Judge Mike Pinsky thought he was trapped in a temporal anomaly, but it just turned out that his Hello Kitty watch had stopped.
"Time moves on. But out there, it's kind of real too—and it hasn't stopped for 30 years. Just that bit of time going on over and over again."—Liz Skinner (Cheryl Burfield)
The late 60s and early 70s were a peculiarly fertile period for British science fiction. In publishing, Michael Moorcock, J.G. Ballard, and the New Wavers steered the genre down psychodramatic roads. Stanley Kubrick (an American expatriate) was in Shepperton to craft a cinematic vision of the future worlds away from the bug-eyed monsters of Hollywood b-movies. On television, kids tuned into Doctor Who, The Tomorrow People, and Gerry Anderson's seemingly endless parade of surreal marionettes. Grown ups got The Prisoner. 'Nuff said.
Welcome to Timeslip, one of the many, nearly forgotten shows of that era. On the surface, it appears more ambitious than the usual children's serial of the period. Longevity research, cloning, environmental disaster—the themes look surprisingly prescient. Does this make Timeslip a neglected classic, or a relic of your childhood nostalgia?
On the outskirts of a naval base in the very English town of St. Oswald, a girl wanders through a hole in time and disappears. It doesn't surprise the locals much. After all, that place has always been spooky. "There's something peculiar about everything," whines young Liz Skinner (Cheryl Burfield). She should know. She is a bratty 15-year-old tomboy who is obviously too old for pigtails (probably because the actress is noticeably more mature than her character). She doesn't get along with neighbor boy Simon Randall (Spencer Banks), whose bookish ways grate on her nerves. Still, they have little choice but to work together: somehow, searching for that missing girl, they have slipped through that same hole in time—and found themselves in 1940, fending off a German infiltration of England.
Can the children stop the Germans from conquering England? Can Liz save her father's life before she is even born? And where does the mysterious Commander Traynor (Denis Quilley), leader of the naval station in 1940 and helpful mentor in the present, fit into all of this?
Try not to look for clear answers as to the nature of time travel in Timeslip. The show's writers spout some nonsense about "time bubbles" that apparently only children can travel through—and then drop the matter. And the nature of this sort of time travel evidently renders the children invulnerable to harm, which short circuits much of the suspense. For convenience, Liz's mother (Iris Russell) is a psychic, in order to give the adults updates on the children's progress back in 1940. It seems as if ideas are tossed together somewhat arbitrarily in order to get characters where they need to be, with the information they need to have, without much rhyme or reason. And the temporal paradoxes only get more bizarre as the series progresses. Timeslip breaks its 26 episodes into successive story arcs. After escaping 1940, Liz and Simon travel to the Antarctic in a possible 1990, where they clash with a mad scientist (John Barron) trying to develop a longevity drug. The show's vision of the future (cable television and virtual reality!) is amusingly dated. But the supporting actor with the white-guy afro and sideburns is pure 1970.
The third story drops Liz and Simon into another alternate future whose take on cloning is borrowed straight from Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Along the way, the pair meet future versions of themselves who, for the sake of plot convenience, seem to recall little about the time barrier (I would sure remember it after only 20 years). The final story shuffles between 1970 and 1965 for an increasingly incoherent tale of clones and government conspiracies. As science fiction, this is lightweight stuff, and the efforts to make everything fit together by the end result in a hopeless muddle that violates the show's own continuity rules. So how did Timeslip become such a cult hit, longingly discussed by fans long after the show vanished from the airwaves?
It certainly is not the children. Liz and Simon do not stand out as exceptionally clever, and they spend much of the story being acted upon rather than taking action. Making them bickering teens rather than cooperative prodigies is a nice touch though, even if it does get a little annoying when the story needs to move forward. The scene-stealer in Timeslip is Denis Quilley as Traynor. At first, he is simply the wise adult who is so necessary in this sort of children's serial. But as the series evolves, Traynor becomes a slick megalomaniac obsessed with exploiting the children for his own ends. Quilley's performance never devolves into mustache-twirling cliché: you are never sure (at least until the messy final story) how much of a threat Traynor really is. It has often been said that melodrama lives or dies on the effectiveness of its villain, and Traynor is a fairly memorable example of this rule.
A&E's release of the complete run of Timeslip is a mixed bag much like the show itself. I have often complained about the lack of extras on A&E television boxed sets. But this time, we do get a nice little interview featurette that brings together creator Ruth Boswell and many of the surviving cast members (Quilley died in 2003, unfortunately) to reminisce about the fun they had making the show. A brief introductory text, a map of the show's locales, and bios of the cast are provided as well.
And now the down side. While the show was originally shot in color on video, only one color episode (the last installment of the second story, so you can enjoy the weird futuristic jumpsuits and flashing computer lights) survives. The black and white versions included here appear to have been transferred from video to film, resulting in occasional jittering, blurriness, and the general sense that the show was a low-budget mess. The single color episode reveals that the show was actually well photographed for its time. However, watching this in its surviving form is often a chore. I cannot fault A&E here. You work with what you have.
The ironic thing about most science fiction is that it becomes badly dated very quickly. Timeslip was undoubtedly entertaining in its time, especially if you got to see it in color during its initial run. Commander Traynor is an intriguing villain, and the show's initial concept has merit (if only it had been exploited more coherently). But the blurry black and white serial that comes on this A&E boxed set is probably just a curiosity, a piece of someone's childhood memory that does not hold up so well in the present. Sometimes, the past is best left alone.
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• "Behind the Barrier" Featurette
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