The Cambridge Geek

The Control Group

A quick step away from my usual area of sci fi/fantasy for something a little closer to reality, this time set in a mental hospital in 1962. It's a historical, dramatising the events that happened in mental institutions of that era, particularly the more extreme types of "therapy" encouraged and funded by the CIA.

The window onto this world is Dr. Hayes, the head of a women's institutional ward, who engages in sleep therapy, electroshock, the application of hypnotic suggestion and other, even more questionable practices. (Though potentially revolutionary for the time.)

His main drives are unexpectedly pedestrian, for someone supposedly on the frontiers of research. He's desperate to keep the lights on, which means accepting the CIA's money and the ethical concerns that come with it, and he has an obsession with the newest arrival to the ward, Karen.

Karen was discovered only a short distance from an ostensible suicide by falling, and suspicions are cast very quickly on her for having given the victim a helping shove. But she's not talking, and Hayes makes it his aim to break down her mental defences and get the truth out from her. This is where most of the horror comes in.

He's assisted/talked down occasionally by his head nurse, Verdrey, who brings a slightly more compassionate approach to their patients' care. And Charlotte, one of the more docile residents tends to drop by and attempt to steal his attention, having become focused as she has on his place in her life.

It has something of an Orange is the New Black feel to it, with the patients working together, under the watchful eye of a warden and various sadistic guards, but it lacks that show's exciting characters. Karen, who should be a feisty rebel, with hints of a dark past, is mostly a mewling victim or sex object. We see elements of her deeper personality, but it takes five episodes to get half a minute of this, which is just too slow.

Charlotte is equally ineffectual, being pushed around by the various people in her life, with no real motivations of her own. It appears to be going for a "life is grim" motif, and it certainly achieves that, but it isn't entertaining enough to make that dirge interesting. The various shadowy government agents don't give me much reason to root for or despise them.

I was hoping for a deeper plot, and it's probably going to come out eventually, but the journey isn't thrilling enough to make me stick around until it does. Too close to a documentary for an intended drama, I think.

Score 2

Tagged: Audio fiction Drama Cast Dramatised Thriller Serial