The Midwich Cuckoos proves adaptations can work as a homage to original whilst asking new questions.

by | Jul 13, 2022 | All, Reviews

Adaptations either work out extremely well and are applauded or they completely annoy the longstanding fanbase and divide any newcomers. Those adapting beloved works are fighting a constant battle between honouring the original text and the ideas that inspired reworking the narrative in the first place. Take John Wyndham’s Cold War novel The Midwich Cuckoos for instance; the 1960 Village of the Damned adaptation is a gem of a film that is fondly remembered whereas the 1995 adaptation fares as a middle-of-the-road rework that didn’t feel inspired by its source material.

It was a nice surprise then to hear that once again it was being adapted under its original name, this time for television, led by a female team. It’s an adaptation that both respects the original while challenging its themes, and modernising it.  And while it is successful in doing both of those things it, unfortunately, loses its way by the second act.

The Sky Max series begins with an introduction to the families of market town Midwich including couple Zoe (Aisling Loftus) and Sam (Ukweli Roach) who are escaping stressful city life. Not everyone in the commuter village is thinking about parenthood, but the couple hopes that by moving into the affluent neighbourhood they will become pregnant despite their minimal chances. Soon after settling into their new home, there is a mysterious blackout that subsequently results in every woman of childbearing age becoming pregnant. Zoe believes her child-rearing dreams have come true but not everything is as it seems.

Their foetuses are growing at an alarming rate and the shady government that begins surveilling the town assures them they aren’t natural offspring. Over several months, the mothers come to terms with the struggles of unexpected pregnancy before they all go into labour together.

Once born, it becomes clear that their offspring won’t stay innocent for long. They share a hive mind, an uncanny ability to manipulate those around them, and have an insatiable need for conflict and violence.

The Midwich community is soon taken hostage in their homes as the Cuckoos start to assert their own meaning of civilisation.

If you’re thinking right now that this sounds like an elevated sci-fi drama that conveys well-timed themes in the same way your favourite kitchen sink dramas while also delivering thrilling scares then you’re right, at least for the first half of the series.

The first two episodes, ‘Bad Things’ and ‘In This Together’ feel refreshing because they place a much-needed feminine lens on the source material. A particularly memorable scene that centres the discussion is a group therapy scene in the second episode. As the residents discuss their personal concerns regarding virginity, legacy births, and unwanted pregnancy, the discussion between the community and the interfering government results in rising tensions. As they lose their personal agency themes of institutional power and the fight between female body consumption and intimate relations focus the storyline.

These episodes by genre heavyweight Alice Troughton are well-paced, methodical, and feel clever with discussions on abortion, the right to life, and the differing experiences of parenthood in an interesting way. There is a mix of old-fashioned ideals, with some families seeing pregnancy as a way to grow their families and new ideals with single mothers and teenage pregnancy making their way into the conversation.

However, after these episodes, the narrative seems too gripped by questioning Wyndham than staying relevant to gender and sexuality discussions of today. Second-wave feminism becomes this story’s bread and butter as themes of domestication and family are the themes carried over. While it could be argued that this is a tale of its time the series does have a modern approach in every other aspect and therefore ignoring postmodern body politics seems like an oversight.

The decision to ignore multicultural families, LGBTQ couples, and, despite mentioning it briefly, teenage pregnancy really disappointed me. Sci-fi and horror are rock and roll stories. They’re built to ignite a response to important issues. We see this in shows like The Handmaid’s Tale and I May Destroy You which both land heavy punches on their audience through powerful and relevant tales. This show could have done that but instead dilutes the conversations it starts with making it feel dated.

The series does have some saving graces that stop it from being a forgettable revision. One of those is Keeley Hawes‘ Dr. Suzannah Zellaby. Keeley Hawes delivers a stand-out performance as the articulate, attentive, and sometimes confrontational town psychologist.

In a series with no clear-cut main character, Zellaby is the one that brings the community together while helping DCI Paul Haynes (played by the charismatic Max Beesley) analyse the children and the town’s events. Her relationship with the town allows us to get to know each character individually including the increasingly apprehensive Zoe who she becomes close. Her charming personality helps the mothers trust her until her relationship with Hayes becomes a cat and mouse chase.

She is deeply affected by the arrival of the children. Not only because she holds regrets over her past but because she’s also the parent of Cassie (Synnove Karlsen), a mentally ill 20-something who has also become mystically pregnant. This situation often creates clashes between the two as Zellaby is a protective parent who doesn’t think her daughter is ready to have a child while Cassie sees it as a chance to have something of her own. There are constant challenges between the two even with the arrival of her granddaughter Evie (Indica Watson) that result in blind faith for the younglings she looks at and an emotional climax to her character’s arc.

The children are also all suitably creepy and believable in their ‘the kids aren’t alright’ storyline. The costume changes are a realistic change and add personality to each character despite them being a collective force over the quiet town.

#346: Stranger Things, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Pistol and The Midwich Cuckoos

Hannah Peel’s score adds an eerie creepiness to the production as a sombre tone permeates the village scenery. The cinematography was also clever with sweeping shots, especially in the hospital scene, and close-ups like the opener that demand attention.

Ultimately, Farr’s series is a nice remembrance of a very familiar story. Despite losing its way in some respects it has a great cast, a memorable score, and good pacing across seven episodes. There is more than enough here to whet the appetite of thriller fans everywhere.

The Midwhich Cuckoos is available now through NOW.

Hannah Fletcher

Hannah Fletcher

13/07/2022

Hannah Fletcher is a freelance editor by day, entertainment reviewer by night. When she’s not geeking out about the newest film and TV shows, she’s rambling about the new rock & metal music releases. You can sometimes find her in the middle of The West Wing or X-Files reruns but she’s always on the lookout for the next big speculative series or a gritty drama that considers race, gender, or class.

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