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Posts Tagged ‘Roger Price’

Sometimes there is a danger that over-familiarity with something can blind you to its essential nature, and this is particularly noticeable when that essential nature is, well, weird. I’m a big fan of Japanese monster movies, as long term readers will no doubt (wearily) recall, but it’s only when I attempt to describe the plot of (say) Godzilla Vs Biollante to an unsuspecting party that I am reminded of how hallucinogenically strange it really is. The same with a lot of TV, I suppose. These days Doctor Who is such a national (even international) institution that we take for granted it is a programme with a rather eccentric format.

In other words, I suppose, if I want to get that cherishable sensation of ‘What the hell…?’ I have to look somewhat further afield. At this point honour requires that I credit Neil and Sue Perryman, whose latest opus arrived in the post the other day and contains details of their encounter with The Tomorrow People in its 70s incarnation. They, naturally, went for the notorious episodes featuring a bewigged and cowboy-hatted Peter Davison. Feeling inspired to revisit the highly peculiar world of the homo superior myself, I opted to go down a different route and check out another story written by Roger Price from slightly later in the series’ run – from the 1978 sixth season, it’s Hitler’s Last Secret!

Yup, this is a mainstream youth-orientated TV drama from (what was then) the UK’s only commercial channel, and it’s so openly about Fascism that they put Hitler’s name in the title. But we are still only at the very brink of the rabbit-hole. We find ourselves in a reassuringly familiar low-budget secret base/bunker, from which a young man executes an escape you could charitably describe as ‘ridiculous’. He is pursued across country by other young lads, toting machine guns, before being run over and killed by a British army land rover (it transpires we are supposedly somewhere in Bavaria). This would be odd enough, but on top of that, all the teenage boys are wearing SS uniforms, and leading them is a youthful Nicholas Lyndhurst (yes, he of Only Fools and Horses fame), affecting a frankly wobbly German accent. The boundaries of taste and sanity are already cracking and we have barely reached the opening credits of episode one.

Thankfully, the audience gets a chance to process the concept of Rodney Trotter, He-Wolf of the SS, as we pop off to the secret lab HQ of the Tomorrow People (the psi-powered next step in human evolution, in case you were wondering). Your Tomorrow People for this outing are strait-laced big brother figure John (Nicholas Young), restless but good-hearted teen Mike (Mike Holoway), and Hsui Tai (Misako Koba), who may be a member of a hyper-evolved subspecies of humanity, but still sounds like she’s learned her dialogue phonetically.

In the sort of eye-rollingly contrived expository scene you only get in old genre shows, John just happens to mention to Hsui Tai that he has been breeding immortal (or perhaps more accurately amortal) rats, repeating experiments originally done long before (by the Nazis, would you believe? What a coincidence). Apparently, if you lock an organism in a state of perpetual adolescence, it essentially stops aging. This is delivered with all the earnestness usually reserved for the series’ frequent info-dumps of genuine improving knowledge, and it took me a few minutes to realise it is actually complete cobblers (well, maybe not: it’s a venerable old SF notion, perhaps most memorably employed in Norman Spinrad’s Bug Jack Barron).

The laborious laying-in of back-story takes a pause as Mike wanders through en route to the teleporter pads, heading to the youth club. However, in addition to the usual flared trousers he has also chosen to wear an SS uniform jacket and hat, which John is righteously angry about. The scene is so weird to a modern viewer that it’s quite hard to tell if it’s especially badly written or not; but it is almost certainly badly acted by any objective standard.

Once down the youth club we see another artiste who probably doesn’t include this on his showreel: Ray Burdis, actor in Scum and Gandhi, producer of The Krays, director of various iffy Primrose Hill Set movies, along with much else, turns up as the leader of a neo-Nazi youth gang called (wait for it) the Stormtroopers. Burdis’ character speaks frankly of his love for Hitler and belief that one day he will return to save the world (just to reiterate, this was apparently considered acceptable material for children’s TV back in 1978).

The studio-bound scenes in the youth club and secret lab are intercut with goings on at the SS base, which is also a youth club and a secret lab, of course. Untergruppenfuhrer Trotter is shocked to discover that the cryogenic suspension pods the perpetually-teenaged Nazis have been guarding for the last 33 years are starting to wear out and the occupants have to be defrosted, PDQ. One of these is the mad doctor responsible for making their teenage dreams last forever, the other is… well, you can probably guess.

Yes, it’s Hitler himself, played by Michael Sheard, who spent quite a lot of his time playing the Fuhrer (when he wasn’t playing Imperial Navy Admirals, autocratic school teachers, and various Doctor Who characters, anyway). But is Hitler really Hitler? John has already revealed that the Nazi leader is really Neebor, from the planet Vashir, a ‘galactic criminal’.

Taste barrier? What taste barrier? Just as John is concerned by Mike’s growing fascination with Nazism, so the world authorities have been troubled by a rising tide of neo-Nazism amongst young people (we’re told about this, not shown it, obviously), and British intelligence has realised there’s something funny going on in rural Bavaria, too. John heroically leaps to a wild but (naturally) completely accurate conclusion – at the end of the war, the Nazis used V2 rockets to spread a strain of e. coli which introduced a gene promoting blind obedience to Hitler into the population. Once again, this is an insane mixture of seriously-delivered science lecture (the young audience is informed about genetic engineering and how it works) and bonkers conspiracy theory (the rest of it). Now, of course, Hitler and his deceptively-youthful followers are planning to make the ultimate party political broadcast, activate the Hitler-worshipping gene in the world’s youth, and take over the planet! Can the Tomorrow People save the day? (Clue: yes.)

The thing about Hitler’s Last Secret isn’t just that it’s a episode of a fantasy adventure series which is to some extent fascinated by the iconography of Hitler and Nazism – these were alarmingly common in the 1960s and 70s. I have already written about the Eagle’s Nest episode of The New Avengers (Hitler is still alive and reasonably well and living on an island in the north Atlantic), and also the Patterns of Force episode of Star Trek (Hitler himself is long dead, but his ideology is alive and well and living on the remote planet Ekos, having been spread there by a misguided Federation historian). Off the top of my head, I can also think of the Anchluss 77 episode of the Lynda Carter Wonder Woman series (Hitler’s cells are alive and well and about to be cloned somewhere in South America), and arguably Doctor Who’s Genesis of the Daleks (though this is a much more allusive, allegorical connection). Round about this time there was also the movie The Boys from Brazil (numerous Hitler clones are alive and well and being groomed for power all over the world). So it’s not as if this was some weird anomaly, exactly; the Second World War had finished less than 35 years previously and was still a key influence on social attitudes. The seductive appeal of Nazi chic to younger people was also a genuine issue – round about the time this episode went out, you had Siouxsie Sioux and other first generation punks wearing swastikas and so on, probably more for their transgressive power to shock than for any other reason, and Nazi uniforms remained popular as bad taste fancy dress into the 21st century (even with members of the British royal family).

So why is it that Hitler’s Last Secret feels so monumentally screwed-up and misjudged? It can’t just be the clunky and obvious plotting, the preachiness of it, or the consistently bad acting of nearly everyone involved, because these were pretty much staples of this kind of TV show in the 70s and beyond (and especially The Tomorrow People). That’s not to say that there aren’t some terrible misjudgements going on here – the decision to make Hitler one of the series’ routinely duff alien monsters in disguise is surely trivialising the programme’s subject matter, especially as this is basically handled by a couple of lines of dialogue. Who is this Neebor character? Where’s he at? What’s his objective? The story is all about the appeal of the iconography of Nazism and barely considers its ideological basis.

No, the particular things that The Tomorrow People brings to the table are, firstly, the fact that this is British TV and thus very likely to have that before-they-were-famous factor somewhere in the mix – Nicholas Lyndhurst had quite an extensive career as a child star, but even so, playing a member of the Hitler Youth locked in perpetual puberty is the kind of role that doesn’t come along very often.

The other big deal is the extraordinarily low budget this story is obviously contending with. There’s a bit of location filming in some woods, but most of it takes place on the same few tiny studio sets with very primitive special effects. The Tomorrow People spend most of the story sitting around on their sofas. When Hitler is compelled to reveal his true, alien form, the effect is achieved by popping a fake eyeball in a bowl of green jelly.

It looks like a spoof of the worst kind of cod SF, but the story is clearly intended very seriously, a cautionary parable to any younger viewers who might be feeling tempted to pop on their own SS uniform before going down the school disco. There’s a kind of three-way collision between the most serious theme, the painfully unsubtle handling of this by the script, and the almost unbelievably crass way it’s all realised, and the result is something with a unique kind of awfulness to it. It is stupefying to watch, also very funny, and also has a sort of grim fascination in the way it manages to get virtually everything so very, very wrong. The Tomorrow People did produce some genuinely good stories. But this is in a class of its own, and probably one which has been placed in special measures.

 

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‘Surely you’re not going to bother the Galactic Federation with a teenage fashion craze here on Earth!?!’

Other than Doctor Who and its spin-offs, I haven’t seriously watched a contemporary fantasy or SF TV series in six or seven years – not past the first handful of episodes, anyway – and yet I find myself grimly sticking with Agents of SHIELD, quite possibly simply out of sheer stubbornness: SHIELD is not especially funny, thrilling, interesting or original, and tonally it’s completely all over the place… but I didn’t come here to talk about that. Anyway, I was watching the most recent episode when I was startled by a commercial for the latest US fantasy import to be scheduled by the same British network: a bright and edgy new American series called The Tomorrow People!

I nearly fell off my chair laughing, for I have spent the last six months, on and off, watching the complete run of The Tomorrow People on DVD: not the shiny new US series, nor the really-not-too bad 90s incarnation of the show, but the frequently mind-boggling original version, which ran on commercial TV in the UK between 1973 and 1979.

If that gives you the idea that The Tomorrow People has one of those irresistibly good formats that fantasy TV occasionally throws up, I would say you were right. The basic premise of every iteration of the show is the same: a new species of human being is starting to appear on Earth, variously referred to as homo superior, homo novus, or simply the Tomorrow People. The new breed has only been around for a very few years which is why none of them are older than their teens or early twenties. Their enhanced development gives them various psychic powers: telepathy, telekinesis, and teleportation is the standard suite of abilities, though healing and psychometry also occasional pop up when the plot demands it, as does the power to cause normal people to hallucinate. The downside is that their psychological makeup means they are incapable of acting violently (one is tempted to add that some of the performers involved, and not just the children, occasionally seem incapable of acting at all).

It’s not a million miles away from the premise of The X-Men – even some of the terminology is the same – but most of the plots of the actual stories are essentially the stuff of low-rent Doctor Who: deviously malevolent aliens or hostile time travellers visit Earth in the 1970s and are usually seen off by the Tomorrow People by the end of the concluding episode. The resemblance to Doctor Who is, in some ways, quite striking, and not coincidental: the ITV networks produced a number of shows in an attempt to challenge the legendary BBC show, of which The Tomorrow People was one of the longest-running and most popular (there is even a snarky swipe at Doctor Who in one early episode).

TP73

The original cast.

On the other hand, one of the nice things about watching The Tomorrow People is that you do come away with your faith in the quality of mid-70s Doctor Who reaffirmed: if you thought some Who stories from this time looked cheap and nasty, boy, you ain’t seen nothing yet. The Tomorrow People routinely wheels on jaw-droppingly shoddy robots and aliens throughout its run, but does so with a conviction which simultaneously manages to be both brazen and rather sweet. The tone of the thing is also, generally speaking, very light – no gothic horror going on here, just frothy SF.

Which is not to say that the series is utterly disposable. For one thing, it takes the building of its internal mythology very seriously, and for the most part the continuity is impressively coherent (one thing you can’t really say about Doctor Who). This is probably a result of the series being almost wholly written by one man, Roger Price. Price’s rather 60s-informed vision is of a world where, hey, children are the future, peace reigns amongst the stars courtesy of a benign and protective Galactic Federation (the Tomorrow People are affiliated with it), and a better destiny awaits the human race.

On the other hand, Price isn’t afraid to take a run at some slightly surprising material, often from startling angles. Most of the episodes are basically SF runarounds with only a wish-fulfilment subtext (teens get to meet the Prime Minister, save the world, and so on) – after the first couple of series there’s no reference to the lead characters having to go to school, most of their parents are never seen. (The only regular ‘adult’ characters throughout the run are a couple of comedy bikers who befriend the Tomorrow People, and a Federation apparatchik who acts as a sort of mentor to them – the same actor also voices the AI of their base, which carries out a similar narrative role.) However, relatively frequently Price likes to insert a few Big Themes into a story, whether this be the evils of gang violence or whatever. A huge range of story ideas get covered, including alternative timelines, international espionage, the insidious allure of Nazism (in addition to Michael Sheard playing Hitler once again, this story also features the most prominent character in SS chic, Sieg Heil-ing for all he’s worth – try getting that onto CBBC nowadays), the dangers of unquestioning religious faith…

The series falls naturally into two halves – the first three seasons, which are longer and feature Peter Vaughan-Clarke’s Stephen as the lead juvenile Tomorrow Person, and the shorter latter five seasons, which focus much more on Mike Holoway as, well, Mike. There’s a huge turnover of cast members throughout the run of the show – nine Tomorrow People across eight seasons – but on the other hand this is pretty much a distinguishing feature of a British telefantasy show. The only constant throughout is lead Tomorrow Person John, played by Nicholas Young, these days best known for… erm, well, still this, actually. Young is one of the series’ greatest assets and really should qualify as some sort of minor icon in British telefantasy: no matter how ropey the script or miniscule the budget, Young is there as John, playing the whole thing with total conviction and upper-middle-class steel.

TPjohn

Anyway. The early seasons are better (though season one is honestly pretty wretched) – fan consensus seems to be that season two’s The Blue and the Green is the highlight of the entire run, but I would politely demur: my favourite story is Secret Weapon from season three, in which a newly-emerging Tomorrow Person finds himself of interest to an agency within the British military intent on exploiting his powers as an intelligence asset. The down-to-earth-ness of the premise really gives the story some traction, and the fact that it doesn’t involve terrible alien suits or too many special effects is a definite plus as well.

There was a chance it could all have ended with season three, but the show returned in a somewhat reduced form – fewer episodes and shorter stories. Not that all of these are bad, of course, although the character of Japanese Tomorrow Person Hsui Tai (played by Misako Koba) is arguably a misstep: delivering her dialogue, she sounds like she’s attacking the English language with an axe, and it’s not really surprising she’s kept in a subordinate role for most of her time on the series.

By the end of season seven, the series looks pretty tired, concluding with a quintessentially Tomorrow People-ish alien invasion yarn in the shape of The Living Skins. A craze for quite hideous-looking plastic jumpsuits is spreading amongst Earth’s teenagers, and inevitably Mike and Hsui Tai fall victim to it too. This is bad news because the plastic jumpsuits are actually polymerous alien parasites intent on conquering the Earth (shades of the Nestenes).

Well, it sounds a bit of a so-so idea, but what lifts the story into a realm of lunatic grandeur is that the director really gives it 100%. This is a story where the alien high command is represented by a pile of wobbling balloons – honestly, it really is – and the collection of further alien invaders is depicted via yet more balloons being slung out of the back of a lorry and the film then being played in reverse. It should look totally ludicrous. And, to be honest, it does look totally ludicrous, but the director’s giving it such a good go you stick with the story even while you’re laughing at it. It’s silly, it’s very dated, but it’s also fantastically imaginative – that could be The Tomorrow People‘s epitaph.

Told you so.

Told you so.

At least the series finishes on something of a high, with a proper four-part episode which feels like a real shift in the format and tone: Earth gets caught in the crossfire between two warring alien empires, and the Tomorrow People rebel against the Federation, which has increasingly been presented as ineffectual and bureaucratic, for its refusal to get involved. The story doesn’t quite make best use of a good premise, and one does get a strong sense of it all being very much made post-Star Wars, but it could have been much worse.

The Tomorrow People has, on balance, rather more misses than hits across its eight seasons – I remember my shock the first time I watched an episode and found myself thinking ‘This actually isn’t too bad!’ – but it’s an incredibly hard series to actually dislike. And it seems to be fondly remembered today as well – not just in the form of the American remake, which no doubt will prove glossy and credible but utterly charmless, but here in the UK as well. For what was The Sarah Jane Adventures but a loving homage to The Tomorrow People, set in Who-world? There is the sensible parent-figure, the secret base and the endearing computer, the same careful world-building, and stories of a style and tone almost indistinguishable from that of the older programme. Without The Tomorrow People I’m sure there would have been no Sarah Jane Adventures. To a modern viewer, The Tomorrow People is nowhere near as accomplished as Russell T Davies and Gareth Roberts’ careful pastiche, but it is every bit as much a classic in its own way.

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