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 20th 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.