Stranger in the Family

Written by David Campton

After two episodes set in the future, featuring mostly male professionals and very science fictional concerns, this third episode, based in a contemporary London of shabby flats and pubs, centered around the emotions  and complicated motivations of its protagonists, feels very different. Sharper somehow. Maybe its simply a case that the tension of wondering if a man is an alien in disguise is of a different tenor to that of watching a vulnerable woman being exploited by a man who can will her to obey him regardless.

Boy may seem like just another awkward, sensitive young man in London, but not only is he unusually intelligent, he is telepathic and can control others with his mind. For years he and his parents have prevented his powers being discovered and kept one step ahead of an organisation who want to study him. But years on the run are taking their toll. When Boy falls in love with a struggling actress and meets her conniving agent/boyfriend, matters reach a crisis.

For me the biggest strength of this story, the first to be written directly for the series rather than adapted from a book, is that all its characters are in shades of grey. At first we perceive the men who pursue the Wilsons as unquestionably sinister, but as the story unfolds and I learnt more about Evans and his institution of other mutant children, not to mention his philosophical acceptance that one day his generation may well be replaced by this new evolution, he becomes if not sympathetic, then a practical man with a reasoned argument. It helps that he speaks with the rich urbane tones of Jack May.

Similarly Boy himself is a contradictory mixture, despicable arrogance and selfishness, yet at the same time tragic and vulnerable, shaped into this dangerous innocent by his parents’ well-meaning protection. By being denied exposure to other people, one can assumed he was home schooled, he has no empathy. Like a child, he is squarely at the center of his world and can only see people in terms of what they offer or threaten him. Richard O’Callaghan cleverly uses a singsong cadence in Boy’s speech to emphasize his immaturity.

Charles and Margaret Wilson are also quite nuanced. Two intelligent people who have sacrificed a great deal to protect their son, but now stuck in a cycle of isolation and suspicion. Their love has inevitably become tempered by the understandable stress of looking after a son who is no longer a child. In one of the most memorable scenes, they discuss what to do next, where they can flee, how they can protect him from harm. Then from nowhere Charles says flatly, “I wish he was dead.” Margaret says nothing but her face shows her understanding.

Justine Lord, something of a television regular at the time playing various troubled blondes, is excellent as Paula, a woman whom experience has given a hard outer shell. Yet underneath is someone with a desire for a gentler life. Maybe to some extent she is a stereotype, an actress struggling through unrewarding small jobs, chasing a dream of stardom but all too aware that she is getting older and it’s moving ever faster away. Perhaps secretly believing that shysters like her boyfriend Sonny are as good as its going to get. Her scenes where she comes under Boy’s sexually driven mind control are genuinely uncomfortable, both during and after. With no special effects, the telepathy scenes succeed purely through her and the other actors reactions. A later scene where Boy forces Sonny to nearly drown himself in the bathroom is nearly as unsettling.

So just as good is the moment would-be assassin Brown is driven to murder himself, as he protests with awful calmness as he drives a blade into himself. Brown is played by John Paul, later star of Doomwatch and by odd coincidence his Doomwatch co-star Joby Blanshard turns up as a fellow agent. Actually Brown is a pretty rubbish undercover operative. In his first meeting with the Wilsons as their new neighbour, he is pretty transparent as he peers around their living room, asking about their son, and radiating insincere bonhomie.

This episode has a definite echo of Out of the Unknown‘s spiritual predecessor Armchair Theatre. Take away the telepathy angle and this could easily fit into that series next to A Night Out, another play about a sheltered young man with a pressure cooker home life, trying to spread his wings but sabotaging himself with unhappy consequences. The climax is effective but also curiously low-key. No mob with flaming torches, no pyrotechnics. Just a squalid killing and a few damaged lives.



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