Last night I had the strangest dream
I've ever had before
I dreamed the world had all agreed
To put an end to war...
The Tomorrow People's main power is that they are nice. A few years later, George Lucas would posit a universe bound together by the mystical forces of intuition and instinct. But for Roger Price, it was quite literally love which made the world go round. When Carol materializes by Steven's hospital bed and exposits the backstory, she explains the Tomorrow People first and foremost in terms of their outlook.
"We are man's only hope of survival. We're peaceful. We can't wage war. We can't kill. Well, not deliberately anyhow."
Violence and War seem to be the main points on which the Tomorrow People differ from the Saps: there is little talk about environmental issues or sharing the world's resources. The Sixth Commandment shall be the whole of the law. The rule is said at one point to be a mental block: not a moral principle, but an existential limitation. Much later, in Season Four or Five, it is said that if a Tomorrow Person ever did use lethal force, they would either lose their powers or simply go mad.
This taboo has no sooner been introduced than it is being fudged. For one thing, the Tomorrow People carry stun-guns, which seems a little like cheating. Big Bad Jedikiah is a robot: sentient, with a personality and personal agency, but still a robot, making it perfectly okay to teleport him onto the molten surface of the planet Mercury. This may have been part of a not unclever Writerly Plan: an on-going villain who can be played by a different actor each week -- he has Tardis like shape shifting powers -- and who the pacifist heroes are permitted to kill. But Jedikiah didn't appear again until the end of Season Three, when he was permanently but non-fatally written out. A human gets vaporised on Mercury along with the robot, but the guy who pushed the button (Peter the apprentice time guardian) is told that this is all right because he didn't really mean it.
It's a bit like Star Trek: in practice the Prime Directive says that you are not allowed to interfered with affairs of lessor civilisations unless you agonize about it first and feel awful afterwards. The code against killing is even referred to, once, as the Prime Barrier. But I suppose "Not killing anyone unless you really can't help it" is a considerable advance over "We come in peace, shoot to kill". Cuddly terrorist Roj Blake used to kill just as many people as the fascist Federation.
"But what if people make war on us?” asks Steven. Carol doesn't have an answer; and the series doesn't seem particularly interested in the question. The Prime Barrier is mostly there to give our heroes permission to be heroes and to draw a line between them and the grown-ups. But it is rarely a source of moral dilemmas. The series would have been a lot more interesting if the heroes had sometimes been pushed into situations which demanded lethal force, found themselves unable to use it, and had to live with the consequences.
In Marvel Comics, mutant is distinctly a status; a thing which you know about yourself and which other people know about you. People hate and shun Cyclops because he is a mutant; they admire the Human Torch because he is a superhero.
Being a Tomorrow Person is little like that. The fact that Telepaths can telepath is almost incidental. It's the status, the label, the race that counts. The Telepaths of the Galactic Federation could talk to the Saps, but they choose not to. The Guardians of Time choose to share their secret only with Telepathic apprentices. There is a Time Control Doohickey on the space ship which only Peter the time-child can operate: but that's because the guardians have chosen to put a telepathic lock on it; presumably because the Saps can't be trusted to use time travel responsibly.
It's this sense of being a member of an exclusive club or class which Carol emphasises when she first meets Steven. Telepathy is not represented as a Vulcan Mind Meld or a sinister way of knowing your mates’ deep desires and dreams. It's just a form of instant long distance communication: Mind-Speaking.
A Tomorrow Person, she says, is never alone
Did Salman Rushdie ever watch the Tomorrow People, I wonder? He was in his middle twenties in 1973, working as an advertising copywriter, so probably not. He was certainly interested in science fiction and references comic books fairly specifically in his novels. The protagonist of the Satanic Verses catches a few minutes of a Doctor Who story called (of all things) The Mutants and considers it racist -- suggesting that either he or Rushdie hadn't understood it.
But Rushdie's break-out novel, Midnight’s Children, is based on the premise that all the babies born in India at the exact moment of Independence are mentally linked, each with their own culturally appropriate superpower. (It's magical realism as opposed to science fiction, so their powers are heavily metaphorical: I seem to recall that one character can literally incorporate emotions into pickles.) The idea that people who have a common outlook should be literally linked; of telepathy as a metaphor for community, seems present in both the kids’ TV show and the Booker novel. In 2015 Rushdie was said to be working on a popular sci-fi themed TV screenplay but nothing seems to have come of it. It would have been called The Next People.
When TIM the computer is briefly switched off, Carol cannot make contact with John, so she jaunts into his bedroom. He sleeps under a duvet with no shirt on; mercifully he wears pyjama pants. But truthfully, girls jaunting into boy’s bedrooms doesn't seem to carry any innuendo. It's more like the Tomorrow People are engaged in an unending long distance sleepover. Carol says that John is nice and kind and clever when she introduces him to Steven, but there is no smidgeon of a hint of a romance between them.
It is the 1970s. Children have their own bedrooms. So far as we can tell, all the Tomorrow People are all only-children: parents are mentioned, but not siblings. We see Steven's mother; she is notified when he explodes in the street and goes to the hospital. John appraises her of the situation: I think even in '73, keeping big secrets from your parents would have felt a little like grooming. A generation before, kids would have had to contend with bunk beds and younger brothers and sisters. John has a great big print of Neil Armstrong on the moon on his bedroom wall. Kenny has lots of football posters. I think they represent Chelsea players. He is briefly shocked when Ginge (the biker they adopt) mentions that he is Fulham supporter. When Kenny wakes up in his den, the first thing he does is say "good morning John; good morning Carol". When Carol and John don't answer him, he knows that something has gone very wrong.
A Tomorrow Person is never alone. They wake up and greet one another in their minds; they materialise in each other's bedrooms; and the elders of the universe talk exclusively to them.
And there you have it. The Long Chase and Timeslip and the Changes were good TV shows we quite liked. Star Trek and Doctor Who became huge, shared, cultural constructs. But The Tomorrow People was our own fantasy realm, belonging privately to each of us. It took up residence in our heads and became part of the way we imagined ourselves. It's a cool disco precursor of J.K Rowling's cynical Millennial Enid Blyton throwback.
I am special.
Someday soon I will get the magic letter telling me how special I am.
This will grant me membership of a special club which will allow me to treat anyone who is not special -- my parents, my teachers, my peer-group, anyone without an RP accent -- with a sort of amused disdain.
You could look it as a religious movement: with Breaking Out like being born again.
You could take it as being about consciousness raising; about getting switched on to a higher power. Steen (the grown up space cop) talks that language in the final story of the first season. "Every child is a telepath. All they have to do is find the key within themselves to unlock the special powers we telepaths possess."
You could take Breaking Out as a metaphor for Coming Out. The Tomorrow People has a certain reputation for being A Bit Gay or A Bit Camp. It is certainly true that the guys, at any rate, take their shirts off more than is strictly necessary. Season Two begins with John towelling himself down, presumably after going swimming, for no very good reason.
The X-Men were a club. The Fantastic Four were a family. The Tomorrow People have the best of both worlds. They are a friendship group; a gang, the most inner of all inner rings, four youths against the world. But what they have found at the other end of the psychic Hogwarts Express is clearly a family. John, serious and authoritarian is Dad; Carol, fussy and perpetually panicking, is Mum; Kenny, smiley and spunky is kid-brother and Steven, sensible and confused, on the cusp of adolescence, is big brother.
Peter Vaughan Clark -- Steven -- can't act. To be honest, none of them are very good at it. Steven Salman (Kenny) is the least worst: he is supposed to be the youngest, and he recites his lines by rote as if he doesn't quite understand them. "Saps-thats-you-it's-short-for-homo-sapiens-it-means-man-the-thinker." This gives him an endearingly other-worldly vibe. Sammie Winimill (Carol) had done some TV acting before the Tomorrow People, but her entire performance is two octaves too high, giving an impression of permanent hysteria. She is hamstrung by a script which expects her to say things like "But we've got to do something we've simply got too we can't just do nothing we simply can't." Only Nicholas Young (John) gives any sign of knowing what nuance means: he gets to be the Nice One who is also the Serious Authoritative One, perpetually telling the camera that the world is about to end, everyone is going to die, and that it's a long shot but it just might work. Vaughan Clark accompanies every line with a slightly too careful stage-school gesture, and his voice goes up slightly too much at the end of every question, until you want to throw him onto the molten surface of the planet Mercury. He improved considerably in the second season, and I believe made a decent career for himself on the other side of the camera. We are only five years away from Grange Hill, a school-based soap opera in which the kids looked and sounded like actual kids
But in a sense, Steven is what carries the programme. Reader response is a risky game, and I have claimed slightly too frequently that the limitations of creaky old TV shows are actually part of their strengths. But I do think that there is a blank, gormless absence at the centre of the Tomorrow People, at least to start with; on to which we all project ourselves. We are all Steven. We all have scars on our foreheads. We are all Chosen Ones.
The opening credits are perhaps more interesting than a lot of the actual episodes. The viewer is thrust forward down a kind of tunnel: images of the main character's faces and star-scapes zoom towards us, along with the titles and the credits. It rather resembles the Doctor Who opening sequence; in which the viewer is pulled through a split screen hyperspace time tunnel from which the Doctor and the TARDIS emerge. But that title sequence was only adopted in December '73: at this point the BBC was still using the wibbly-wobbly lines which had served them in various forms since Unearthly Child.
The central image is of a fist opening up into a hand; and of a bud opening into a flower. And a man clinging to some kind of boxing punch-bag: I've never been quite sure what that means. This imagery is specifically evoked by Carol when she talks to Steven in the hospital: it's a kind of visual analogy to Breaking Out. The fist of violence becomes the open hand of friendship; but more widely and simply, the message is simply "Open Your Mind".
Open your mind.
I can remember, vividly, imagining a future in which a very old man with a long white beard told a large crowd of tomorrow babies that he was the first. And we viewers, who had been there at the beginning, knew that he was John. If Big Finish or someone want to make this story, they should get in touch. I believe that Nicholas Young is still working. That's how the far future looked in those days. The Blue Peter Annual spoke frivolously of a remote futurity when an old lady and two very old gentlemen would return to the BBC garden and dig up the millennium time capsule. Twenty nine years is a long time when you are a kid, but everyone took it for granted that Blue Peter would still be on BBC One in the Far Future, even if there would be different presenters and different pets. The final Planet of the Apes movie ended with a brief glimpse into a future world where the grandchildren of former apes and the grandchildren of former humans sit together at the table of brotherhood. I certainly had intimations of mortality at the age of seven. All Tomorrow People but one grow up. Seven is the beginning of the end.
Open your mind...
Did it come true? John would be pushing seventy now: not quite the grey-beard of my dream, but getting on that way. So far the earth has not joined the Galactic Federation: if we had a referendum the Saps would vote to Leave. War has not come to an end. Steven's generation elected Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair.
It is often said that William Gibson predicted the Internet, coining the word cyberspace in unreadable sci-fi noir novels composed on a manual typewriter. But todays digital natives have far more in common with Douglas Adams’s hitch-hikers than they do with Gibson's cyberjocks. They have an electronic book which contains everything; it has replaced the conventional sources of wisdom and knowledge, even though they know that it is completely unreliable.
But Roger Price saw the future first, in a silly forgotten TV show a few of us fell hopelessly in love with.
The children who talk to each other from their bedrooms before saying good morning to their parents. The children who instantly know where their friends are and are never out of touch with them. Linked, not through cyberspace but through hyperspace.
A Tomorrow Person is never alone. Ever kid with a mobile is homo superior.
What was the Age of Aquarius?