Reinventing iconic old TV shows can be a tricky old business. When it works – Doctor Who, Battlestar Galactica – we can all breathe a sigh of relief and sit back and enjoy the ride, but when it doesn’t work – V, Dallas, Charlie’s Angels – the memory of the original can be sullied forever. It’s a tough call but the allure of going back to the well which gave birth to a hit series in the past can sometimes be irresistible, especially for a network which wants a quick fix of something reliable which worked before and ought quite reasonably to work again for a new audience.
The Tomorrow People rattled onto British screens in 1973 as commercial TV’s cheap, colourful and belated response to BBC1’s then decade-long success, Doctor Who. Churned out on a budget which made even Doctor Who’s tiny funds look astronomical, The Tomorrow People was a huge success with its intended audience of children (the show aired in a weekday teatime slot in the UK) and it ran for seven series of various lengths before being quietly put to sleep in 1979 thanks largely to industrial action by its makers at Thames TV. The show blossomed again in the 1990s courtesy of a bigger-budgeted filmed series which bore little resemblance to the original beyond its title, but this too fizzled out after three short series. But you can’t keep a good idea down and, at its core, The Tomorrow People is a bloody good idea. The human race is evolving and the next stage of humanity will be the ‘homo superior’, people whose extraordinary powers such as telekinesis, telepathy and teleportation manifest themselves during adolescence as this new breed of humans ‘break out’ and discover their new abilities. Endlessly exciting stuff for kids and teenagers, but since The Tomorrow People first appeared on TV in the 1970s, TV and cinema screens have been awash with similarly powered teens, from the costumed heroes of the Marvel Universe (specifically the mutant X-Men), the Agents of SHIELD, Tim Kring’s Heroes, Alphas, Mutant X and doubtless others too obscure to be remembered. But now The Tomorrow People, the not-quite-the-originals, are back. But in a TV world where super-powered teens are ten-a-penny, is the next stage of human evolution even remotely relevant or interesting any more?
On the basis of the pilot episode of this new series, created by Greg Berlanti and Julie Plec, long-time fans of the 1970s series, the answer has to be a very firm and resolute… well, maybe. The new show has pitched up on the CW Network in the States, a network which is certainly a friend of science fiction but really prefers it when it’s full of hunky teenaged boys who can take their shirts off and flex their pecs at a moment’s notice and big-lipped breathy girls with fly-away hair who all look absolutely identical to one another (cf Arrow). So it is that the new Tomorrow People is a very different beast to any incarnation we’ve ever seen or heard before (it also ran for a short while as an audio series from Big Finish) ,which is only to be expected in a sci-fi TV landscape bristling with glitzy CGI and emotionally tormented lead characters. But Plec and Berlanti clearly know their Tomorrow People lore because their pilot episode is bristling with kisses to the original show’s past and knowing references and narrative flourishes which will bring a little glow to the heart of even the most jaded former junior TP aficionado.
Stephen Jameson (which was also the name of the character ‘breaking out’ in the very first episode of the first series) is a hunky teen with a problem. He hears voices and finds himself in other people’s beds in the morning. But his peculiar issues haven’t gone unnoticed and before long he’s fallen in with John Young, Carla Coburn and other glamorous teens with similar amazing abilities. These super-powered kids – and there are dozens of them (but most appear to be non-speaking supporting artists) – have been reaching out to Stephen as he ‘breaks out’ and also helping to prevent him falling into the clutches of the evil Ultra Organisation which is dedicated to stamping out this new breed of heroes. But despite visiting their secret underground lab (situated near an underground railway station) and meeting their super-intelligent computer TIM (voiced by Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens), Stephen isn’t impressed and stomps off home, only to be kidnapped and taken prisoner by Ultra and its oily, determined leader Jedikiah Price. Carla and wise-cracking fellow TP Russell Kwon (Aoron Yoo) embark on a rescue mission during which Stephen reveals another hitherto unexpected ability – he can stop time. Fans of the original series will probably have been ticking off their own mental checklist; Jedikiah Price directly references both Jedikiah, the original TP’s persistent shape-changing robot enemy and Roger Price, the series’ creator, and the underground base and TIM the computer were mainstays of the 1970s series. John Young appears to be an amalgam of the character, John, and the actor who played him, Nicholas Young (scheduled to make an appearance later in the series as an entirely different character) and there are sly references to the original series when Carla tells Stephen that they didn’t come up with the name ‘Tomorrow People’ or the term ’homo superior’. As with their 1970s counterparts, it’s genetically impossible for the Tomorrow People to kill. But much is missing from the roots of the show too; where the original Tomorrow People were equipped with special belts which they clasped to help them ‘jaunt’ (or teleport), here the Tomorrow People zap around much in the manner of characters in the feeble 2008 sci-fi movie Jumper. It’s also quite clear that some of the extreme sci-fi storylines of the original series (just watch A Man For Emily, I dare you) are off-limits; no clunky spacesuits, trips into outer space or attacks by hostile glove puppet alien dictators here. The Tomorrow People 2013 are firmly rooted in 2013 and in fairness that’s only to be expected. Ultra and Price are clearly going to be the show’s recurring bad guys and there’s obviously a long through line relating to Stephen’s missing father who, it appears, was one of the earliest and most powerful of the next stage in human evolution.
Slickly written by executive producer Phil Klemmer and punchily directed by veteran Danny Cannon, The Tomorrow People is fast, no-nonsense stuff packed with kinetic fight sequences and flashy visual effects. But it’s also a bit generic, crafted to within an inch of its life for the CW Network’s very specific audience requirements. The male cast are chiselled and rugged (Stephen’s shirt is off in the very first scene) and far be it from us to suggest that the casting of Robbie (cousin of Arrow’s Stephen) Amell as Stephen Jameson is a cynical attempt to hang on to the audience of Arrow, which airs directly before The Tomorrow People on the same night. Token female TP Carla (Peyton List) is sufficiently feisty, although she clearly harbours a secret crush on Stephen which John might well not approve of. So that’s the Twilight demographic obliquely catered for too.
Early days then, for the new Tomorrow People and it’s far too soon to pass serious judegment on a show whose first episode is very much a scene-setter, laying down the rules, establishing the characters and setting up its own universe. Fans of the original will miss the shonky enthusiasm of the 1970s show (although they surely won’t have been expecting the same level of that’ll-have-to-do from this new series) but will recognise and appreciate those elements which have survived the trip down through the decades. But the biggest battle the show is likely to have is in convincing a new audience – one which will undoubtedly have no real knowledge of the show’s heritage – that it has anything new to offer in the well-mined story area of the super-powered teen. But it’s clear from the pilot episode that dodgy CSO, plastic model spaceships, would-be pop stars and rubbish aliens are out and teen angst, great hair and slick FX are very much in. But oddly, it’s still recognisably The Tomorrow People, albeit not as we have ever known it before. It’s a promising start and now only time will tell if it’ll be a break-out hit or if it will jaunt into oblivion, unwatched and unloved.
The Tomorrow People airs on Wednesday nights on the CW network in the US and will arrive on E4 in the UK in the New Year.