So: let's talk about the Tomorrow People.
I look at it with the eye of love: I fear I am going to make it sound a lot more interesting than it ever was. I issue the same warning that I did when writing about Hugh Walters. If you don't already know and love the show, for god's sake don't go away and watch it on my say-so.
It's shockingly badly acted; some of the social attitudes make on feel a little queasy; and the sets and aliens are genuinely made out of tin foil and crepe paper.
So: what was it?
It was a science fiction serial, shown after school on Monday evenings, on ITV, the less snooty of the two UK TV channels.
It was about four children, three boys and a girl, between the ages of twelve and seventeen. They had special telepathic powers which they kept secret from the rest of the world. They had a secret hide-out, full of scientific equipment, and a friendly voice-of-god computer. They kept the earth safe from space aliens and irresponsible time-travellers.
It was very British: indeed, very London-centric. The fortress of solitude is accessed via a disused Tube station near Tower Bridge. Commercial TV was regionalised in those days, and the Tomorrow People was made by the London franchise. The Thames Television ident, showing the Houses of Parliament and a cockney street cry is enough to set people of a certain age off on a Proustian reverie. It's as much a part of the Tomorrow People as the Twentieth Century Fox Fanfare is part of Star Wars: blessings on BritBox for leaving it intact.
The core premise is that every child is a latent Tomorrow Person. The first episode begins with the viewpoint character, a schoolboy named Steven, manifesting his psi-powers for the first time. It's an unpleasant, traumatic process. The other three characters (Kenny, Carol, and John: introduced in reverse order of seniority) are said to have been through it themselves. John says that it is harder for girls, which Carol takes exception to. They call the process Breaking Out, which is very much the kind of thing you might do after Tuning In and Turning On.
And there is the whole joy of the programme. So far there are only four Tomorrow People. But there will be others. Andrew Rilstone from Miss Bugden's class is not likely to be bitten by a radioactive spider or caught in a gamma bomb explosion. But it is only a matter of time before he Breaks Out.
It feels like we are jumping on board a narrative that is already well under way. There have been Break Out stories in the past, and doubtless there will be more Break Out stories in the future. John talks about what it was like to Break Out alone, with no-one to help him. It is possible that I didn't realise, in 1973, that I was watching the very first episode of a brand new programme: for all I knew I was coming in part way through a show that Magpie Children had been watching for years. I was well aware that there had been Doctors Who before Jon Pertwee and Assistants before Jo.
The format of the Tomorrow People encodes the idea of "emergence", much as the format of Doctor Who incapsulates the idea of "constant change". The first episode of the first season begins with Steven Breaking Out and joining a group which already exists; the final episode ends with a Space Policeman telling them that they need to be on the look out for other telepaths. "It will be good when there are more of us" says Steven.
"More of you lot?" says cockney human confident Ginge "I don't think we could stand it" and they all laugh. Every story ends with everyone laughing at something which is not particularly funny. The Tomorrow People is quite like Scooby Doo in that respect.
Season Two does indeed begin with a new Tomorrow Person emerging. I don't know if it was planned that way from the beginning, or if a new character, Elizabeth, had to be created when Sammie Winmill (Carol) and Stephen Salmon (Kenny) are let go, presumably because they are not very good at acting. Kenny was black and Carol was a girl so the new character, Elizabeth, is a black girl. This is never a plot point: Scotsmen wear kilts and working class people say “gor blimey” but the series is pretty good, for its time, at being inclusive and colour blind.
But whether foreseen or not, it creates a pattern, a kind of regularity. A new school year, a new pair of shoes, a new pencil case, a new season of the Tomorrow People, a new Break Out. We are witnessing a process; a process which will end when the old human race (you) becomes obsolete and the Tomorrow People (us) take over.
It could easily have been sinister: I don't know if any of the remakes or the fan-fic ever made it sinister.
I don't think the series ever really identifies Breaking Out with the onset of puberty. Kenny is said to have powered-up when he was very young; certainly before his twelfth birthday. It would have been quite odd to construct a series in which children are the only hope for the human race, and then make it a plot point that they only get to do cool stuff once they turn into grown ups.
And at a thematic level -- even if it doesn't always make perfect narrative sense -- the conflict between The Young and The Old is what the Tomorrow People is about. "The Generation Gap" had ceased to be a social problem and become a cliche: in the 1970s, everyone took it for granted that kids and adults spoke a different language and didn't understand each other. Carol tells Steven that "we" are going to take over, stop wars, and put the world in order. "Us children?" says Steven.
The X-Men were the children of the atom; hippies were sometimes called the flower children. In 1973 "children" was still a magic word, representing wisdom and innocence and purity and a kind of enlightenment.
It's different from incantatory use of the word "boy" in 1950s American comics, where to be a man-child was to have a special quality of carefree abandon, rough and tumble violence, licensed naughtiness. And its very different from the quintessential English comics in which "kids" are anarchic rule-breakers who have to be literally beaten into submission by the adult world. The Beatles wrote nostalgically about the shopping streets and parks of their childhoods (a whole ten years ago), while evoking Alice in Wonderland and playground rhymes; the ghost of A.A Milne hangs over the Incredible String Band. We are sometimes inclined to look at old children's TV -- Bagpuss and the Clangers and the Magic Roundabout and Crystal Tips and Alistair and say (if we are kind) that they have a hippy vibe, and (if we are less kind) that the makers must have been smoking something.
But what we now call psychedelia was simply part of the mainstream culture. Everyone was a little childish. Pastel shades and bright colours and giant symbols of flowers and anthropomorphised animals have always been part of the stock in trade of children's illustrations. In the retro future of the early 1970s, they had crossed over into your granny's wallpaper and John Craven's shirts.
Tony Blair launched his 2005 election campaign from a school, with a choir singing a secular hymn that began "We are the children of tomorrow...". Some wag pointed out that it would have been more accurate to say that they were the children of today, and the grown ups of tomorrow, and, presumably, the babies of yesterday.
People of tomorrow is really just a convoluted way of spelling the world "child". The series is about potential; a thing which has not yet happened. Homo Superior are not called The Tomorrow Children
Earth is a regarded as a minor backwater by the Galactic Federation. There is something quite exciting about this idea: the smallness of the Earth emphasises the bigness of space. The Galactic Federation treats us as a "closed world": respectable aliens are not allowed to communicate with planets where there aren't any telepaths. But they are permitted to talk to the Tomorrow People. From the Galactic point of view, these four kids are the only humans. When Steven Breaks Out, he joins the Tomorrow People; when the Earth Breaks Out, it joins the Federation. To be a kid is to be a member of an exclusive club with a secret den. You may get yelled at by policemen and scowled at by beefeaters but the adult world is literally irrelevant. Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command.
In The Medusa Strain (story two) we time travel into a future in which practically everyone is a Tomorrow Person. John, Carol, Steven and Kenny are mysterious historical figures; members of the Underground before telepaths declared themselves openly. But the only Tomorrow Person we actually encounter is Peter, a more than usually whiney kid. He's a kind of apprentice Time Lord and we are told that only -- telepaths -- are taken on as trainees for this important job. Admittedly, in the Vanishing Earth (story three) the Galactic Policemen who sorts everything out a bit too quickly in the final episode is old and serious and played by Kevin Stoney. But that seems to spoil the metaphor: a grown up who is not a Sap.
Had I been writing it, I might have turned the Tomorrow People into Logans Run and said that your powers go away on your Thirtieth Birthday. Or that you cease to be Homo Superior if you show the slightest interest in lipstick, nylons or invitations. Or perhaps I would have allowed the heroes to run away to a never never land where they never grow up. Which, I suppose, is exactly what Carol and Kenny do.
Gavin Burrows is currently comparing and contrasting the series with Stan Lee's X-Men. There is enough similarity between the two that Mark Miller called the first Ultimate X-Men Graphic novel The Tomorrow People.
The X-Men are also called Homo Superior. But they are MUTANTS. They are young people who developed super-powers because of all the RADIATION in the atmosphere. The Tomorrow People are not MUTANTS: they are simply the next inevitable, stage of evolution.
"The development of man hasn't just suddenly stopped" explains Carol "It's going on all the time. But in the last hundred everything has speeded up. The world has changed beyond recognition, and human beings have changed with it". When he talk about the pace of change accelerating between, say, 1870 and 1970 we can only be talking about technology and culture. Steam trains and women’s suffrage automatically give rise to psychic teenagers. Evolution is a metaphor for social change.
The Tomorrow People call everyone else "Saps". It is meant to be short for Homo Sapiens. Homo Sapiens is a perfectly cromulent bit of scientific jargon, distinguishing modern humans from ancestors such as Homo Habilis and Homo Erectus. I knew all about dinosaurs although my school was still relatively reticent about teaching evolution. But "Homo Sapiens" was a sci-fi word, a TV word, a Tomorrow People word. To me it will always have connotations of stupid, obsolete, boring and dull. It means Straight and Mundane and most particularly Muggle. There is an unexplored element of class snobbery here; even of racism. The Tomorrow People are better than the Saps because of what they are. Carol, Steven and John all speak BBC English: Kenny, admittedly, has a rather cute, Artful-Dodger style cockney accent. But the human bad guys are uniformly lower-class. The fairground barker who is in league with the alien conman in the Vanishing Earth sound like Del-Boy. Ginge and Lefty, the bike riding henchmen in the first story who become allies for the rest of the season, talk entirely in stage cockney aphorisms. ("Don't come the old fuzz bit with me mat, all I done was chat up a bird.") Alien bad guys, on the other hand, talk posh.
The Tomorrow People all have the same powers as each other. (The X-Men go in for a kind of genetic lottery which can result in growing wings, turning into a block of ice or shooting death rays from your eyes.) On one occasion their power set is described as the Three Ts, which is presumably meant to recall the old joke about the 3 R being Reading, Riting and Rithmatic. Telepathy, Teleportation and Telekinesis would have been fun powers to have. I wonder how many idle minutes I spent staring out of the windows of maths classrooms wishing I could Jaunt to the swimming pool or use TK to make all the pencils fall out of the cupboard as the teacher walks past? But the Tomorrow People rarely have much fun with their abilities.
Telepathy is a way of keeping in touch: a useful plot device when the characters are split up between, London, Clacton and an alien space ship in the far future; but quite a handicap for a writer trying to produce tension and jeopardy. Before Episode One is over, Jedikiah has strapped something called a Silencer to Steven's forehead to switch off his TP. The Medusa in the second story is a size changing alien psychic watchdog that removes the telepathic powers of anyone near it.
Teleportation is mainly a way to get our heroes in and out of locations without the need for any tedious transitions. It's always called Jaunting, which the novel acknowledges is lifted from Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination. There are a couple of scenes in Episode Two where the biker henchmen try to run our heroes down, and are left looking very silly and very wet when they teleport out of the way at the right moment.
The first episode flirts with the idea that Kenny-the-youngest is the only one with Telekinesis. Carol tells him off for moving objects with his mind for fun, and warns him not to do it in school. It is briefly implied that he also has some sort of Psychometry and other “special gifts”. This would have been a good narrative idea, since it would have justified putting the character who is most consistently coded as a "kid" in jeopardy. But Kenny's uniqueness is forgotten by the end of the first story. His special power turns out to be being left in the Lab when the others go on adventures; and to be written out at the end of the first season.
The cast of Rentaghost have a great deal more fun disappearing and reappearing in unlikely and surprising places than the Tomorrow People do. The first episode ends with a stooge being taken to hospital because he's got a birdcage teleported onto his head. Being dead is quite a lot like being a Tomorrow Person, come to think of it: it gets you some new friends and some cool powers, but you have to keep it a secret from the silly still-alive people. The Medusa is not a great deal more convincing than the pantomime horse.
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