can't animals learn?) and showing an increasing aptitude in school subjects (including art and mathematics) where he had previously been an indifferent student.
Gradually they learn that Matthew believes that he is in contact with a "mind", initially assumed to be an imaginary friend, that he calls "Chocky". Chocky's influence on Matthew becomes increasingly pronounced, directly giving him abilities that he can't easily explain (using binary arithmetic, automatic drawing, and culminating in him saving his young sister from drowning, in spite of previously being unable to swim), but also provoking bouts of great emotional distress.
Matthew's seemingly miraculous abilities draw the attention of (now very generic-seeming) Shadowy Government Forces, who conspire to kidnap and interrogate Matthew to extract information from Chocky regarding using "cosmic power" as an unlimited energy source. Ultimately deciding she has failed in her mission, Chocky tells Matthew's father that she will leave Matthew, but will continue to influence events on Earth in more subtle ways, to urge humanity to colonise space for the sake of its survival.
Wyndham was interested in writing science fiction themed stories for a general audience - taking a premise which was technically possible (within the contemporary understanding of science), and playing it out to its logical conclusions in a mundane domestic setting. Chocky is so effective because of the constraints that Wyndham places on the alien character - a being who is never seen and who communicates through an intermediary using their vocabulary - resulting in everything feeling slightly off key.
The questions that Wyndham poses about how a completely alien being, that can make absolutely zero assumptions about how life works in the environment where it suddenly finds itself, can manage to overcome these obstacles are answered in a satisfyingly plausible ways, with only a tiny bit of hand-waving trickery. (The explanation that Chocky can communicate telepathically faster than the speed of light because "mind has no mass" probably doesn't stand up to any real scrutiny, but you can definitely see it being sold to cinema audiences accompanied by appropriately frenzied chalkboard scribbling.)
It's only revealed outright that Chocky is an alien being in the final chapter of the novel. Up to that point, Matthew's parents are more concerned about resolving the question of whether or not Chocky is real and separate to Matthew rather than its origin. While the book's unenlightened 1960s attitude to mental illness isn't surprising, it does seem unusual now that autism is never discussed. The behaviours Matthew exhibits as a result of Chocky's influence are very similar to those commonly associated with being on the autistic spectrum, and one wonders if Wyndham's had been inspired by stories of such 'unexplained' abilities.
Other aspects of the book still seem highly relevant today. Chocky's blunt appraisal of the folly of humanity relying on non-renewable fuels is all the more obvious and pressing a concern. At the end of the story, Matthew and his family simply have to accept that they'll be under constant surveillance, and that Matthew can essentially be kidnapped for two weeks without there being any legal repercussions. While this is necessary to tie up the loose ends of the plot, it seems odd today that in Wyndham's day people saw the establishment as an ultimate force able to operate completely above the law, and just lumped it.
The original six-part TV series is a largely faithful adaptation of the source material. The focus is shifted to Matthew to make the show more directly appealing to its target audience, although the father character still does much of the dramatic heavy lifting. As a concession to television, Chocky is now given a voice (although, at least initially, it's so heavily processed that on first viewing it can be mistaken for atmospheric sound effects) and appears to Matthew as an 'energy field' at key points to unambiguously get across the point that Chocky is real, and is an alien. The father character comes across as more sympathetic (now that we're not privy to his rather chauvinist inner monologue), and Matthew's sister is made younger (to allow her to have an actual imaginary friend concurrently with the main story).
Credit should be given to the music and production design. The show's opening image of a spinning tetrahedron model backed with a haunting synthesiser track is one of the most iconic title sequences in 1980s TV. The visual effects used for Chocky don't look too terrible, and the various drawings and paintings of what Chocky 'sees' are all suitably creepy.
The series is surprisingly brutal in places for a kids' show. The accident where Matthew and his sister nearly drown is presented as a cliffhanger, and in the following week's episode, it's not immediately made clear that either of them have survived(!). Matthew's tearful meltdown at Chocky mocking the family's new car is also pretty raw. And of course, at various points in the series Matthew is hypnotised, drugged and kidnapped, drawing unruffled responses from his parents.
The dramatic tension is also upped in the episode where Matthew's father enlists his university friend Landis (a psychologist) to try and diagnose Matthew. This friend (played by the actor who plays Boba Fett in Return of the Jedi, IMDB informs me) looks so much like the archetypal public information film paedophile that modern audiences would be screaming at the screen for Matthew not to go with him, although whether this is down to an intentional fake-out by the programme makers or simply unfortunate fashion choices on the part of the actor is not clear.
The story's close (directly taken from the novel), where Matthew accepts Chocky's departure and reconciles with his father, works beautifully on film. Would that they had stopped there.
Chocky's Children (1985)
The show's success prompted the creation of two 'sequel' series, which attempted to extrapolate from the ending of the original story, with varying degrees of success.
The first, Chocky's Children, makes a reasonably good attempt at maintaining the style and quality of invention of Wyndham's original story, while taking the opportunity to make the story less male-oriented. It is revealed that while Chocky has made good on her promise not to directly contact Matthew, Chocky's activity in contacting various other children on Earth has resulted in a telepathic link between them all. As a result, Matthew is able to automatically draw scenes from the other childrens' lives.
Matthew is sent to holiday with his aunt, and finds that a nearby windmill matches one of his drawings. The daughter of the windmill's owner, Albertine, turns out to be another of the children contacted by Chocky, and Matthew has to gain the trust of both her and her surly libertarian father to find out why Chocky is back. Meanwhile, the Shadowy Forces from the first series have sent a student to spy on them.
Some elements of this new story are pretty good. The image of the windmill, and the clay model that Albertine makes showing the scene of Chocky's homeworld, are suitably iconic motifs of something being amiss with these kids. The ending, in which Matthew breaks Albertine out of hospital while the two dads join forces to save their kids, only for the kids to save themselves using a psychic attack, is weirdly satisfying, like an Enid Blyton version of Akira. But the series can't quite get away from the fact that it's basically a rehash of the original story with a new protagonist. The fact that it hinges on a complete coincidence (why did Chocky make contact with another child that just happened to live near Matthew's aunt?) is pretty sloppy writing as well.
Chocky's Challenge (1986)
Things take a turn for the downright awful in the third series, Chocky's Challenge. Matthew (whose actor has now aged out of the role) is virtually written out, with Albertine becoming the protagonist. Albertine is a child prodigy, and the show mostly involves her and her father going to Cambridge University and gaining funding to carry out research into the physics behind the technology that Chocky has revealed as being necessary for interstellar travel.
The plot of this series massively contradicts almost everything that Wyndham had established about the character of Chocky in the original story. Chocky can now appear and speak with anyone almost at will, and is explicitly trying to accelerate human progress through Albertine and the other children with zero regard to their safety.
This series also makes an incredibly ham-fisted attempt at improving the show's diversity, by having Albertine enlist children from around the world (but very obviously played by English drama school kids with bad fake accents) to her team. The teenage kids build a functioning "cosmic power" collector / anti-gravity drive (yes, it's every bit as ridiculous as it sounds), which the evil Secret Service baddies use to physically trap Chocky, presumably to be shipped to the same warehouse as the Ark of the Covenant. But the kids, having used a radio telescope to locate Chocky's homeworld, make contact with Chocky's parent who saves the day. Our heroes then walk away from a building full of army and police personnel and the show ends, out of embarrassment more than anything.
Chocky is a story that has a timeless quality like much of Wyndham's work, and the original novel and first series of the TV show still provide entertainment value. The TV show is currently available in its entirety on YouTube, although I would probably give series two (and definitely series three) a miss if you value your time at all.
I really hope that the movie comes to pass, as there's so much you could do with it without dumbing it down and beefing up the action - ultimately, it would rely on finding two strong performances for Matthew and his father. Staying completely true to the novel, and not giving Chocky her own voice at all, would be an incredibly daring move. Let's hope they're thinking more along the lines of Duncan Jones' Moon than the Star Wars prequels, with Chocky as some kind of wisecracking CGI blob.