Andrew East looks to Tomorrow...
Step with me into the weird world of The Tomorrow People. For the uninitiated it details the adventures of Homo Superior, the next stage of human evolution…which basically boils down to a few telepathic teenagers living it up in a secret underground base aided by a super computer called TIM.
A Rift in Time is the second story of the second series and features two of the original Tomorrow People, John – the leader, and Stephen. They are joined by recent arrivals, Elizabeth (a slightly older telepath) and Chris – a non telepath friend (affectionately known as ‘saps’, as in Homo Sapien).
Stephen has been having dreams about Peter, a telepath from the future, and after communication from old friend Carol, the TPs discover he is trapped in Roman Britain. Using a circuit diagram printed in the lid of a roman pot (which belongs to the deliriously bonkers Sylvia Coleridge of The Seeds of Doom fame), they manage to create transport discs which take them, including Chris, back to Roman times where they discover an alien called Gaius changing history with a steam engine. He is running a gladiator school where Peter is a prisoner. After a big explosion, the TPs return to their own time but find history has changed due to a Briton called Cotus (played by a young Peter Duncan) finding the remains of the steam engine. Rome never fell and they have expanded out into space, enslaving an alien ape-like species and ruling all of Earth – with plans to conquer the whole Federation.
A quick trip back to first century Roman Britain puts a stop to Gaius’ plans by giving Cotus amnesia and the normal course of history is resumed.
I have a soft spot for The Tomorrow People. Production values and scripting can be terribly shoddy – especially compared to the Doctor Who of the time – but its heart is in the right place. The regular cast clearly have a great affection for the series (as evident from the commentary I listened to whilst watching this serial) and it is difficult to disagree with them. The Tomorrow People is cheap, often poorly directed and produced, but it is a lot of fun and underneath the shoddy effects and dodgy acting there are some intriguing ideas knocking about.
The Tomorrow People represents Roman Britain with a wooded hillside (on location) and a (very) studio bound gladiator school and local inn. There are some good costumes paraded around, including the Tomorrow People’ AE-suited disguises, and we see ‘Roman’ food in the inn along with wooden cups. The gladiator school allows swords and shields to be trotted out – along with the very short tunics worn by all the young boys! Cotus, the only speaking Briton has a wonderful ‘ooar’ country accent.
The rest of the dialogue is comfortably ‘ancient’, with even Nicholas Briggs (moderating the commentary) mentioning how the phrase ‘mark me well’ used by Gaius at one point, is a stock piece of dialogue used in these trips to the ancient world on television (at least in the 1970s).
An interesting aspect of this production is the prominence of black actors. The 1970s is not known for its political correctness but Elizabeth, a principal cast member – and top billing for her time in the series – is black. Nothing is made of this in the series, rightly so, but Nicholas Young brings up the point on the commentary that he remarked at the time that rather than Stephen and Chris posing as his slaves in Roman times, that really it should have been Elizabeth. He then proceeds to contradict himself pointing out that black people were not just slaves in Roman times and, indeed, one Emperor was black. This is also contradicted – as the cast then note – by the presence of two black actors playing the Roman soldiers guarding the gladiator school in the scenes where John is selling Stephen (his ‘slave’) to Gaius.
No trip to the Roman Empire would be complete without a bit of sword play and this is unconvincingly presented by Peter and Stephen fighting a procession of other Britons and burly Romans such as Guthren. The perils of studio bound, multi-camera filming means that the fights are pretty terrible and stagey but if you’re going to set 75% of the story in a gladiator school then you’re making a rod for your own back.
The most interesting aspect of the story is the conceit that the presence of Gaius’ steam engine is what causes the Roman Empire to never fall. Nicholas Young on the commentary points out that the Romans had already invented the steam engine long before James Watt came along during the Industrial Revolution. A quick Wikipedia check seems to confirm this with there being evidence of a crude steam engine in Roman-occupied Egypt around the 1st Century – exactly the period of the Roman Empire that A Rift in Time is set. Of course, in popular culture the idea of steam-powered Romans is enough of an anachronism to fuel the idea that history has been changed by it and it does lead to the wonderfully camp sight of 20th century Romans dressed to the nines in white tunics, white boots and strange white helmets – accompanied by their alien ape slaves.
Gaius’ defence of the Roman way of life and how it has made 20th Century Earth great makes an interesting moral argument in the final episode which in no way comes across as a ranting maniac, and indeed, as far as he is concerned, the Roman Empire-led 20th Century is the correct version of history and he sees nothing wrong with it. It is only the interfering Time Guardians (Peter’s people) that have stuck their oar in to return things to the ‘correct’ timeline.
A Rift in Time is not the best example of The Tomorrow People and is not even that reflective of the usual type of adventure – very few of the stories hop back in history. Better examples can be found in The Blue and the Green (which precedes this story and introduces Elizabeth) and The Dirtiest Business (which involves the KGB and suicide!). Of course worse examples than this are also prevalent including the wonderfully silly A Man for Emily and the faintly offensive Hitler’s Last Secret.
A primary school teacher and father of two, Andrew finds respite in the
worlds of Doctor Who, Disney and general geekiness. Unhealthily obsessed
with Lance Parkin’s A History, his Doctor Who viewing marathon
is slowly following Earth history from the Dawn of Time to the End of
the World. He would live in a Disney theme park if given half the