‘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).
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.
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.
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.