This adaptation of Peter Dickinson’s novel trilogy carries a degree of cult nostalgia cachet due to it being one of those more “adult” 1970s children’s serials (see also The Children of the Stones, The Owl Service). I was too young to see it on its initial screening – or at any rate, too young to remember it – but it’s easy to see why it lingered in the minds of those who did. Well, the first episode, anyway. Not for nothing is The Changes seen as a precursor to The Survivors in the rural apocalypse sub-genre – see also the decidedly nastier No Blade of Grass – as following a fairly gripping opener, it drifts off into the realm of plodding travelogue.
Dickinson’s trilogy curiously ran in reverse chronologically, so it would probably be loved by today’s prequel-afflicted age. The Changes – did Bowie read it or was it just happy ch-ch-chance? – amounts to both the last and first instalment as a result, while taking in subsequent events of the sequels. It deals with the immediate fallout of a strange compulsion overcoming the British population. Rather than transforming into, say, the living dead, they are seized by the urge to attack any machinery/technology around them. You know, the kind of chance-would-be-a-fine-thing luddite malaise that might just do the power of good in our current Ahrimanic-materialist epoch. Which was, essentially, Dickinson and adaptor Anna Home’s premise almost fifty years ago too, when the then-encroaching technocracy was positively quaint and pre-industrial by comparison.
Peter Wright, in the essay accompanying the BFI DVD release, refers to the serial’s ambitious and mature “treatment of racism, sexism and green politics”. Essentially, The Changes gives the lie to the idea that earnest progressivism is a post-millennial thing unless forwarded by Barry Letts. At times in the serial, this inevitably means the well-meaning proceedings tip over into straight-up patronising; the spiritually evolved Sikh community encountered by Vicky William’s Nicky are much too good to be true. But Nicky is no Mary Sue, so there’s that (Williams isn’t always well served by Nicky’s characterisation, but she’s more than capable in fulfilling lead protagonist duties).
Indeed, perhaps part of the problem with The Changes is that its facing down of prejudice, from racism to charges of witchcraft, is grounded in rural communities and yokels. In its own way, that seems a rather prejudicial take; one is knee-jerk unsurprised by such prevailing ignorance, inequality and veneration of the old ways, without the trigger of slipping into a pre-industrial fervour due to a techno-fear virus. Wright asserts such lurking bigotry was likely part of the intended commentary, but it might have been more effective had it been contrasted with the “sophistication” of the city environment. He suggests such attitudes “are not the consequence of the monolith’s influence, since neither prejudice arises from the need to destroy technology, nor are they necessary for a more ecologically balanced world. As a result… with its structural emphasis on continuity between the pre- and post- Changes worlds, racism and sexism are positioned as attitudes present before the disaster and which attain a greater freedom of expression in the superstitious aftermath…”
Wright contrasts this with the book, where prejudice comes from a desire to return to the old ways. Again, though, the milieus Nicky explores aren’t so far from such days of yore, really; similarly, as picturesque as it is to be constantly bombarded with visions of 70s countryside, there’s a good reason the urban first episode is by far the most potent and powerful, with rioting townsfolk and simmering violence.There’s also some very awkward motivation, of the sort that might fly under the blanket of child’s eye’s logic but looks very odd from an adult perspective. Nicky’s dad (Bernard Horsfall) and pregnant mum (Sonia Graham) manage to lose sight of their daughter as they attempt to leave the city and cross the English Channel. Dad goes back to look for her but then decides he and mum will continue to the coast and then he will turn back to retrieve Nicky. None of this seems remotely like good sense. Leaving his daughter in the first place – she goes back to their house, which, if he has as much faith in her as he says, should have been the first place he looked – and then his wife on a perilous channel crossing. Curiously, we don’t see them reunited. Indeed, the first episode plays out as an overpoweringly bleak scene setter, and if this weren’t ostensibly kids’ TV, one might easily envision mum not making it out alive.
After this, the next few episodes find The Changes sinking into a morass of inertia, as Nicky joins up with the aforementioned Sikh community while Paddy Kingsland gets out the electric sitar, just to let you know there’ll be a spot of innocent stereotyping along the way (I’m generally a fan of Kingsland’s work, but he is nothing if not uneven; this forms a prelude to the next decade’s TV soundtracks, from Doctor Who to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). Mostly, this is a very civilised BBC apocalypse, such that when villainous Edward Brayshaw (Rentaghost’s Mr Meaker) shows up to murder unsympathetic village leader Mr Baynard (David King), who dubbed the Sikhs “devil’s children”, it takes place off screen. Which doesn’t prevent a colourfully grim description of how he was “skewered through and through”. The visual depiction of Brayshaw’s rottenness is pretty much down to him dressing in black and needlessly smashing his mug after drinking poor dear Arthur Hewlett’s ale.
Mr Gordon’s smelling out wickedness again.
Just as you’re giving up the will, the serial upticks a bit. Nicky is sent packing by the kindly Sikhs and falls from a horse and cart in absurd fashion; she is left alone by Roy Evans, much like her dad did, as he goes to seek help. So it is that she finds herself accused of being a witch. For falling asleep in a barn full of tractors. One significant thing The Changes has going for it is a liberal smattering of memorable guest performers, most of them Doctor Who veterans, either before or subsequently. One such, David Garfield, would appear a few years later as Neva in The Face of Evil. Here, his Davy Gordon has the beardy zealotry down pat, inflicting it on Peter (Jack Watson) and his family (son Jonathan – Keith Ashton doing a teenage Noel Gallagher, daughter Margaret – Zuleika Robinson, and wife Anne – Stella Tanner). Watson eventually dunks Davy – who can’t swim, so meeting the fate he meant for Nicky – rather appositely.
I am Merlin. Whoever touches me unbalances the world.
A boat disaster follows and from there a meeting with Tom Chadbon and Merelina Kendall’s seasoned city fugitives, before Nicky and Jonathan happen upon the source of the upheaval that has overcome Britain. The mysterious monolith. Mr Furbelow (Oscar Quitak) has succeeded in unleashing a force in his quarry excavations, one encountered by Merlin the magician before him. It seems the novel featured a personified, morphine-addled Merlin, but Home settles on something more nebulous. It’s difficult to say if a druggy Merlin would have been better (immortal guardians of old weren’t so great in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), but this is definitely something of a damp squib.
Nevertheless, there’s a cogent message here, since the force, like a “whirlpool, or a black star in space” is possessed with an almost Gaia-like mission to correct things. Just not this way. Merlin “woke it and was strong enough… He became it, it became him”. Alas, Furbelow roused it too soon and too suddenly. In trying to use its power to balance the world, out of whack due to our machines and pollution, he managed to make it “more unbalanced than ever”. Which is all very well, but Nicky has no indication of when and how this force will actually exert itself in more timely and appropriate fashion, now that its immediate effects have dispersed. Indeed, The Changes’ last shots show traffic back in action all over the land. So much for cosy eco-fables. Next stop iPhones, 5G and transhumans. Where are you now, Merlin?