Monday, April 18, 2022

Yesterday's Gone

No people whose word for 'yesterday' is the same as their word for 'tomorrow' can be said to have a firm grip on the time.

Salman Rushdie

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.



Gavin Burrows said...

“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.”

I’m not sure whether you mean this was inherently true, or had become so by the Seventies. If the first, I fear it risks getting the thing upside-down. Hippie culture was largely a refusal to “grow up” as a kind of conscientious objection against the adult world, and so a revelling in the iconography of childhood. John Lennon famously sang “when I was a kid, everything was right”. Despite that being very much not the case for him.

And in retrospect we underestimate how soon you were expected to grow up in those days, to be married off by twenty-one and giving up on that silly pop music.

But of course by the Seventies it definitely was. It had largely been a celebration of all the things you’d consumed when a child, so wasn’t so hard to transfer it into things to consume as a young adult.

SK said...

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.

I read one of the books from the class library (a couple of shelves at the back of the classroom with a, clearly, pretty eclectic selection) in between devouring Target novelisations and James Bonds that I must have understood less than half of (I remember finding The Spy Who Loved Me particularly boring, so I agreed with the author on that at least). I remember very little about it other than that I was not impressed. I actively avoided reading any others.

Then there was a remake with a kid who’d been in Neighbours. It, also, was not very good — not a patch on Century Falls — but in those days you watched what was on or you watched nothing. Though looking it up I discover the girl in it was later nominated for an Oscar, and even later become Moneypenny. Coincidences can be weird sometimes.

Eventually, in the days of satellite/cable television, I caught a repeat on an episode: the one where Hitler turns out to be a space alien and also a headmaster, I believe. It was worse than I had ever dared imagine.

The Tomorrow People are not MUTANTS: they are simply the next inevitable, stage of evolution.

It wasn’t just Terry Nation had no clue about how evolution works, then? Perhaps it was a generation had their schooling disru7by the war and never learnt science, and came away with this bizarre misunderstanding.

Telepathy, Teleportation and Telekinesis would have been fun powers to have

I refer again to my comments on Ace of Wands: ; telepathy seems to have been a very present idea in the culture (at least as it pertains to stuff aimed at children) in the seventies.

postodave said...

In honour of this review I have just re-watched the first TP serial. I quite enjoyed it. I now remember watching it again with my daughter in the nineties, so I know it could appeal to the Harry Potter generation. What hit me this time was how much its approach was learned from Doctor Who.

The ITV children's Sci Fi serial from a couple of years earlier, Timeslip, was earnest, at times eerie, and full of explanations. This copies Doctor Who in delaying explanation and keeping the action moving. It can be clunky at times, one of the worst clunks is when the two bikers Ginge and Lefty who have been recruited by the villain decide while imprisoned with Kenny that they will switch sides. 'They're on our side now,' says Kenny, and no one questions it.

The real problem is that no one seems to know what the Tomorrow People are. Making them different serves the same function as having children's stories about animals, they can have greater freedom than children usually do without quite being adults. But the ways in which they are different is never explored. We know there is a barrier in their minds that stops them killing but we don't know why. We know they are different but hardly know how. When Stephen looses his newly developed powers the others decide it is worth risking killing him to get the powers back so he can be a 'fully functioning Tomorrow person'. It seems that what breaking out does psychologically is to make people act exactly like the heroes and heroines in children's adventure stories, begging not to be left behind on dangerous missions, eager to self sacrifice. This is very handy.

And yes, the whole thing is based on a misunderstanding of evolution. The bottom line is that huge macroevolutionary leaps would be mutations but would be unlikely to be beneficial. If you want to know how people came to be so misinformed about evolution then you are on the right lines. I was at secondary school in the seventies and I did not get as far as CSE or O level biology. I know that what I was taught prior to that stage by a teacher who would himself have had no formal education in biology, was wrong. And it was wrong in ways similar to the understanding in the TP. The timescale on which evolution happens was massively foreshortened.

SK said...

The bottom line is that huge macroevolutionary leaps would be mutations but would be unlikely to be beneficial. […] And it was wrong in ways similar to the understanding in the TP. The timescale on which evolution happens was massively foreshortened.

That’s not the specific way in which Terry Nation (and, it seems, the writers of The Tomorrow People misunderstand evolution, though. The specific way evolution works in Terry Nation stories is that rather than mutations (of whatever magnitude) occurring randomly, and then either spreading or disappearing depending on whether they convey a survival advantage in the particular environment in which the organism lives (so, for example, the same mutation might spread throughout a population in a desert but be selected against in a population that live in a swamp, and that’s how species diverge), the mutations that a geneotype will undergo and, more importantly, the order in which those mutations will take place, is already present in the genotype at its very beginning.

So for example, imagine a species moving from the sea to the land. In real-evolution, a random mutation might give an organism the ability to breath air through its gills, as well as water (simplifying massively). If the organism happens to live in the deep ocean with no land around, this will probably convey no survival advantage and so won’t be passed to the next generation. But if the organism happens to live by an island, maybe it will haul itself out of the water at night and so escape being eaten by its aquatic predators, and so more of the organisms with the mutation will survive than those without, and they will breed, and so subsequent generations have the air-breathing gene.

But it Terry Nation Evolution it doesn’t work this way. In Terry Nation Evolution, the genes for air-breathing already exist in the genotype and, upon some stimulus, they are ‘activated’ and the organism becomes air-breathing, and passes this on to future generations — whether or not this would convey any survival advantage in its environment. It happens not through a process of selection, but simply because this is ‘the next stage’ of its destined evolutionary path. The genotype will, at some point, express lungs rather than gills.

The analogy seems to be with how different bits of a genetic sequence can lie dormant in a single organism until some point during its lifespan. Puberty in mammals, for example: the genes for gamete production are present from birth but inactive until later; or an insect with a larval stage like a caterpillar which has the genes for wings, but they aren’t expressed.

Timescales, in Terry Nation Evolution, are flexible: you can speed a species (or, indeed, a single organism) through its pre-programmed evolutionary stages by applying a stimulus (usually radiation, but hey, it was the sixties). Or it could take millions of years. But the distinctive feature of Terry Nation Evolution isn’t anything to do with how quickly it happens, it’s to do with this idea lf pre-programmed stages that a species is destined to go through until its ‘final form’.

Anyway I only mention it because it’s quite a weird specific misunderstanding of evolution that I thought was unique to Terry Nation, so to discover that it was also held by someone else at roughly the same time makes me wonder if there was a common source.

Or maybe ideas have pre-programmed stages that they go through, and this is the final form of the idea of evolution.

postodave said...

Thanks SK, that's really interesting. It is an idea that seems to be there. I remember hearing this kind of thing talked about years ago. For example people would say, 'human beings only use about one tenth of their brain, but maybe that is there because it will be needed in the future.' That kind of idea must come from somewhere. And it also seems to be present is this

Unknown said...

The Tomorrow People are clearly the same sort of folks as in John Wyndham's The Chrysalids, which surely just about every school-age child of that era had read?

At least, that is certainly what I thought.

Having worked in media, I would be leery of assuming that anything depicted on screen represents what "writer/producer X believes." It is more likely to represent "the minimum required to resolve an episode in dramatic fashion within a highly budget-constrained amount of spoken lines, after multiple rewrites were made to reduce the length of the script's final draft."

Andrew Rilstone said...

I think the Tomorrow People was pitched younger than John Wyndam; although Village of the D..Cursed was quite often shown on TV.

I think there was a certain amount of autonomy for low budget TV productions in the 1970s -- we know that Monty Python (on the one hand) and Oliver Postgate (on the other) pretty much got to do whatever they liked. Roger Price certainly had some Beliefs -- he did a kids comedy series called You Must Be Joking which was largely pie-in-the-face slapstick but which smuggled a certain amount of Little Red Schoolbook radicalism under the radar. And one of the novels spends some time explaining what a good idea Progressive Schools were. But I am sure you are right that there is a lot of compromise involved in making a TV show, and it would be wrong to assume that (say) Star Trek existed mainly to make points about communism and civil rights.