Paranoia seemed like it had an audience in film in the 1970s, but not so much in television, let alone children’s television, unless you count The Night Stalker. It wouldn’t become standard fare until the 1990s, when The X Files made such discomfort not only palatable, but preferable to genre series.
That makes Codename: Icarus, from 1981, not only early to the game, but doubly unusual for being a children’s show. It could probably be described as a science fiction espionage show, but that would underplay the strong themes of conspiracy, of reality being out of anyone’s control, and of powerful forces manipulating the lives of ordinary people for the conspiracy.
The show follows teenager Martin Smith (Barry Angel), a supposed troublemaker at school who turns out, of course, to be a genius — discovered because he would break into his school’s science lab to use its lone computer, through which he connects with some unknown person. Of course, the other end of the computer turns out to be a recruiter for a dark, clandestine world that appears to Martin as the most desirable private school he can imagine, one that will nurture his mathematical talents and provide him with a stimulating environment.
But, as I said, there’s something sinister behind this school, and as Martin traverses its cryptic limitations and unnerving interactions with other stressed out students and a servant who seems to have a manipulative agenda, this becomes less some school kid spy fantasy and more akin to The Prisoner. As Martin delves deeper and deeper, even being subjected to mind control sessions in the form of verbal sparring games, the real purpose behind the school remains obviously sinister, but the specifics of it will keep you engrossed.
Concurrent with the school story is that of actual government agent Andy Rutherford (Jack Galloway) who has to work through official channels and contend with anonymous colleagues in order to track down the same answers that Martin is seeking on the inside. These scenes manage to provide the wider context that is needed to fully take in the finale, and it’s managed with good humor and reasonable intrigue that is in some ways as sophisticated, if not more so, than any given show for adults at that time.
Martin’s dark adventure touches on the idea of greater destinies and ordinary lives, of the the world order and the demands that makes on individuals trying to stay alive or in power, and of the personal relationships that can undo any of these multinational conspiracies if they have the right intensity. It also hints at the notion that while borders exist, as does patriotism, there is a level on which this is not strictly the way the world works, and ordinary people are not touched by it unless through, say, weaponry. It’s a paranoid thought, to be sure, but is it really an unnecessary one?
In historical terms, Codename: Icarus stands as an early salvo for defiant genre television that questions authority, second guesses the accepted order, and refuses to take assurances for situations that don’t seem right at all — a quiet link between The Prisoner and The X-Files.