This TV dramatisation of John Wyndham's strange, 1964 science fiction children's story about a schoolboy who becomes possessed by a superior alien life form, has been highly regarded ever since it was first broadcast over six weeks in 1984 by Thames TV. Wyndham's estate are said to consider it one of the most successful adaptations of the authors work ever to be produced for the screen. Behind the project was Anthony Read - a former script editor and sometimes writer for "Doctor Who" around the middle period of Tom Baker's term as the renegade Time Lord. His screenplay is built around a faithful development of Wyndham's original themes, ignoring the usual special effects-driven approach to TV sci-fi in favour of a plot that unfolds gradually, step-by-step, while always remaining gripping and at pains to emphasise the emotional consequences for the main characters of the bizarre, almost incomprehensible situation they discover themselves to be in; eventually it builds to a slightly uneasy climax when the story turns to a consideration of just how those in authority might react. The whole thing is elevated by some well judged performances from an excellent cast who inject just the right tone of everyday believability into Wyndham's unusual ideas-based approach to science fiction storytelling, not least an often amazing performance by 12 year-old Andrew Ellams, who was talent scouted by Thames TV executives when they happened to see him in his school play!
The story, like all Wyndham's fiction, is rooted in the everyday and the mundane, and follows a 'normal', healthy, nuclear family - the Gores - as they're forced to come to terms with an utterly mind-blowing transformation in their view of the world. Most Children's television in the UK in those days only featured this one type of family, which was considered to be the aspirational norm for all those watching, and "Chocky" is no exception; except, here, the conventional middle-class ordinariness of them is a further contrast to the uncanny strangeness at the heart of the idea behind the story - of the possibility of there being an entirely different plain of existence in the Universe. The story begins by trying to induce a sense of wonder at the very strangeness of the fact of life and existence itself; cleverly encouraging an audience of children to question the state of things which they might normally take for granted. This is something small children are prone to do anyway of course, but the emergence of Chocky coincides with his host, 12 year-old Matthew Gore (Andrew Ellams), as he is on the verge of becoming a teenager, and able to pose questions of an even more taxing and bewildering kind to his puzzled parents ...
In the middle of a maths class one morning, Matthew suddenly starts to hear a strange voice in his head, but also discovers that he is able to complete all the work set by his teacher for the lesson in mere minutes. His parents, accountant David Gore (James Hazeldine) and housewife Mary (Carol Drinkwater), are perplexed when Matthew is often overheard in the garden having intense conversations with himself, and begins to ask them odd questions like 'why are there seven days in a week instead of eight?' and ' why are there only two sexes?' He tells them it isn't him asking the questions though ... it is Chocky!
At first they think this is just an ordinary case of a childhood imaginary friend like the one their mischievous younger daughter Polly (Zoe Hart) has had for months - even if their son does seem a little too old for such things. But Mattew's behaviour starts to get more worrying: during an illness in which he develops a fever, he complains that Chocky's endless questions are exhausting him and he can't get any rest or sleep as a result of them. Eventually, Chocky seems to come to an agreement about what times are appropriate for his/her visits. When his dad tries to question him about Chocky, he finds Matthew is unable to put much of it into words. Chocky isn't even male or female as such, hence his/her strange questions about there being two sexes. Chocky is also fascinated by animals and the strange limitations on their intelligence. Why can the cows learn which milking shed they must go to each morning, for instance, but not that they could easily escape the field that they're kept in?
Things come to a head when Matthew starts to get really disturbed, completely hysterical in fact, about the kinds of information Chocky is allegedly attempting to impart to him. When the family takes delivery of its new car, his initial delight suddenly turns to a screaming fit of frustration. It seems that Chocky finds cars ridiculous and primitive as a method of transport. In fact, Chocky finds just about everything about human civilisation fit only for ridicule, and the sensation of having these thoughts inside his head is starting to upset Matthew, who cannot cope with the disparity in world views this shared thought-space has brought about.
The Gores decide to invite an old psychologist friend, Roy Landis (Jeremy Bulloch), down to have a talk with Matthew and hopefully get to the root of his problems. After spending all afternoon in the garden with him, Roy returns with some unexpected and startling news for the family. Although Matthew claims that much of the things Chocky tells him are impossible to convey in words (it is like trying to explain music to someone who is deaf and has never heard it) he does have amazingly advanced information about alternative forms of space travel which he could never have developed by himself. To their shock, Roy says that he is convinced that Chocky is no figment of the imagination. On the contrary, he, she or it really has taken up residence in Matthews mind, and in past times the ordeal would have been considered to be a case of possession. But although this manifestation appears to be completely benevolent, Chocky is real!
This all could have come across in an embarrassing, slightly gauche manner, but Read's careful layering of the ideas at the core of the original writing and the (now period-looking) ordinariness of the eighties milieu in which it takes place, gives it all a sense of what screenwriter Stephen Volk has previously called 'the domestic uncanny'. The modern thirty/forty-something viewer finds him/her self instantly transported back to a world of Atari 800 games consoles (which Chocky causes to explode when it helps Matthew win at a game of Space Invaders), Rubik's Cubes and ITV/BBC news reader Martyn Lewis!
Read's update of the 1968 novel includes these contemporary touches to bring some immediate relevancy and identification to the story for a child growing up at that time who, as well as enjoying the idea of suddenly becoming hugely skilled at sports, would doubtless have been fascinated by the ability to complete Rubik's cube in seconds flat or of being able to dodge every alien attack in a game of Space Invaders (although I'm not sure that the idea of this causing an Atari to overheat and explode gives a very accurate representation of even early-eighties computer technology!). The more obvious science fiction elements are introduced to the story very gradually so that Chocky starts as just Matthew's report of hearing a voice, builds to our hearing the voice as well as a slight electronic whisper as we enter Matthew's world, and then progresses to a full-blown manifestation in the form of some wispy, pulsating blue smoke superimposed over Matthew's bedroom wall. The concept of a life-form that is fundamentally so different to ours that it cannot be fully comprehended by a human mind is developed nicely by having Matthew take up painting in order to convey something of the unearthly strangeness he is now living with; at first his sketches and paintings are just distorted portraits of his surroundings and of people, drawn from Chocky's point-of-view rather than his own. But eventually Chocky helps him paint a picture of its own world -- which appears to the human gaze as a puzzling 3-D geometric shape, suspended above some sort of fractal landscape!
The story succeeds wonderfully in building drama around the idea of an ordinary family's world being disrupted by something it can only attempt to comprehend. The first few episodes are mainly about the parents trying to make sense of it all, as well as demonstrating Matthews unusual powers and strange new mind-set. James Hazeldine and Carol Drinkwater do a great job here in roles that could have been somewhat bland. Typically of Wyndham's characters, they are calm, rational folk who do their best for their son; most of the drama is built simply around their efforts to understand, and its a testament to their performances and to Read's screenplay that this quiet, thoughtful approach still manages to make gripping TV.
Later episodes expand the story when Matthew's heroic performance in an accident on the river while on holiday with friends of the family brings the lad to the attentions of the wider world, and a host of spiritualists and psychic investigators take an interest, as well as some shadowy government forces. There's an uncomfortable episode in which Matthew goes missing on his way home from school, and the authentic-looking television news reports on the incident (with real ITV newsman of the day, Martyn Lewis) echo the tone of many similar real reports, both then and since, which have covered missing children. It's this earthiness - the contrast between the recognisable and the everyday, against the idea of something that can transcend human comprehension - which makes this series enthralling even today, when the primitive special effects and period trappings might have been expected to render it little more than quite a kitsch experience. The '80s retro stuff is there in abundance though, for those entertained by such things. Not least the atmospheric synth score, and especially the haunting, almost ambient title music.
"Chocky" makes a welcome return to DVD on this UK region 2 coded disc from Revelation Films which features all six episodes of series one, along with a text based Q and A with the now-grown-up star Andrew Ellams (who is now a teacher!) and a photo gallery, as extras.
Simple but effective "Chocky" is still one of the best children's sci-fi series ever produced and could well enthrall a new generation thanks to this re-release.