Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Pop Between Realities, Home in Time for Tea 16 (The Tomorrow People, The Uncanny X-Men)

Upon its first appearance, under the editorial eye of David Whitaker, the TARDIS was explained via a metaphor of television in which the Doctor justifies his ability to fit a very large room inside a small box on the grounds that the same thing is accomplished via television. Aside from the role this moment plays in setting up the strand of alchemical and mystical thought I've traced through eleven years of Doctor Who thus far, this speaks to another crucial metaphor: that of the rabbit hole.

Of course, strictly speaking, if you're going to talk about connections between Doctor Who and children's literature in that Victorian tradition (and as I've said, there are very good reasons to talk about those connections), the TARDIS owes more to the work of CS Lewis, who, as I never get tired of pointing out, died the day before Doctor Who premiered, almost exactly an hour before the Kennedy assassination, and eight hours before Aldous Huxley. But the basic concept is the same either way - the very first image we had of Doctor Who, where Ian and Barbara fall out of the world.

Of course, that's any Doctor Who fan's first image of Doctor Who. That's what shows like it are. Rabbit holes that we fall into. I don't mean this according to the utterly banal logic of suspension of disbelief whereby we imagine ourselves endlessly in made-up places. I mean something much more literally. For me, on a weekend afternoon in September of 1992, I fell out of the world. I put a tape into the VCR, and when it was over I was not the same person anymore.

On his blog, after The Doctor's Wife aired, Neil Gaiman did a little Q&A about the episode, and at one point said, "I like mythologies, and I knew what a Dalek was and what planet it came from, or what TARDIS stood for when I was five, before I knew who Thor or Anubis were." This is, more or less, exactly it. The significance of Doctor Who, first and foremost, is an entire mythology and system of storytelling that has been unspooling through my brain for nearly twenty years now.

This is the way of fandom. Anyone who lives and breathes in geek culture has their rabbit holes. The books or movies or television shows that grabbed them and began asserting gravity in their minds. Usually the gravity is a subtle thing. Most of us do not embark on too many major life decisions out of fandom. But it is a vast thing. How many Christmases would have had a completely different tenor had the bulk of the presents not been Christmas themed? How would my honeymoon with my ex-wife have gone had we not planned it around seeing David Tennant in Hamlet? How would middle school have gone if the bullying I got for liking something as weird as Doctor Who had been forced to find a different path of least resistance?

This last one is, perhaps, the most interesting. Most of our rabbit holes, after all, are somewhat generational. A generation has its narrative subcultures. Mine has its Transformers fans, its Labyrinth fans, its Babysitters Club fans. But the one thing my generation in America conspicuously lacks is any significant number of Doctor Who fans. This is not surprising. I was seven when the series was cancelled and in the wrong country. It was not something many people were going to get into, except by the odd vector I did - their parents happened to love it, and the love caught.

Even then, the series of events that led to my Doctor Who fandom feels odd. It comes down to, I suppose, the fact that my mother never does anything halfway. So when she and my father got into Doctor Who, of course they get a mammoth run of Target novels, of course they had the Peter Haining 20th Anniversary book, of course they had VHS tapes. And when I got into it, of course my mother bought a multi-region VCR so she could have access to more Doctor Who tapes. It's not even that my family was particularly posh - we do fine for ourselves, and we're a damn sight luckier than a lot of people. It's just that my mother has that essential geek trait - the one that obviously passed onto me, given that I'm the sort to attempt an insane blog like this - of maniacal completes.

And so I ended up, in a real sense, out of the world. Fall out of the world with something of your culture - even something a bit obscure - and you're fine. But 1970s British science fiction shows were not exactly socially advisable obsessions in the suburban public schools of early 90s America. Out of both time and out of place, my life of being a freak was well set out for me.

In this regard, at least, I was actually more suited for the other rabbit hole on offer for the British children of 1974: The Tomorrow People. Of the many iterations of "ITV's answer to Doctor Who," The Tomorrow People stands out as the one that people have the most fondness for. Certainly it's the longest-running - the show debuted during Planet of the Daleks, and its last episode aired midway through The Armageddon Factor, and its lousy 90s revamp actually managed to last three series.

Unfortunately, it's crap. I mean, this is a common phenomenon affecting most of the "ITV's answer to Doctor Who" attempts, so it can't really come as a surprise. Seriously, though, the days I was watching these ended up also being the days I was watching Monster of Peladon, and I was doing an episode each of Peladon and The Slaves of Jedikiah, and I'm not sure I've ever been more miserable watching television.

The problems with The Tomorrow People are numerous. First of all, you have the textbook example here of falling between two stools. The Tomorrow People has two ideas, one of which is brilliant and the other one of which is at least not offensively bad. The latter idea is a gang of plucky kids who fight various alien menaces. This is not, obviously, the most original insight into children's sci-fi television ever devised, but we have surely not seen the last successful implementation of that idea even in 2011, so it's tough to complain too much. Admittedly, even by the relatively meager standards of this idea, The Tomorrow People falls short. Every single actor in The Slaves of Jedikiah is excruciatingly bad, with both Sammie Windmill and Stephen Salmon being particularly gruesome. Admittedly neither were retained for the second series, so it's entirely possible that as of Season 2 the quality of acting suddenly skyrockets. It's also possible that I will win the lottery if I buy a ticket. I take neither bet. Especially because it's not entirely clear that any actor could do well delivering the lines expected of this cast. Add this to a set of effects that make the show look like the low-rent Doctor Who knockoff it is and you have, well, a recipe for unfortunate things.

But let's face it, clearly nobody was expected to tune into The Tomorrow People for its vivid depictions of  bold and original sci-fi concepts. The appeal of the show was much more basic - one of the most unabashed and unapologetic panders to the geek mindset ever. See, it turns out that some kids are special kids who are the secret future of the human race and have superpowers: Homo Superior.

The problem is that The Tomorrow People tries to have it both ways between these two ideas. A story about special teenagers hated and feared by the larger society but trying to help it and save it is a good idea. But the basic appeal is the real-world setting - the fact that these are teenagers who go through recognizable problems of kids but amped up and with superpowers. I mean, it's basically the concept of the first three seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Which means the one thing you absolutely shouldn't do is have a bunch of cardboard cutouts phoning in their lines in a bunch of space adventures that are utterly lacking in any meaningful connection to the real world.

But for the first five minutes or so - even the first episode, by and large, there's still a crackling sense of potential to the whole thing. The first few scenes are gorgeously shot, and there's a taut, gritty feeling to it. Yes, it all goes to hell in a hand basket, but it's just enough that you can see how this show might have served as a rabbit hole, and how there are people with genuine affection for it.

Especially because that central premise is so good - and, if we're being honest, because The Tomorrow People's execution of it was so flagrantly a metaphor about homosexuality that I can't even bring myself to use the phrase "gay subtext" here because it's such an egregious misuse of the word "subtext." This has been stated elsewhere, but basically, realizing your different from everybody else and that you have to keep it a secret from your parents as you hang out with other people who are different like you and wear oddly skintight clothing? Yeah.

And in this regard, at least, The Tomorrow People deserves credit for getting there in 1973, given that its most obvious American counterpart took until 1993 to even start to hint at that connotation, having previously inexplicably believed itself to be about the Civil Rights movement. I am, of course, alluding to Marvel Comics' X-Men franchise, which although it debuted in 1963, did not really take off into its most famous and beloved form until 1975 with the publication of Giant-Size X-Men, and, a few months later, the beginning of British expat Chris Claremont's 16-year run on the comic.

Unlike The Tomorrow People, which I never saw as a child and don't imagine I'd have had particular fondness for, the X-Men were, for a time at least, one of my rabbit holes, with my comics reading days of childhood running from about 1991 to 1994. And the X-Men were my favorite title. Part of this was simply because they were everybody else's favorite. But as the saying goes, some works are unjustly forgotten, but nothing is unjustly remembered. To be a mass success on the scale that the X-Men were and are requires some genius.

And reading Chris Claremont's X-Men comics makes it clear where that genius was. They are, in every regard, what The Tomorrow People is flailing helplessly at. Claremont's major skill as a comics writer was always his ability to wed soap opera character dynamics to the action genre of the comics. In other words, a Claremont book is generally about emotional drama playing out while people punch giant robots. And it's great. My X-Men comics consisted of the books coming out in the early 90s - which were horrible, barely intelligible, and not written by Claremont anymore even though they tried to ape his style - and of selections given to me by my uncle from his comics collection, which spanned the mid to late 80s. As I said, the former made minimal sense even if you did have all the issues, whereas the latter was a hodgepodge of random issues that rarely, if ever, included entire plotlines. Despite this, it was easy to fall in love with the books simply because it was nearly impossible not to love at least one of the characters. The X-Men, particularly under Claremont, was a massive ensemble cast of extremely likable and fun characters. The actual stories of the future of humanity being hunted and oppressed were fine, but they were, quite frankly, just excuses. The real story was a soap opera dressed up so young boys would read it, and my God did we read it.

But oddly, Claremont never really shone anywhere else like he did on the X-Men. Something about that property and his writing fit together perfectly. And even then, it was only when he took it over that it was truly spectacular (and it's tough to find many people who don't think he'd peaked by about 1981). No - there is, it seems, something about the mid-70s and the image of outsider teenagers - a moment where the cultural zeitgeist just hit on that idea and stayed for a time.

(Although oddly, the intersections between X-Men and The Tomorrow People are largely unremarked upon. Mark Millar finally acknowledged the debt when he named his first arc of Ultimate X-Men "The Tomorrow People," and The Tomorrow People's premiere has an charming coincidence in which the psychiatric hospital at which part of it is set is named "Claremount." But beyond these obvious and minor intersections, the two topics are oddly separate.)

But then again, this makes sense. The term "homo superior" was, after all, borrowed from David Bowie's 1971 "Oh! You Pretty Things," one of the great songs of glam rock. And by the time The Tomorrow People and X-Men were hitting their peak, glam was drawing its final breaths. The result was a legion of glam fans - starchildren who were giddily embracing their specialness - who were suddenly and abruptly cast out by mainstream culture. It was, in other words, the exact right time for stories about special but persecuted teenagers, and they provided, in a real sense, the last stopping point of glam, which, at least in the form we've known it thus far, drops out of our narrative here. They provided needed rabbit holes for the dispossessed starchildren to burrow into and wait for the next cultural wave. Millions of them, glued to their television sets or their comic books, a future waiting to explode.

It would, I suspect, be very difficult to do a project like this with The Tomorrow People, whereas it would be almost trivial to do it with the X-Men. Then again, one of them is a rabbit hole I went down, and the other isn't. And, of course, there are countless other rabbit holes out there, and not all of them for children. But here we have something of an odd hand-off. A strand of thought that had been playing out in Doctor Who jumps track, and ends up almost simultaneously in two unrelated texts. The tracks will merge back together up ahead, but the question of what the future will be like and, perhaps more importantly, who it is going to be for, is one that Doctor Who is going to lose interest in for a few years.

18 comments:

  1. Actually, The Tomorrow People does get considerably better in season two, for exactly one story, "The Blue and the Green," which is incredibly weird and interesting. After that, it's back to being ridiculous and unwatchable. I made it through three seasons before giving up.

    "Slaves of Jedikiah" does have one sublime moment, when Francis de Wolff says, now that he's back on his spaceship, he can rid himself of this ridiculous human form, and transforms into one of the two or three silliest and most ungainly robots ever seen on TV. That was much more entertaining than anything that happened on Peladon, ever.

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  2. Very interesting. Being older and British I grew up watching Jon Pertwee regularly, and followed Chris Claremont's X-Men as much as I could. American comics weren't readily available, but would appear randomly in newsagents; so every time we went to a town or city I would scour every newsagents I could find to see what they had. The first X-Men I got was #97, but I didn't find a regular source until the early 80s, so - like you - I was reading a scattering of issues; but unlike you, they were at least in the right order!

    I actually enjoyed the Tomorrow People, too, though it wasn't much of an influence on me - certainly not a "rabbit hole" - and I've never felt a need to revisit it.

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  3. I have memories of watching The Tomorrow People in 1973, very probably because bits of it took place in underground tunnels and being a Who fan I already had an affinity for the London Underground.

    There is a school of thought that kids don't like watching TV programmes featuring other kids, but I'm not sure that's right in this case. Certainly The Tomorrow People was popular, and a cast of children never did Grange Hill any harm.

    Even though TP didn't clash with Who (it was on Mondays after school), I only watched the first story because I do remember being acutely embarrassed by the poor acting of the cast - made all the more obvious by the fact that Jon and Tim obviously could act.

    And I was prepared to dismiss your comment about the gay subtext...until I thought back to my memories of the show and realised to my horror that you were right.

    It was certainly a more fashion-conscious show than Doctor Who, with everyone in flares and bat-wing collars. In fact Jon doesn't look that much different from Sarah Jane in The Time Warrior!

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  4. Why, how could a comic about oppression started in 1963 by two Jewish men (never the targets of any discrimination themselves) be a metaphor for civil rights?

    I kid, I kid. I understand what you mean, that it's not a very good metaphor for civil rights. Though I've always seen it less about homosexuality than just sexuality in general, considering puberty is the usual trigger for mutant powers in the X-men.

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  5. Just as the writing of Neil Simon resonated with the 1970's in a way that it never did again, so did Claremont's X-Men. Partly, of course, because it changed the way that team comic books were written for the next 20 years or so. It was impossible in the 1980's to have a superhero team that didn't echo the Claremont dynamic. It took Grant Morrison to really reinvent that in the 1990's once he brought his Doom Patrol experimentation into the mainstream.

    It is a measure of how flexible Doctor Who is that it can encompass all the different eras that it runs through. Obviously fiction is at its most effective in holding a mirror up to society and taking another look at the zeitgeist (in a subtle way obviously: literally all the science fiction attempts in the late '60's to look at the Hippy movement are beyond embarassing). I like your tracking the music along with the show, it makes Micky's comment that K-9 looks "disco" certainly relevant when we get to see what is on the charts at The Invisible Enemy.

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  6. "literally all the science fiction attempts in the late '60's to look at the Hippy movement are beyond embarassing"

    Ah, but what about the brilliant, gripping social drama that is Star Trek's "Way to Eden"?

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  7. Philip K. Dick was pretty good at writing about hippies, though his best hippie characters didn't appear until 1977. If you were limiting yourself to televised science fiction, then...well, The Prisoner didn't do so bad.

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  8. All the Tomorrow People observations are spot on. The Blue and the Green does have some effective moments but most episodes of the first two series are very poor: patronising, cheap and silly. The second tie-in novel Three in Three was a bit more gritty.
    As a kid, I loved the Thomas/Roth X-Men but I fell completely for Cockrum's mutants in issue 97. That affection never expired until the mid-90s!
    I don't believe Claremont is an ex-pat, however; more an Anglophile. Or am I mistake?

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  9. Claremont was born in the UK, but grew up in the US.

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  10. Ah, that would explain his sometimes hilarious miswriting of British locations in Excalibur.

    I've been trying a reading of X-Men as a metaphor for trans, which fits quite well at times (puberty, "passing", tiny minority).

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  11. I really quite enjoyed The Tomorrow People when they showed it on Nickelodeon back in, oh, 1981 - 83 or so. I knew it was bad - as a Homo Superior myself, I have always had an affinity for camp - but I loved it anyway. When I first saw Doctor Who (The Sontaran Experiment to be precise) in my innocence I thought it might well be some kind of Tomorrow People spin-off.

    But I am not totally deluded - check out that amazing title sequence by Bernard Lodge, and the music by "Deadly" Dudley Simpson! As crap as the show itself might have been, that opening out-spooks and out-psychedelics even Doctor Who. Great stuff.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-0TbYo3GVLM&feature=player_detailpage#t=105s

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  12. Agreed about the opening credits of Tomorrow People. It somehow seems to encapsulate everything about the 70s view of the human condition. You've got an embryo, a flower, a galaxy, a maze, and (inexplicably) lots of scaffolding, all in grainy b&w, flying at you almost too fast to register, while that pulsing music hammers it's way into your brain.

    The music was actually reused a couple of years ago for an afternoon quiz show on UK TV, and just didn't work without the TP graphics!

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  13. 7a1abfde-af0e-11e0-b72c-000bcdcb5194 said...
    "literally all the science fiction attempts in the late '60's to look at the Hippy movement are beyond embarassing"

    Ah, but what about the brilliant, gripping social drama that is Star Trek's "Way to Eden"?

    somehow we had a mindmeld and we thinking of the same gripping "going into eden" fiction. Not sure how that could have happened...

    Look, as a professional comic artist, and one who grew up buying those X-Men off the stands in the 19770's, 77-81 were the X-men's Hinchcliffe years... it was the best comic on the stands. A 5 year long roller coaster rider of great stories and great characters. It was and is the last great Marvel Comics property in the post-Lee/Kirby/Ditko years. And i always thought that the metaphor for puberty was intentional, the mis-understood teen years, oh! the angst!

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  14. At least we can be grateful that they didn't try to remake "Way to Eden" as, say, Star Trek V.

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  15. I always thought they remade "THE WAY TO EDEN" as "STAR TREK: INSURRECTION" (which also was a semi-remake of "THE OMEGA GLORY"). 2 bad stories redone as 1 not-bad one.

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  16. It's interesting so many people put Claremont's peak at 1981. I'd definitely put it somewhere later. Certainly no earlier than 1983, which is where my re-read has reached.

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  17. I saw Tomorrow People as a kid, first time around.

    ... it was terrible. I remember thinking "this science fiction stuff should be better than this is."

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