This 1981 television adaptation of Maurice Gee’s 1979 book at least proves New Zealand children’s TV at the time wasn’t as embarrassing as your mind might conjure. At least this particular show can make that claim, being fairly compelling and well-directed for most of the time despite the inevitable clunkiness that will rear its head at moments.
The story follows twins Rachel and Theo (Kirsty Wilkinson and Lance Warren) with a preamble about their disappearance as small children and an encounter with a mysterious man named Mr. Jones (Roy Leywood ) in the woods. Years later, the promises of this episode come to full fruition when they go to spend the summer with their aunt, uncle, and cousin, and get drawn into an unexpected intrigue.
The house is situated on the lake in proximity of two volcanoes, and across the water, the twins spy an old house that interests them. This turns out to be the abode of the Wilburforce family (lead by actor Bill Johnson), a group of grotesquely-chinned, sweaty people in ill-fitting gray suits who seem to be up to something sinister. When Mr. Jones reappears in their lives, they discover this is exactly the case — the Wilburforces are creatures from another planet that Mr. Jones has been chasing across the universe, with the hopes of preventing them from turning every planet they encounter into a ball of mud for them to live on. Not only that — big surprise — but the twins have mysterious powers and are predestined to to fight against the Wilburforces.
The show manages to have some sense of urgency most of the time, and it treats both twins as equal partners with strengths and weaknesses on display at varying points in the story, and in cheerful partnership with their amiable and willing teenage cousin, Ricky (Bill Ewens) who wheels them around in his dune buggy to the important points of action.
The best parts happen underground, when the twins uncover the world the Wilburforces have carved out for themselves, including strangle, oogly goo formations and worm tunnels which double as transports the kids can slide through.
The story is undeniably derivative, at times reminding me of such varying stories as Escape To Witch Mountain and classic Doctor Who, but that doesn’t mean it’s not pulled off with a good amount of personality, especially in regard to the Wilburforces, whose presence hovers between their tentacled sea monster forms and their disguises as slightly misshapen goons lumbering around and, at times, not even able to make their mouths work properly. They’re sincerely kinda creepy and I’m sure scenes of them marauding the twins in the darkness have lived on in the minds of some New Zealanders who caught this show when it originally aired, and I’ll just cryptically that the unexpected dark ending must’ve helped with that.