The Tomorrow People was originally a British children’s science fiction television series created by Roger Price in 1973 and which ran for an impressive eight seasons. I was exactly the right age for it for a time and remember being a regular viewer, sitting there wishing that I too would one day ‘break out’ and become a Tomorrow Person with newly evolved skills of telepathy, telekinesis and teleportation. It really was my generation’s wish-fulfilment equivalent to wanting to be a wizard and go to Hogwarts with Harry Potter.
There was a short-lived reboot of the show in the 1990s that never really took off, but the 20-year cycle has come around again and this time it is Warner Bros who have picked up the basic concept and adapted it into a new show aimed at teenagers for US network The CW and which has also been picked up in the UK by E4. The latest version retains a surprising amount of the original show’s core material, from the basic abilities and backstory of homo sapiens giving way to ‘homo superior’ even down to the central hero of the piece being named Steven Jameson (solidly if unspectacularly played by Robbie Amell, cousin of Arrow star Stephen Amell.) The heroes still have their base in a disused subway station; their useful supercomputer is still called TIM (and is voiced by an uncredited Dan Stephens, which makes up somewhat for the fact that TIM now looks like a very ordinary ceiling-mounted cinema projector); the leader of the group is still John (Luke Mitchell from Home and Away); and their first season adversary continues to go by the name of Jedikiah (the ubiquitous Mark Pellegrino) although he’s a very different character to his 1973 counterpart.
The trouble is that the show’s production team seem to have approached the entire thing as a flatpack ready-to-self-assemble project: take one long-forgotten series concept from the UK, add to the bog-standard teenage angst drama format, and voila – job done. It feels instantly familiar and unremarkable as a result, solid and sufficient but far from stand-out and lacking much evidence of an individual spirit. The first episode isn’t helped by what seems to be the default failing of all US TV pilots these days which sees a need for the writers to cram the entire series bible down the viewers’ throats as fast as possible, rather than have any confidence in their story-telling abilities or their audience to take their time and do it properly.
Once it settles down and starts to think for itself, however, things do pick up. The reworking of Jedikiah into Steven’s uncle and the leader of the sinister top secret Ultra organisation dedicated to tracking down and ‘dealing’ with new Tomorrow People as they emerge is a nice touch; Steven’s decision to join Ultra as an ‘undercover agent’ for the Tomorrow People looks rather forced, abrupt and silly in the pilot but is given more consideration in the second episode that redeems it. Team leader John is given a more interesting, conflicted personality (and Mitchell stands out as the best of the young cast) while the show also show promise by retaining elements of Steven’s normal home and school life. As long as they steer clear of The Matrix-type stuff suggesting that Steven is some sort of chosen one, there is enough here to suggest that this could develop into something halfway decent providing that it survives the brutal first weeks on air in which many new shows falter and die.
One thing that the show emphatically lacks is a decent title sequence or theme sequence – the two things that perhaps more than anything else made the 1970s ITV show iconic to those who watched it. After having tried out the modern version, I wanted to go back and see the first run of original 70s episodes to see how they compare just to make sure there were no ‘rose tinted spectacles’ or golden memories affecting my view.
I hadn’t expected much: I’m pretty good at making allowances for the time in which something is made and so knew that the original show would be weak on things like FX and pacing. What I hadn’t expected was just how dreadful the entire thing was, from inept writing and poor direction to some incomprehensibly bad acting from virtually the entire cast young or old. The only actor to come out of it with any credit is Nicholas Young who went on to become the stalwart of the entire run of the original series as John. The character never had an on-screen surname as far as I recall, and the new series uses the original actor’s name for the rebooted character presumably as a rather sweet homage.
In the 1970s, Jedikiah is a cult leader overplayed by Francis de Wolff who is revealed as a robot (which requires the actor to subsequently stomp around dressed in a silver-painted box) serving a green-skinned Cyclops who is the pilot of a damaged spaceship in Earth orbit … And if this sounds bad then I can only say that the reality of the execution is so much worse. You can’t even dismiss this as “well it’s only a children’s show, and science fiction wasn’t very sophisticated back in 1973” because one look at what Doctor Who was doing at the same time tells you just how abysmal The Tomorrow People truly was. Even as a very young boy watching the series at the time, I’m pretty sure I knew that this was junk food of the very least nutritious variety.
The low-budget remake in the 1990s did its earnest best to do the concept properly but never found its audience, so at the very least, the 2013 version succeeds in finally delivering the first glossy modern version of the basic Tomorrow People concept without the embarrassing aspects. That alone makes it the best of the three iterations of the show to date if only by default; but whether that will be enough to see it survive for any period of time is an altogether different matter.
For old times sake, I’m hoping it that it does in fact make it.
The new series airs on E4 on Wednesdays at 9pm. The original 1970s series is available on DVD.