Judge Mac McEntire is the next step in human evolution.
"Imagine that your mind is a fist. A great big fist, clenched tight. Now, let it open, slowly. No, don't let any other thoughts come into your head. Just think of the fist opening very slowly, like a flower."
Often considered groundbreaking for its time, The Tomorrow People captured the imaginations of kids in England in the 1970s, and did so again for the next generation when it aired on American cable in the 1980s. Now on DVD, it's time for today's kids to "break out" and meet John, Steven, and the rest of the People. But does the series still represent tomorrow, or is it a relic of yesterday?
Facts of the Case
While walking home from school, London youth Steven (Peter Vaughan-Clark, The Pallisters) collapses under mysterious circumstances. Hospital doctors have no idea what's wrong with him, but a lovely young girl named Carol does. Carol (Sammie Winmill, The Duchess of Duke Street) explains that Steven is "breaking out," and becoming one of the Tomorrow People, the next stage in human evolution. Steven soon develops the same powers they have—telepathy, teleportation, and telekinesis. Carol enlists him to join her and her fellow Tomorrows: John (Nicholas Young, Eskimo Nell), Kenny (Stephen Salmon), and later Elizabeth (Elizabeth Adare, A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square). Their quest is to find others like themselves, while occasionally traveling through time and saving the world from evil robots.
This set contains the series' first two seasons. The 26 episodes are divided into six multi-episode arcs.
• "The Slaves of Jedikiah" (Five episodes)
• "The Medusa Strain" (Four episodes)
• "The Vanishing Earth" (Four episodes)
• "The Blue and The Green" (Five episodes)
• "A Rift in Time" (Four episodes)
• "The Doomsday Men" (Four episodes)
Let us for a moment consider the concept of cheesiness. What does it mean to be cheesy? First, it seems, would be a certain measure of stupidity. When viewers start to feel smarter than the show they are watching, that's a first step. The audience often delights in pointing out bad decisions or plot devices that make no sense or show the ineptitude of the writers. Second would be some sort of substandard visual element, such as unusual or outdated clothing, set designs, music, or special effects. Third—and this is an important one—is earnestness on the part of the creators and actors, who fully believe their program will be genuinely entertaining. There are some artists who attempt to make their work cheesy on purpose, but true cheesiness is never intentional. Instead, it grows organically in the creation of a movie or series, either through age, poor production values, incompetence, or sensibilities too unusual for the public at large. We bring all this up because, although it has many admirable merits, there is no denying that The Tomorrow People is, in fact, cheesy.
Right off the bat, everything about this series screams "low budget 1973." The fashions, the hair, and the slang are all dated in the worst kind of way. It was an awkward time—the glory days of the hippie were coming to a close, but the disco era hadn't yet started. Discerning viewers, especially science fiction fans, are often able to look past that which is outdated, knowing that any movie or TV show is the product of its time. Not quite as excusable are the poor production values. The special effects here make Dr. Who look like Star Wars. What we've got here are spaceships on strings, robots wearing cardboard boxes painted silver, and swirling lights superimposed over the picture that represent everything from laser blasts to teleportation. These are Edward D. Wood Jr.-style special effects. And then there's the use of bluescreen. Although many of today's filmmakers swear by this technology, that wasn't the case for this series. When the actors stand in front of a bluescreen image, they have a slight green outline, and there are spots where you can see through them to the image behind. Everywhere you look, there's another special effect distracting you from the action on screen.
But science fiction is never really about effects, it's about the stories and the ideas presented. In many ways, The Tomorrow People really was ahead of its time. Throughout the series, one can see little concepts and images that would appear in later popular sci-fi. Anyone who read Chris Claremont's work on Marvel Comics' X-Men in the early to mid-1980s will spot all sorts of influences in The Tomorrow People, such as a conflict between homo sapiens (humans) and "homo superior" (mutants/Tomorrow People). Both also adopt the same explanation for teleportation: it is done by passing through another dimension, sometimes with disastrous results. There are hints of future films and TV shows as well. Remember how after Luke Skywalker blew up the Death Star, Darth Vader was flung into space, all alone? One of The Tomorrow People's villains had almost the exact same fate. Speaking of Darth Vader, the big guy himself, David Prowse, has a small role in "The Medusa Strain" as a generously-oiled muscleman. Elsewhere, our heroes have a computer that provides food, just like the Enterprise's Earl Grey tea-making replicators. Said computer operates off of living liquid material, not unlike Star Trek: Voyager's infamous cheese-allergic bio-gel packs. These are just a few of the influences I spotted; fans have noted many more.
But just as it led the charge, The Tomorrow People also borrowed liberally from early classics. During a scene reminiscent of The Day the Earth Stood Still, one character even mentions the movie. The Tomorrows refer to teleporting as "jaunting," a direct homage and/or rip-off of writer Alfred Bester's timeless classic The Stars My Destination. One is also reminded of A.E. Van Vogt's famous novel Slan, about a secret race of mind-readers living in secret among us unsuspecting humans. Even more references to the classics are found throughout. Like the title characters, the series itself stands on the border between the past and the future; learning from what came before it, and in turn influencing what would follow.
You might have noticed the above two paragraphs are somewhat geeky. But that is fitting for this series, in that it is what many consider "hardcore" science fiction. It has no qualms about introducing oddball elements such as one-eyed aliens, time travel, or shape-changing robots at the drop of a hat. The creators aren't trying to make it "cool" for the non-fan audience, and they're not out to dumb it down for the short attention span crowd either. When the story suddenly jumps ahead 500 years, or a character announces he's an android in disguise, it's all just another day at the office for our heroes. And if it's too "out there" for regular viewers, then that's just too bad.
For all the clever concepts and fun sci-fi monsters, not everything about the writing is top notch. Plotlines tend to run around in circles as John and company are constantly in and out of danger, being kidnapped, rescued, and kidnapped again. The Tomorrow People have amazing powers, but the villain of the week almost always pulls out some device or creature that conveniently inhibits their powers. It's lazy writing. Another example is the above-mentioned super computer, which can complete any number of amazing tasks and offer any exposition needed to get everyone to the next scene. There are a number of unanswered questions here as well. Where do the Tomorrow People live? What about their parents? We see Steven in school, but what do the rest of them do all day? Just how was John able to build such an amazing computer, not to mention their groovy hangout? None of this is answered. But then, how can the writers take time to provide background when the Earth is constantly under attack by aliens and evil psychics?
The acting here is best described as "varied." Nicholas Young exudes confidence as the Tomorrows' leader, quick to jump into action whenever a crisis breaks out. Peter Vaughan-Clark has the thankless job of being the new guy, always having to have everything explained to him. In later episodes, though, his character takes more of an active role, sharing action-hero duties with John. As Carol, Sammie Winmill has her heart permanently attached to her sleeve, displaying constant worry and compassion for her teammates. Elizabeth Adare is not quite as earnest as Winmill, but she comfortably fills the role of the ordinary, down-to-Earth member of the group. Steven Salmon was not the most experienced actor at the time, and it shows. His delivery is often flat and wooden. But part of the blame there has to go the writing. Salmon's character is described as a sly mischief-maker, but we never get to see that in action. Instead, he's usually left behind at headquarters while the others are off on adventures. And, befitting the overall style of the series, the actors playing the villains ham it up like you wouldn't believe.
Picture quality is also varied, revealing the series' age and its low budget. Scenes filmed on one of the regular sets look fine, slightly hazy overall but with adequate colors and blacks. But when the action moves outdoors or on location, suddenly the picture becomes riddled with scratches and grain. It's so bad that it's like watching TV after a bully kicked sand in your face. Sound is merely adequate. All the dialogue, music and effects come through without distortion, but it's far from the immersive experience we expect from the best DVDs.
The main extra here is a commentary on all five parts of "The Slaves of Jedikiah," which reunites Young, Vaughan-Clark, and actor Philip Gilbert (Superman III), who played the voice of the computer. The three offer some fond memories of making the series, its popularity, and its influence on their careers. They also take time to add some comedic comments, MST3K-style. There is also a text piece describing the creation of the series, and biographies of the cast.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It's no surprise that, over two decades on two continents, the series found such popularity with children. Like the best children's programming, not only does it fall under the category of "pure imagination," but it also carries a strong feeling of empowerment for young people. When Tomorrow People break out, they become something better than what they were, with a mission to make the world a better place. Kids watching the series over the years have also felt the desire to break out, improve themselves, and make a difference. As freakish as the series gets, it provides heroes that youth can both root for and relate to.
The Tomorrow People is a mixed bag. True, it does have its entertainment value. But unless you're in it strictly for the nostalgia, or you're viewing it from a science fiction historian's perspective, I'm sorry to say the bad outweighs the good on this one.
From beyond the depths of space and time, one lone voice cries out from somewhere in another dimension with the message, "it's cheesy."
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary on "The Slaves of Jedikiah"
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