They’re back! The Tomorrow People - the next stage in human evolution, teenagers with extraordinary abilities such as teleportation, telekinesis and telepathy - will shortly be returning to our TV screens in the big-budget new series from America’s CW Network which promises to be one of the highlights of the 2013 TV season. Coinciding with the debut of the new series is the arrival of ‘Jaunt - An Unauthorised Guide to The Tomorrow People’ which comprehensively explores the original British TV series which ran between 1973 and 1979, its 1990s remake and the more recent Big Finish audio series as well as books and comic strips published back in the 1970s. Starburst recently caught up with the book’s author, Andy Davidson, for a chat about all things homo-superior…
Starburst: How did you find yourself writing a book about The Tomorrow People?
Andy Davidson: In my day job, I’ve been writing speeches and marketing material for years and kept promising to write something “for myself” eventually. I’m a hopeless TV addict and have mucked about with fandom on-and-off for as long as I can remember; organizing conventions back in the 90s and running the website for the Carry On films. I finally decided that “eventually” would never happen unless I bit the bullet so the obvious choice was to write about something I know well – that’s how my first solo effort ‘Carry On Confidential’ came about. Once I’d proved to myself that I could in fact turn out a half-decent book, rather than the odd article I’d contributed to magazines and websites over the years, I was hopelessly bitten by the bug. As for what inspires me – the Internet has changed the way tie-in books are written; it’s not enough to simply release a guide to a show or series any more – that’s all out there for free. What I try to do, and particularly with ‘Jaunt‘, is give a little more – to make the books I write a mixture of my personal take on the subject as well as the sort of stuff that soothes the fan gene – trivia, stats, etc. I suppose it’s rather indulgent but I try to write the kind of books I’d like to read. Working with an independent publisher like Miwk offers a tremendous amount of flexibility. They’d already published a couple of other books I’d worked on; ‘Maximum Power!’, a humorous look at Blake’s 7, and ‘Carry On Confidential‘, a much “straighter” look at the classic comedy series. A few days after I finished ‘Carry On Confidential‘, they asked if I’d be interested in taking on The Tomorrow People, a subject they’d been thinking about for a while.
Had you been a fan of The Tomorrow People back in the 1970s?
Honestly, no. I have very clear memories of watching the show, but ours was strictly a BBC family when I was growing up, so the odd episode I did watch was limited to visits to friends and family’s houses. When the series first came out on home video I picked it up, and really wasn’t all that impressed. Like so many shows of that era I was struck by the cheapness of the effects and couldn’t really get beyond that. I was wrong, of course – the stories are what matter, and as more and more shows became available and I developed a taste for classic television I realized the power of the stories they told far outshone the occasional dodgy effect.
What drew me to writing about The Tomorrow People was the opportunity to go back and rediscover the show; prompted by the insistence of my publisher that it really was just the kind of programme I’d love if I only gave it a chance. He was absolutely right, of course. I fell hopelessly in love with The Tomorrow People right from the outset.
So did the writing process involve you slavishly watching every episode, reading every comic and book, listening to all the audios?
It did, yes… I sat down with my children and together we watched every story from the original series; seeing it through their eyes really brought home just how great the stories themselves are. I then left them to their CBBC ways and moved on to the 90s series, the Big Finish audios, the novels and novelisations and the absolutely glorious ‘Look-In’ stories. All in all, it took six months to get through everything, jotting down notes and observations along the way.
I was put in touch with Roger Price (series creator) fairly early in the process and spent an enjoyable few months last summer tracking down and interviewing as many of the key players as I could. Bringing their observations, the limited amount of documentation available from the time and other research took, I suppose, about another six months. All in all, I think I spent about 18 months on the book.
How much help did you get from Roger Price?
Far more than I would have believed possible. Roger has been tremendously supportive from day one. My first interview with him lasted over four hours and we’ve been in regular contact via email and telephone ever since. He was incredibly generous with his time and kept coming back to me with new insights, anecdotes and backup material. Even now, he’s actively promoting the book to overseas audiences in Canada and the US where he has a huge fanbase (even greater than for The Tomorrow People) for shows like You Can’t do that on Television; shows which revolutionized childrens’ television there and have had a lasting impact on television around the world.
The script for ‘Mystery Moon‘, the unfilmed serial, is one of the book’s real scoops. Was its existence you aware of before you started work on the book or was it offered to you as something you knew nothing about?
I was aware of the script, but didn’t know until some way into the project where it fitted in to the overall Tomorrow People story. It wasn’t until Roger got onto the subject of the late 1970s industrial problems at ITV and his move to Canada that I looked into it in any depth. When I did, it became a must-have – it’s a cracking story and in the right hands it would have made a superb addition to the television adventures. Later stories like ‘Achilles’ Heel’ and ‘War of the Empires’ clearly show that this kind of lighter adventure really could work. Roger was hesitant at first about his script going into print, simply because he hadn’t looked at it in years, but he was pleasantly surprised with it when he did finally sit down to read it.
The Tomorrow People was often described as “ITV’s answer to Doctor Who”. Were you a fan of Doctor Who and what’s your opinion of the comparison?
I was, and am, a huge fan of Doctor Who but until recently not really all that interested in The Tomorrow People. Now that I am, I completely understand where those comparisons come from. The thing is, Doctor Who had the might of the BBC behind it, a coveted Saturday family teatime slot and ten years of viewer loyalty before The Tomorrow People came along. By comparison, The Tomorrow People was made by a relatively inexperienced team and was aimed strictly at kids and scheduled as such. The comparisons between the pair were inevitable (and indeed The Tomorrow People was pitched as a rival show at the time) but they’re not, in my view, justified when you consider the various factors influencing them.
Did you opinion of the series change as you rewatched the episodes? Did stories you’d previously not thought highly of suddenly become better than you remembered - and vice versa?
Certainly my view of those stories I had seen as a child and on video when they first came out changed radically, but overall it was more of a growing realization as I watched them that there really was something quite special underpinning The Tomorrow People. Yes, there are some real clunkers, but the philosophy that drove the original series, rooted in Roger’s experiences as a child, is remarkable. It’s a hugely powerful series, not just in the way it embraces the fear of puberty and the wish fulfillment that all children have growing up that they’re special, but also in the need to challenge the status quo and not simply accept the world around us at face value.
I’ll admit I was dreading the infamous ‘A Man for Emily’ and with good reason; it’s grotesque. But even that one has more good points than bad. It’s a very challenging story for young audiences which is hindered by some shocking directorial decisions.
The show was certainly never afraid to be ambitious, telling stories on alien worlds or in space which its budget couldn’t really stretch to. Which were your favourites, the ‘grittier’ Earth-based stories or the more outlandish SF adventures?
I think the series works better when it addresses real issues. From that perspective, stories like ‘Secret Weapon’ or ‘The Dirtiest Business‘, which examine the nastier side of being different from the crowd are really quite special. But that’s not to say the galaxy- trotting stories can’t compete in terms of storytelling, but they were occasionally let down by budgetary constraints. Overall, though the series excelled on all fronts at some time or another. The model work in later stories, particularly ‘War of the Empires‘, is easily on a par with the best of what television at the time had to offer. But more than anything the consistently high quality of the writing means that there’s plenty to enjoy in every adventure.
Which became your favourite/least favourite stories and why?
‘A Rift in Time’ absolutely blew me away with its examination of the implications of chaos theory. The Tomorrow People was ahead of its time in the way it could take scientific principles and present them to young audiences as a slice of teatime fun. ‘Worlds Away’ is equally powerful in the way it deals with victimization and bigotry. Then, on the lighter side there’s the hilariously observed aliens failing to fit in to life on Earth in ‘Achilles’ Heel‘.
As for least favourite, there really is only one that I struggled to sit through; the only story not written by Roger Price - ‘Into the Unknown‘. It takes a simple premise and stretches it to breaking point. Tedious just doesn’t begin to describe it.
Of the various Tomorrow People in the series who do you think were the most successfully-realised and which one (or ones) do you feel just didn’t work?
My dream team was John, Elizabeth and Stephen; three characters who were particularly well realized, largely because they grew as their audience did.
Poor Kenny, of course, wasn’t really much of a success, largely due to the actor playing him being somewhat less than classically trained, but also due to the sheer number of characters inhabiting the Lab in the early days. As well as the four leads there were also their Sap friends Ginge and Lefty.
I know that Hsui Tai isn’t exactly a fan favourite but I loved her character and in particular the big sister relationship she developed with Andrew in the last couple of series.
Almost the entire series was written by Roger Price to the extent that Thames regarded him as indispensable. Would you have liked to have seen other contemporary writers come on board the series to lighten the load and offer some new perspective on the show?
The series’ only dalliance with a new writer wasn’t a great success, but I think the programme would have done well to include new writers. But Thames was adamant that The Tomorrow People was Roger Price’s baby, whether he liked it or not! Interestingly, Roger did at one point consider approaching Angus Allen, the writer of the ‘Look-In’ stories, to come and work on the show. The ‘Look-In’ strips are an under-rated addition to Tomorrow People lore and I would have love to have seen some of Allen’s ideas make it to the screen.
Nicholas Young and Peter Vaughan Clarke are wonderfully indiscreet and occasionally outrageous in the infamous DVD commentaries. Your book is similarly tongue-in-cheek in places; did you ever feel you had to reign in your comments or criticisms or were there certain bits of information you felt you couldn’t put into the book?
Nick and Peter, and the rest of the commentators were clearly enjoying themselves rather too much at times! I think some of those stories have taken on a life of their own and everyone I’ve spoken to freely admits that they got rather carried away (yes, that is the sound of beer cans being opened!). I wasn’t there when the series was made so I can’t speak with the same authority as Nick, Peter and the gang, but I tried to get as many points of view as I could and in all honesty I don’t think I held anything back. The only times I had to reign myself in was in criticizing performances (cough, Keith Chegwin, cough) or some of the more obvious shortfalls in the production.
Were there any practical disadvantages in writing an ‘unofficial’ guide besides the obvious, ie unavailability of illustrative photographic material, etc?
I would have loved to have been able to include some of the photographic material the team shared with me, but as you can see from the final product, the book would have been absolutely enormous as a result. As it is, it weighs in at over 400 pages! An “official” status would have been welcome but the programme is currently under the stewardship of a US television network and I’m not sure that my own telling of the story wouldn’t have been hampered had we needed to involve a committee of approvers.
You give the 1990s remake short shrift. Where do you think that version of the series went wrong, bearing in mind the increased funds and FX available to it?
To my mind, the problems of the 90s series are entirely due to management by committee. Had the programme been made as Roger had intended, with a single show-runner, I think the clarity of vision would have shone through. The show that made it to the screen was extremely unfocused at times. That’s not to say that the 90s series doesn’t have its merits. Stories like ‘The Rameses Connection’ are as good as anything The Tomorrow People had to offer, but there are too many examples like ‘The Living Stones’ where what made it to the screen feels like a collection of people saying “wouldn’t it be cool if…” and nobody having overall editorial control.
The Big Finish audio range takes the series into much darker and adult areas. Did you approve of this ‘maturing’ of the original series and its characters and do you agree with some of the creative decisions made in relation to the established characters?
I think the Big Finish team made absolutely the right choice in presenting the Tomorrow People as having grown up with their audience. It enabled them to take some daring choices with the stories they told and at the same time give the characters more to do. It helped, of course, that the Big Finish writers were all fans of the original and as such were sensitive to the old characters. I found the Big Finish adventures captivating and the underlying story which Nigel Fairs wove through the last few seasons to be simply breathtaking in its ambition. It was so sad that it had to end where it did, right on the biggest cliffhanger the series had ever seen, but thankfully the Big Finish team allowed me to tell the story of what would have happened next.
In terms of individual characters, I think it entirely appropriate that John, after all these years, is something of an emotional wreck given the responsibility he’s borne for so long and the seeming failure of humanity to ‘break out‘. Other characters like Carol and Mike didn’t get enough airtime, but that was to have been rectified in future adventures. As for Stephen, well, it was certainly a bold decision to temporarily turn him into a baddie, but given that it was Peter Vaughan Clarke’s idea in the first place, who am I to argue?
What do you think is the enduring appeal of the show, considering it’s been reinvented several times since the 1970s?
The sense of being alone in the world, of wondering if we have it within us to become something different, is something we all experience, particularly as we enter adulthood. That was a very clever piece of thinking by Roger Price and is absolutely the driving force of the show. And of course, it’s timeless. I remember Roger saying that with shows like Heroes out there the idea of a race of super-beings often seems like old hat now, but the enduring appeal of The Tomorrow People is that it appeals to feelings we all have as we go through puberty. Also, the original series never talked down to its audience – it would take big, powerful themes like race or scientific concepts like chaos theory and present them in such a way that it would challenge its audience as well as entertain them.
You’ll have seen the trailer and promo material for the new CW series starting in the next month or so. What do you think of what you’ve seen so far? What sort of show do you hope the new series will become if it’s successful? Do you think it will be a down-to earth ‘teen-orientated’ series or do you think it might be a bit bolder and more high-concept?
From what I’ve seen and read so far the CW series is very much in line with Roger’s original ideas. The producers sought his input from day one and the pilot at least feels almost like a continuation of the original series. It’s big budget and angsty like all shows today must be but at the same time it plays on the very same ideas that ran through the 70s version. I’d like to see it become character driven rather than simply another teen adventure, but time will tell. I have heard from Roger that he is delighted with what he’s seen so far and that gives me great hope.
Do you think a show like The Tomorrow People can still resonate in a post-X-Men/Heroes/Alphas/Misfits world or does the show risk being ignored by an audience which thinks it’s seen it all before?
A lot of the early responses on the Web to the announcement of The CW remake called out shows like Heroes or the X-Men and I think in the main those comparisons are justified. Simply stating "The Tomorrow People got there first" doesn't cut it (especially in the case of the X-Men!). But the message behind The Tomorrow People is that we all - or at least those of us who are young enough - have the potential to join their ranks. I think the new series should concentrate on that point in particular. That was one of the key points of the original; all of us go through puberty and at some point in our young lives imagine whether we might become Homo superior. Playing on that particular element would make the show stand above more recent superhuman concepts. It shouldn't just be about teleporting and telekenesis.
The ultimate fan question - if you were responsible for a new series of The Tomorrow People, what direction would you take it in?
I’d take it right back to the beginning and build the story around readily identifiable characters discovering that they’re different and exploring what those differences mean to themselves and the world around them. I’d love to see original stories like ‘Secret Weapon’ or ‘The Dirtiest Business’ realized with budgets that could really do them justice, too.
What do you hope readers will ‘take away’ from ‘Jaunt‘?
The Tomorrow People has something of a reputation for being a poor example of telefantasy. I would like readers to appreciate what I’ve come to understand; that in fact it is a genuinely challenging (for its intended audience) series which was more often successful than not in telling grand stories in an entertaining, captivating way. Occasionally The Tomorrow People’s reach exceeded its grasp, but at its heart lies a tremendously rewarding and extremely fun adventure.
Do you have any other writing projects in mind as a follow-up?
As you can see in the book, there is a continuity of sorts between every incarnation of The Tomorrow People. I would love to follow up with a look at the new series currently in production and examine how that fits into the overall story.
I’ve also come away with a much greater appreciation, overall, of ITV children’s television of the 1970s and 80s and I’m planning a couple of projects which look into other areas of that incredible era of creativity.
JAUNT - THE UNAUTHORISED GUIDE TO THE TOMORROW PEOPLE is available now from Miwk Publishing.