Tuesday, 30 April 2013

The Tomorrow People, series one to three

My second post on Danger UXB will follow later in the week, but to mark the fortieth anniversary of the series, here's something I wrote five years ago on The Tomorrow People:

The Tomorrow People is one of those television series which lurk in the memory of a generation. It was never quite part of the popular culture mainstream, explicitly made as a children's series for a children's timeslot - usually 4.45 on Mondays - on ITV, unlike Doctor Who, which bridged 'grown-up' and juvenile viewing. My household was a BBC one, and I discovered The Tomorrow People first through the books (one original novel, two anthologies of three original stories, one full-length novelisation and one book of three shorter novelisations) and the comic strips in Look-In before I actually saw an episode, which I think was part of a repeat of Into the Unknown during 1977.

Unusually for the period, The Tomorrow People is largely the vision of one writer-producer, Roger Price, who seems to have some form of managerial responsibility for the series throughout, though he is only credited as producer on two stories in series one (jointly with Ruth Boswell) and on the two stories which make up series four. There's a sympathetic interview on Tomorrow People superfan Jackie Clark's site (2013 note - link no longer active), which reveals many of Price's preoccupations - impatience with authority and hostility towards the exploitation and domination of children influenced by his 'traumatic' experience at prep school. The Tomorrow People enabled Price, a child of the Dick Barton generation of the late 1940s, to be the advocate of the youth encouraged by the optimistic popular culture of the late 1960s and 1970s, rejecting the shibboleths of the immediate post-war period and embracing social experimentation.

The first three series of The Tomorrow People, broadcast in 1973, 1974 and 1975, were transmitted as thirteen half-hours each, including a commercial break. All were produced by Ruth Boswell, and were made up in the case of the first two series of one five-part story and two four-part stories each, and in the case of the third one four-part story and three three-parters. Of these the third season's structure is possibly the best, despite the third story being A Man for Emily, the most ill-advised Tomorrow People adventure. All three series allowed room for a modicum of character development - and though there is not as much there as the twenty-first century viewer would expect, the 1970s child could fill in the details themselves, whether alone or in the playground. At its best, this format allowed the gradual expansion of the universe of the tomorrow people in a way which the shorter seasons of 1976-1979 didn't.

The first episode of The Tomorrow People is well-remembered and contains probably the best depiction of one of the regulars 'breaking out', or gaining the special powers - telekinesis, telepathy and teleportation, the latter called 'jaunting' within the jargon of the series - which marks them out as 'tomorrow people'. (The preferred Latin term for the tomorrow people was homo superior - of course! - though the second story, The Medusa Strain, offers the alternative and less self-important homo novus.) The first four series began with the introduction of a new tomorrow person, and the first episode is largely about the break-out of Stephen, played by Peter Vaughan Clarke. Reading articles on the series written by Doctor Who fans in the late 1980s or 1990s it was clear that for a sizeable section of the audience the series was Peter Vaughan Clarke's show, and he's probably at his best in the first two series when he can play the chirpy kid tomorrow person, before he became too old for this role.

Casting was always a problem for children's series. Roger Price became known from the mid-1970s onwards for making semi-improvised light entertainment series with casts of real teenagers, such as You Must Be Joking! or Pauline's Quirkes; but in The Tomorrow People the usual rules of 1970s children's television applied, and the older tomorrow people, initially supposedly mid-to-late teenagers, were played by actors in their twenties. One of the flaws in the script of the first story, The Slaves of Jedikiah, is that it draws attention to this anomaly. Sammie Winmill as Carol, having jaunted to Stephen's hospital bedside, explains that the tomorrow people's leader is John, the oldest of the group, who is "seventeen" - yet Sammie (who had already played a series of sex object characters in sitcom) was well into her twenties, like Nicholas Young who played John. Carol is probably sixteen at the very oldest, and Sammie Winmill herself proves time and time again unable to act opposite her younger colleagues, Peter Vaughan Clarke and Stephen Salmon (who played Kenny with what is best described as an unengaging naturalness). This awkwardness is brushed aside in the next series, when Carol and Kenny are replaced by Elizabeth Adare as Elizabeth M'dondo, handily introduced as a student teacher at Stephen's school rather than as a teenager, whose natural abilities had somehow not expressed themselves beyond a low level of telepathy.

At the start the tomorrow people recruit with what comes across as a self-assured ruthlessness. In the first episode they are initially presented as threatening Stephen as much as the bikers Ginge and Lefty, the clumsy but just about functionally brutal servants of Jedikiah who end up either providing the tomorrow people's muscle or being rescued by them for the rest of the first series. The first pre-credits sequence (and the excellent title sequence doesn't debut properly until episode two - various edits of it can be found on YouTube) shows Stephen subjected to what is near enough a telepathic mugging, as John, Carol and Kenny triangulate his location. One series later and it is time for Elizabeth to break out: not as much is made as it might have been of Stephen's decision, once he and John have decided that it's in Elizabeth's best interests that she accept that she has "special powers" (a term used monotonously throughout the series, even though the tomorrow people would take their abilities for granted and even used in front of fellow-telepaths), to address his teacher as 'Elizabeth' and not 'Miss M'dondo'. Sadly no-one involved seems to know how to carry this scene off, even though it breaks a taboo which child viewers would have relished seen being transgressed; and the physical and psychological trauma Elizabeth undergoes as John and Stephen shock her into breaking out, though made very concrete by the script and Adare's performance, is immediately displaced into a 'rescue from hyperspace' sequence which recreates ones from The Slaves of Jedikiah and The Medusa Strain the previous year, suggesting that the production team were proud of the primitive effect. Nonetheless, Elizabeth's lines and actions are repeated a series later in Secret Weapon, perhaps the best Tomorrow People story of this period, but not by new junior tomorrow person Tyso Boswell, played by Dean Lawrence. Instead, it's intelligence operative and government telepath Tricia who falls to the ground and pleads that everyone stop shouting at her; and at the close of the story, as John returns to the government research centre to rescue Tyso, he tells her that "it's not too late" to accept that she is a tomorrow person and let herself break out completely.

Tyso is remarkable in The Tomorrow People for his redundancy. He barely appears in his introductory story, spending most of the story sedated, and from then on does little except run around on location or in studio, get captured, and in A Man for Emily let the ethnic stereotyping of Secret Weapon turn into full-blown racist romanticizing. Although Dean Lawrence's face is dropped into the title sequence ahead of Peter Vaughan Clarke's, in the closing credits his name is normally placed after the guest cast and before the technical people. He is mainly there to be the kid in the series once Peter Vaughan Clarke was too old to fill that role, and in what passes for a fourth series (of which more in a later post) he is treated with even less respect.

The Tomorrow People has a sceptical relationship with the adult world. Elizabeth is introduced in The Blue and the Green as a student teacher who shouldn't be supervising Stephen's class, but who is being exploited by the headmaster to avoid the bother of calling in a supply teacher. Earlier, The Vanishing Earth sees the tomorrow people make contact with an officer of the Galactic Police, Harry Steen, played by Kevin Stoney in a manner echoing his Tobias Vaughn from Doctor Who's The Invasion. At the story's climax he's happy to leave the Earth to its fate and rescue the tomorrow people only, and not the population as a whole; they take the initiative in restoring a stolen chemical to the planet and stopping its break-up. The aformentioned Tricia is part of a branch of the British Secret Intelligence Service engaged in a psionic arms race with the Eastern Bloc, a theme returned to in The Dirtiest Business in the 1977 series. Her boss, Colonel Masters, played with unexpected authority by Trevor Bannister (Mr Lucas from Are You Being Served?) is clear that the tomorrow people have to be used as part of the "defence" effort for what he argues are patriotic motives, but this might involve them being kept in cold storage for what the state sees as their own good. Even Professor Cawston, who becomes established by his third appearance in The Revenge of Jedikiah at the end of series three as a friend of the tomorrow people, discovers Tyso because he wants a tomorrow person of his own.

The most threatening villains in the series are predatory males. This theme is particularly strong in the first series, where in two of the stories the tomorrow people fight the shape-changing robot Jedikiah, first in the guise of the fat, bearded and jowled Francis de Wolff, and then in the more saturnine form of Roger Bizley. The Bizley Jedikiah uses as his dupe a space traveller from the future named Rabowski, a rotund non-telepath from an age when homo sapiens has almost died out, who craves the company of "men!" with whom he can engage in manly combat - tomorrow people are non-aggressive and can only shoot to stun - and who collects 'beautiful things' including a silver robot played by Dave Prowse wearing body paint and little else and a young blond 'Guardian of Time' played by Richard Speight. The theme continues in later series, though toned down - Gaius, probably a traveller from an alternative future where the Roman Empire conquered the galaxy, collects boys to train as gladiators in the overextended and not all that coherent A Rift in Time in series two, and its successor The Doomsday Men satirises the Gordonstoun model of boarding school as the nest for a militarist cult aiming to use a nuclear armed space station to prevent the signing of a peace treaty, a cult bound up with a strongly patriarchal family relationship. The same story includes an ethically dubious scene where the tomorrow people place headsets on two schoolboys and load their brains with counter-propaganda; as an astronaut rescued earlier in the story protests, this looks very much like brainwashing and a denial of the right of the boys to make up their own minds. Oddly with hindsight, but in keeping with the times, the said astronaut is a representative of Mao's China.

The sexual politics of The Tomorrow People are odd. Much less is done with the parallel between 'breaking out' and puberty than might have been done had the series been made for a later timeslot and wider audience. The tomorrow people have a masculine/neuter parental figure, the increasingly precious computer Tim, who is organically integrated into their variably secret base the Lab, hidden in a disused underground station (Wood Lane on the Central Line, closed in 1947 but only demolished at surface level in the 2000s). Tim eventually reveals two humanoid (and male) kin in the Galactic Federation ambassador Timus and his explorer brother, Tikno, both played by Philip Gilbert who voiced Tim. Timus, Tikno and their unseen brother Timon are all clones, from a species which reproduce asexually. Throughout this period there is only one active female tomorrow person, and she is often placed in a nurturing rather than an adventuring role. As for A Man for Emily, this notorious story features a matriarchal micro-society living on a spaceship, whose culture is somehow entirely shaped by a culture of old westerns. Every so often planetfall is made so that a male of the family - who do all the fetching and carrying - can gather food, and possibly bring up a potential mate for the young female who is destined to become the next 'TheMomma'. The male in this case, Elmer, is played by Peter Davison in a deliberately ludicrous blond wig, and his sister, the squeaky-voiced 'almost-a-lady' Emily, by Sandra Dickinson. What the children thought as Emily seizes upon the ever-starched John (played throughout the series with a slightly ironic old-world authority by Nicholas Young) and declares that he is her 'man-boy', I can only guess. John persuades Elmer to rebel against his subservient role, and the aliens are settled on Earth - TheMomma selling fish, gunslinging-obsessed Elmer as a traffic warden (one of the authority figures regularly ridiculed by Roger Price throughout) and Emily as a barmaid. Still, had Davison and Dickinson met on this story, we would not have Georgia Moffett.

The producer of the first three series of The Tomorrow People was, though, a woman, Ruth Boswell; and it is a woman who brings to an end this phase of the series. As John and Elizabeth lie dying in the SIS's base, events having been manipulated by a resurrected Jedikiah who now has imprisoned Stephen and Tyso in the Lab, Tricia, who for most of this story has been continuing to follow the agenda of her assassinated superior Masters, rubs her temples, says she can hear voices - and disappears, to reappear in the Lab where she reactivates Tim and allows him to contact the Galactic Federation and thereby rescue the other tomorrow people. All five are removed from the Earth, and Jedikiah is transformed into a human and forced to live as a beggar. The presentation is rushed but this is meant to be a triumph; events in the third series have lent the tomorrow people the protection of the prime minster against the security services, and now one of their oppressors (presented in her conduct and make-up as an adult) has completed the transformation she began in her first story and has become a tomorrow person. We leave her sobbing on the edge of consciousness on one of the Lab's illuminated tables; while the camera in The Tomorrow People will linger on its monsters, it won't on the symptoms of psychological distress.

Francis de Wolff's appearance in the Lab is a shock because his previous appearances in The Revenge of Jedikiah were achieved through the use of stock footage, a device upon which The Tomorrow People was particularly reliant. This series fought hard to maintain its ambition in the face of an absence of cash, though this often led to perfunctory ends to storylines, especially with the serials (like Secret Weapon or The Revenge of Jedikiah) which cry out to be realised on a Saturday evening as a complement or rival to Doctor Who. Sadly for The Tomorrow People, it was made by Thames, the one ITV company which was not allowed to supply programmes to the network at weekends. As the 1970s continued The Tomorrow People's message of optimism would be expressed with more qualification as its production conditions and the content of youth culture changed.

Thoughts on series four to eight

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