Saturday 2 April 2022


(The next instalment of ‘Mutants Are Our Future’, on the Tomorrow People trope in popular media. With the usual PLOT SPOILERS. First part here, but they can be read in any order.)

Bitten By a Gift Horse 

Martin Smith… could there be a more regular-sounding name than Martin Smith? Then there’s his Northern accent, as so often in British culture used to signify utter ordinariness. Martin Smith is in trouble at school, described as “disruptive, slack, insolent”. Though we guess fairly quickly he’s not too dumb but too smart, solving a Maths problem his supercilious teacher couldn’t manage - and promptly being accused of cheating.

’Codename Icarus’ was a BBC children’s drama, first broadcast in 1981. And there are strong similarities between these classroom scenes and an earlier BBC effort, Susan’s in the introductory ‘Doctor Who’ episode, ‘An Unearthly Child’. 

However, as the title casually gave away, Susan had a diegetic explanation - she was actually an alien. Martin’s cleverness is just asserted. Okay, in his case it’s not actually a super-power, but it’s effectively treated as one. We’re told he’s “another Galileo, Einstein, Newton.” From the title down there’s repeated, if metaphoric, comparisons to flight.

And this works in the tale’s favour, creating no barriers between viewer and protagonist. When young it’s common enough to imagine yourself as imbued with almost endless possibility. If there’s no sign of any of that now, then you are yet to fully unfurl. The older generation thereby becomes your adversary, with their confining rules and customs. But you still believe this to be true of yourself, not those fools who surround you in your generation, who seem to be equally unaware of your genius. Youth makes you special. But only your youth. So in both scenes our identification character is shown as trapped between their teacher and classmates.

There’s little attempt to make him likeable. Unlike Susan or those nicely spoken Tomorrow People he’s every bit the irascible genius, obsessive in his work and impatient of others. He might not be a mutant, but he’s still a freak. (“Kids like us, freaks. No-one wants to know. Until they can use what we’ve got!”) He’s pretty horrid even to his highly platonic girlfriend. The assumption is that we’ll identify with him anyway. Or possibly even identify with him more.

Notably, his chief complaint about that teacher is that he’s never acknowledged the “beauty” of Maths. As children we expect school to be all about stimulating our imagination, only to find it’s more about rote learning of set doctrine, leading to several years of cross-purpose communication.

There are a few hints, however, as to where Martin’s Maths mind came from. He’s reading a book of advanced calculus only so he can improve on it, because it’s “out of date”. He won’t show it to anyone at school, as that would be like handing “flowers to an ape”. This is our old friend the generation gap as evolutionary leap. And flight is sometimes used as a metaphor for puberty.

Except it’s more acute than that. It’s not generation that makes the leap, but the essence of youth itself. We’re explicitly told that Martin and the other young proteges will be spent by the time they’re adults, to be replaced by the next intake of gifted teens. Never trust equations made by anyone over thirty.

He’s in the habit of sneaking back in after school to use the (wonderfully retro-looking) computer, climbing in the window like Romeo scaling the balcony to his beloved but forbidden Juliette. The ensuing scene, where he then gets into a text conversation, not knowing whether this is with the computer or someone else, must have seemed more mystifying in those days before e-mail. We are to take it, I think, that he assumes he’s communing directly with Science in some way, and is surprised to find another person on the other end.

This brings him to the attention of John Doll, who recruits him to attend Falconleigh (“some sort of school for bright kids”), run by - wait for it - the Icarus Foundation. The attentive, encouraging Doll with his suave, modulated voice seems the antonym to the closed-minded disciplinarian Maths teacher we ran into earlier. Naturally enough Falconleigh is in a country house, with kids reading under trees in bucolic grounds while classical columns adorn the door. Here it’s the tutors who call the kids “sir”, as they’re the ones with the real know-how.

An Uncivil War

But that’s only half the story. These events intercut with a Cold War espionage tale, where Allied missile tests are mystifyingly being disrupted. So we segue between war rooms and classrooms, between received pronunciation and regular life. In fact it starts out by establishing the Cold War scenario, and at some length.

Why do this? Why not kick off with the audience identification stuff? Partly it enhances the juxtapositions if we start grand and go small. The opening theme is dramatic and classical (Stravinsky’s ’Firebird’), as if the whole thing will go off in that direction. Then the first word used in the school setting is “disaster”, a Cold War word transported to the diminutive.

This double-barrel structure does somewhat give away that the gifted pupils of Falconleigh are going to be connected to this. (Still soon after the Second World War, Bletchley Park may have been an inspiration.) But then foreshadowing is generally chosen over surprise; official investigator Andy Rutherford soon guesses all’s not well in the school of Falconleigh, with the plot throwing obstacles in his way.  

And that’s because this is in essence a series about a nightmare hiding inside of the dream. The ostensibly similar ‘Tomorrow People’ story ‘The Secret Weapon’ is based around kidnap, about being taken from your kind. This is about being seduced and recruited, being taken to your kind, but it all goes wrong anyway. Like being bitten by a gift horse.

And unlike the Tomorrow People, there’s nothing inherently moral about Martin’s genius, which can be weaponised. (“It’s not the knowledge that’s bad, it’s what the rest of us do with it.”) Hence Martin’s antagonist soon switches to Doll.

Doll tells him he should become “just what you ought to be,” but of course he’s the one doing the defining. Scientific enquiry is made into a kind of Fordist production line, each pupil working on their part while unaware of the whole. Results end up on “the supermarket shelves”.

Martin’s truculent working class manner, so at odds with Doll’s devilish charm, makes it all something of a class issue. In fact it’s not far off being a story about a bright working class kid who wins a scholarship but becomes disillusioned, just with added space lasers.

He resents the fruits of his labour being used by others, even if it’s mental labour. (“Have you ever had an idea that hasn’t been in anyone’s head before yours? Hasn’t been greasy-fingered?”) His repeated line “I won’t be used” becomes a variant on “I won’t go down pit” from ’Kes’. (Which also used the metaphor of flight as escape.) And in a reversal of the colour coding we saw in ’Secret Weapon’, it’s Martin who sports black and Doll white.

In a nod both to the Foundation and series title, Doll tells him he should “free your spirit and mind… fly”. Ironically, then, he’s dismissive when he sees Martin sporting binoculars, telling him there’ll be no time for his birdwatching hobby here. So it’s in not doing what he ought that Martin starts to stumble across the truth. Which happens when he sees a pigeon fly near an outbuilding, then drop dead to the ground.

Yet Martin the freak also knows he belongs nowhere else. The story rather labours this dilemma with his brainwashing, which seems no more than a souped-up, dramatised way to portray his unwillingness to leave the gift horse behind, even as its biting into him. In fact, with the girlfriend figure that seems to be literally the case, as if she didn’t require the metaphor part.

So what starts out as a Cold War drama effectively turns into a civil war within the Establishment. With Martin about as uncivil to the Establishment Good Guys as he is Doll. When parallel protagonist Andy offers to get him out of Falconleigh he replies that either way “the bomb would get made, wouldn’t it?” Though this development is rather scuppered by the revelation that Andy’s posh boss is really on our side.

Only in the final episode does Martin meet the mind behind the Foundation, Frohelich. Unlike Doll his motivations are much more personal, and he appeals to Martin to stay, without the usual school aids of hypnosis and injections. A scene which becomes the Last Temptation Of Martin.

Frohelich’s own situation was even quite similar to Martin’s. Told by the Nazis to make a bomb, he escaped by faking his death and in a sense did die, losing his vital youthful insight. (We’re repeatedly shown him flying but by artificial means, by helicopter.) The Foundation seems his attempt to perpetuate this youthfulness, keep it bottled, as well as create a technocratic elite to take charge of things. But also, it’s heavily hinted, so that he can keep associating with others like him. The whole scheme’s an elaborate way of asking “will you be my friend?”

As things progress the espionage plotline seems to be taking over, only for it to fall away and be replaced by this scene. Martin isn’t rescued, and we don’t see what happens to Doll or Frohelich. The point is that Martin hears Frohelich out and refuses. The show’s peculiarity is to cleave closely to other elements of the trope, but make a frontal assault on the business about joining the gang of your peers.

And arguably this contradiction comes out in the very last shot. As Martin runs into the arms of his rescuers we look on in convenient long shot, out of hearing. He’s never had much to say to them so far, and that doesn’t look likely to change. In Joseph Campbell terminology, this is a story which ends with the Refusal of the Call. So perhaps the last shot should have been him slamming the door on Frohelich. In true stroppy teenager style.

What’s more it includes the most Eighties school disco scene of all Eighties school disco scenes. Which might sound a rash boast, but is not an idle one..

Coming soon! Mutants Are Still Our Future, but the series will be taking a short break…