Jude Eric Profancik wonders if the Tomorrow People might have been...you know...a little swishy. Just a thought.
"Do you really think that young Mike playing on an African tribal drum on television could raise the devil from Hell and bring about the destruction of the universe? Surely not."
As a young lad, there were two shows that I often watched on Nickelodeon: You Can't Do That On Television and The Tomorrow People. While many of us still salivate for the eventual release of the former, the latter came to DVD in 2005. This "long lost British sci-fi classic" created fond memories of jaunting and kids with special powers. Back in the day, I dreamt of being a Tomorrow Person and being privy to some of the greatest secrets in the galaxy. Last year when I saw Set One released on DVD, I bought it, wanting to rekindle those fond memories.
Par for the course, the first set didn't quite live up to memories. In fact, it took me a very long time to finish the series, so long that Set Two was in my hands before I was done. Being a trooper, I completed Set One before plowing into Set Two. How do I feel about this show now? Well, you'll just have to wait another 2000 words before we get to that point.
Facts of the Case
Set Two of The Tomorrow People on DVD contains the stories from Seasons Three, Four, and Five of the show, which aired from 1975 to 1977. The stories are:
For those of you new to British television, you may be asking what these "episodes" are. In Britain, they love to stretch out a story. Unlike American television, where we show the entire story in one sitting (excepting miniseries, of course), a complete story is broken into multiple episodes, with one episode shown a week. Thus, it will take you four weeks to watch the entirety of "Secret Weapon," a story with a runtime of about an hour and a half.
I took a quick read of Judge McEntire's review of Set One before starting this review. As it turns out, he and I have the same general opinion of the show: basically, it's cheesy and quite dated. You cannot argue or dismiss the inherent silliness of the show or how old and campy it looks. I will argue that The Tomorrow People doesn't make Doctor Who look like Star Wars, unless you take into account the one supremely excellent effect that begins Colin Baker's "Trial of a Time Lord."
I do have to disagree further with the overall merits of the stories. I just can't find much depth and seriousness in them now. While Judge McEntire aptly describes where the show borrowed from and who would borrow from it, we have to remember that this show is British children's programming. It's not meant to be deep, but there are some subtle messages being bandied about. Show creator Roger Price's ever-present anti-establishment concept simply permeates the show, but if you venture much past that, you're going to fall into horrible clichés and silly conceits. In fact, I'm going to take it a step further and say that most of the stories included in this show (at least what I've seen again in these two sets) are plumb awful and ridiculous. The stories are usually quite weak, with silly villains and silly outcomes. Worse, most of the stories don't stand the test of time and are just dull, plodding on too long. This idea is clearly exemplified by the numerous four part stories where the beginning recap would last four and a half minutes. Considering each episode ran no more than 23 minutes, that's stretching things out too much.
I realize that I'm coming across with a bit too much vitriol for this show, and I need to step back and tell you that The Tomorrow People is not a bad show. The problem is that, again, it has not aged well. What was enjoyable thirty years ago doesn't quite work well today. While some themes are timeless and morals may prevail, storytelling is the key, and The Tomorrow People doesn't tell a strong tale. If you are a fan of the show, saw the show as a child, and loved it, it still holds a certain charm. It's a charm that holds strong through the muddled stories, bad acting, horrific special effects, and silly characters. But if you are new to the show, have recently heard about it, and are curious to try it for the first time, you probably are not going to like it.
For the determined folk, there is some measure of hope in Set Two. If you notice in my story listing above, Season Five changed the way things were told. Instead of using three or four episodes, they all went to two stories; this small change greatly improved the season. Those three stories are standouts from the first five years—unnecessary diversions were abandoned for crisp, concise storytelling. Surprisingly, I'd even rank "The Dirtiest Business" as a story that could hold up well to other science fiction shows.
But on the opposite end of the spectrum is Season Three's "A Man for Emily," certainly the silliest story thus far. In this odd little tale, the last three survivors of an alien race live in an intelligent spaceship that goes through the universe searching for a planet suitable for colonization. Note it's the ship doing the searching, not the aliens; for the aliens are stupid, having no idea who they are or how to work the machinery. The ship doesn't want to find a planet because then it will have fulfilled its purpose and must deactivate itself. It doesn't want to die. In come the Tomorrow People and mayhem ensues. While the premise sounds pretty good, it's the three aliens, the three stupid aliens, that change everything. They are idiots, played by actors completely overacting, hamming it up to warp ten. The leader of the group is The Mama—and yes, she is the mother of the other two, Emily and Elmer. I cannot begin to describe succinctly the eccentricities of these characters, but the edited highlights are: they all wear phony platinum blonde wigs, the Mama wears a leotard and likes to do a Rockette's high kick, Emily is a high-pitched whiner, and Elmer is a complete idiot. Making things more interesting is that it is a matriarchal relationship, with Elmer treated like a slave and called "Man-Boy." As absolutely horrible as this story is, it's the only one I somewhat remember from my youth, and I was thus looking forward to it. I don't remember liking the story, but I remember my mom embracing "The Mama," which is what I ended up calling her—and she calling herself—for some time. As a result, I became the "Man-Boy."
But something remarkable happened as I watched "A Man for Emily." The story begins with Elmer, and I immediately think he looks familiar. Where have I seen him before? It comes and goes, and I finally realize who he is. Elmer is played by Peter Davison, the man who in six years would become the Fifth Doctor on Doctor Who. This was amazingly frightening and implausibly funny.
Let's back up a moment…
But something remarkable happened as I watched "A Man for Emily." The story begins with Elmer; actually, it begins with an incredibly disturbing, slow upward pan of Elmer. The camera starts on his boots, slowly working up his legs, across his stomach and chest, and finally stopping on his face. Doesn't sound too bad except that I haven't mentioned that aside from his boots and big, fake, platinum wig, the only other thing the Man-Boy is wearing is a very tight blue Speedo (obviously not a real Speedo but…), leaving no secrets whatsoever. At this point, my inner voice cried out, "The Tomorrow People" has a twisted sense of youthful homosexuality!" As I watched these episodes, I kept thinking, why are there so many long shots on the teenage boys? Why are so many boys not wearing shirts? Why do they wear such snug undies? Why am I seeing so many of them in their undies? Isn't that silky, flowing, translucent shirt that is buttoned only once above the waist a bit gay? And why are there so many boys in these stories? I never realized The Tomorrow People flaunted such youthful homosexuality, but it's plain as day once you grow up a bit. It is a touch disconcerting, a tad disturbing, and I'm not making it up. In the audio commentary on "Secret Weapon," one of the actors clearly references this idea by saying something like, "Oh look, young boys wrapped in cling wrap: someone's fantasy." It goes on from there. Without a doubt, some high-ranking members of the production team had unhealthy concepts about filming teenaged boys.
This DVD release from A&E contains transfers that practically scream, "I'm a low budget show filmed over three decades ago!" The full frame transfer has a nice smattering of all your favorite video flaws: a little shimmering and aliasing, and a lot of dirt, flecks, and streaks. You also get flat colors, muddy blacks, poor sharpness and detail, and a veritable cornucopia of oversaturation. Also, I noticed a one or two pixel white spot in the near bottom left corner of my screen throughout most of the episodes. I'm going to venture a guess that one of the cameras has the tiniest bad spot, which wasn't noticed for a very long time. On the audio front, the mono track fluctuates across the stories, muffled at times while clear at others. For the most part, you can hear the dialogue fairly well.
On the bonus feature front, there are exactly three extra items. The least of the three is a useless text-based bit called "The Origins of The Tomorrow People Part 2." If you read part one, you don't need part two. Along the same lines, there are some cast biographies, which haven't changed all that much since Set One. However, the last and decidedly best item is an audio commentary by Nicholas Young (John), Peter Vaughan-Clarke (Stephen), and Ann Curthoys (Tricia Conway) on "Secret Weapon." While Ann doesn't say much, the boys are exceptionally cheeky, and it's a fantastic commentary. They're brutal in their honesty in talking about the episodes (the latent homosexuality), but they're also immensely funny, with that wonderfully dry British wit. While I think the commentary on Set One is a bit better, this one is a definite listen.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
One of the more popular Tomorrow People was Stephen, the young boy who broke out during the very first story of the series. While Tomorrow People would come and go throughout the seasons, a quick explanation of where they went (i.e. the reason they're not on the show anymore) was tossed out. But not for Stephen. I wonder why not? He just disappeared for Season Five. It couldn't have been on bad terms, since he came back to do commentary tracks. I wonder what happened? (Oh, I guess I should also wonder what happened to Tyso, but I don't care about him all that much.)
You'll never guess what I'm holding in my hands at this moment. This is not a dirty joke, so really take a guess. Nope. Guess again. Sorry, three strikes and you're out. I am holding an official Nickelodeon Decisionometer. It's a semi-prized possession that I mailed away for back when I used to watch The Tomorrow People on the network. When I received it, it wasn't anything as I imagined. It's quite clever in its execution, it's quite durable, and it's something I've decided to keep around all these years. I rarely take it out of storage, and don't think of it too often, but I'm glad to know its there. It brings back nice memories of those simpler days as a youth. Just like The Tomorrow People.
Though I did give the show a bit of a beating here, it does hold some odd charm. No matter how you slice it—the acting, the stories, the effects, or the clothing—it's all pretty cheesy. Yet somehow it still feels good to watch the show. It's a simple show that tried to promote peace and Price's anti-establishment mentality. As I said earlier, those who know the show will enjoy the DVD. Those new to The Tomorrow People most likely will not. But is this set worthy of adding to your collection? No, I cannot say it is. While I love that commentary track, am strangely amused by "A Man for Emily," and am impressed with the growth and maturing of stories in Season Five, the set is not worth the price. Maybe add it to your rental queue for a quick refresher and a good laugh, but don't go beyond that.
The court hereby finds The Tomorrow People guilty of bad special effects. The show is ordered to not use Pong as an example of high technology.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary by Nicholas Young, Peter Vaughan-Clarke, and Ann Curthoys on "Secret Weapon"
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