Timeslip

timeslip_dvdBroadcast in 26 episodes from the end of September 1970 to March 1971 (only one of which survives in colour), Timeslip was intended as an ITV rival to Doctor Who. Its two mid-teen leads, Simon Randall (Spencer Banks) and Liz Skinner (Cheryl Burfield), discover the ability to slip through a time barrier they find by the fence of an old military base while on holiday. In the first adventure, it takes them back to the Second World War, when the base was in use as a research outfit. The kids arrive at the same time as some disguised German soldiers who are intent on nabbing some of the latest British technology. The bounders!

A few things made the series immediately different. Usually, kids’ time travel (or any time travel — The Time Tunnel, for instance, or Doctor Who) takes its heroes to the distant past or distant future, but Timeslip stuck to the 20th Century (including trips to a pair of alternative 1990s), with its final adventure being set in 1965, a mere five years in the show’s past. In addition, Liz & Simon are constantly meeting the same people in different adventures, or different future versions of them. In the first story, ‘The Wrong End of Time’, Liz meets her as-yet unmarried father (just before he has an amnesiac episode that explains why he doesn’t remember meeting her), while in the two 1990s adventures, Liz gets to meet two entirely different versions of herself, as well as a future version of her mother. The great thing is that Liz hates the first version of herself she meets, and Beth (as she’s come to be known) hates her back:

Beth: At a certain time in my life I had to take some important decisions. Break with the past, become a different kind of person.

Liz: But why? What’s the matter with me? I’m still as I always was. I don’t want to change.

Beth: My dear, I was a little idiot when I was you. I had to do something about forcing myself to grow up, finding a purpose to my existence. We can’t be fools all our lives, I’m afraid.

While, in the last episode of that adventure — ‘The Time of the Ice Box’ — Liz gets her own back:

Beth: (of Liz) She’s nothing to do with me.

Liz: But I am. I am you. Only you’re not me and that’s the trouble. You’ve changed too much.

Things get complicated once Liz & Simon realise they can change the futures they visit by going back to their own era and making sure certain things don’t happen. After ‘The Time of the Ice Box’, Liz & Simon take another trip to the 1990s, only to find it now ‘The Year of the Burn-Up’, a technocratic future where a sabotaged climate control is making a serious mess of things. (But at least, here, Liz likes her future self.)

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As if the protagonists meeting various versions of their future selves isn’t complicated enough, there are also a number of clones of various people. (The first one we meet is the Director of the ‘Ice Box’ research establishment. Played by John Barron, who I’ve only ever encountered before as CJ in The Fall and Rise of Reggie Perrin, he comes across as an unintentionally comic version of CJ, with an attempt at an American accent. I kept expecting him to say, ‘I didn’t get where I am today by slipping through time barriers…’) And, once it’s clear some of these futures are only possible futures, Simon starts talking about there being both clones and projected clones, who are only possible-future clones… And this in a final story appropriately titled ‘The Day of the Clone’.

‘The Day of the Clone’ is, I think, the best story of the lot. (It’s also the only one by Victor Pemberton, writer of the Doctor Who story ‘Fury from the Deep’; the other Timeslip stories are by Bruce Stewart, and can get a little repetitive with all their being captured/breaking free/getting recaptured loops.) If nothing else, this last story ties up the whole serial neatly, which is some feat, considering the number of different timelines, and different versions of people, we’ve encountered.

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By the time of ‘Day of the Clone’, Timeslip is taking a decidedly anti-technocratic stance. ‘The Time of the Ice Box’ takes place in a future research establishment trying to develop an immortality drug, HA57, under the command of an autocratic Director who believes his computer to be faultless, and so it can only be deliberate sabotage by his employees that’s making things go wrong. In ‘The Year of the Burn-up’, there is actual sabotage to the climate control computer, but all the technocrats are too busy hunting down the un-sociables and outcasts who refuse to be part of their Brave New World to realise the sabotage is happening, till it’s too late. In ‘The Day of the Clone’ the technocratic future is the present, with a secret government-funded research base, R1, being used to develop the same immortality drug, HA57, as appeared in ‘Time of the Ice Box’, only they’re testing it on student volunteers, and it’s having the opposite to its intended effect. To keep the volunteers quiet, they’re given ‘hypnotherapy’.

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It’s here you get a sense of the mood of the times. One of the young volunteers, a student who thought she’d do a bit of good for society in her university holidays, learns what’s been done to her, and reveals the growing feeling, by the start of the 1970s, that early-60s optimism, with its faith in paternalistic governments and the forward march of technology, was getting a little tarnished:

Maria: Trust you? Trust… That’s something I’m rapidly forgetting. I came to this place with hopes. We all did. Hopes we could help build a decent future. Now you tell us we’re only helping to destroy the future. Well I don’t know who to trust or believe anymore.

Key to all this is the often-ambiguous character of Commander Traynor, who encourages the children’s time-hopping in the hope of learning a few technological secrets from the future, and who becomes an increasingly darker figure as the series progresses.

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Timeslip stands on the border between being a fun kids’ SF-adventure series and the slightly weirder, more idealistic one-off productions of the 70s, like Children of the Stones, The Changes, and so on. Alistair D McGown and Mark J Docherty, in The Hill and Beyond: Children’s Television Drama, say Timeslip was ‘perhaps the most ambitious serial of the 70s in storytelling terms at least’. It backed its science fictional ideas with advice from Geoffrey Hoyle (son of, and collaborator with, SF author and astronomer Fred Hoyle), and managed to sidestep becoming a mere attempt at cloning Doctor Who by tying its stories up so tightly with the possible future and actual past selves of its key characters, something most SF (apart from Back to the Future, which shows how much fun can be got from the idea) does its utmost to avoid.

Sky

SkySky (first broadcast in 1975) manages to tick just about every box in the 70s kids’ TV checklist: standing stones, the next step in human evolution, psychic powers, Merlin, magic, advanced technology masquerading as magic, warnings about mankind’s over-reliance on technology, environmentalist predictions of coming disaster, even a hint of class tension.

It starts with the blue-eyed, golden-haired alien Sky (and if he looks a bit like an Axon, perhaps that’s because the show’s writers, Bob Baker and Dave Martin, wrote The Claws of Axos for Doctor Who) appearing in the middle of an English forest, only to be immediately attacked by the surrounding greenery. Found by young Arby Venner, the leaf-smothered Sky pleads: “Take me away from living things.”

An alien and far-future time-traveller, Sky has missed his intended era, and now finds himself rejected by the very life-force of a world he does not belong to. Begging to be taken to “the Juganet” (“The Juganet is a circle. The circle is a machine. The machine is a crossover point. The point is a paramagnetic intersection. That is where I must be.”), which he can use to jump to the correct time, he claims (when asked by Arby’s sister, Jane) that despite his seemingly helpless state, “I suppose, in your terms, I am to be a god.”

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Meanwhile, the “animus of the organism” — the riled life-force of our world — manifests itself as the black-cloaked Ambrose Goodchild, whose purpose is to track down and do away with this unwanted alien by any means, be it by summoning more smothering greenery, or posing as a surgeon so he can operate on him. Arby, Jane, and the slightly posher boy next door, Roy Briggs, do their best to help the importunate Sky, despite having no idea what he’s on about most of the time.

Luckily, there’s a mad Welshman to hand. (And that’s another 70s kids’ TV box checked: mad Welshman who knows.) Old Tom may be touched in the head (“He’s supposed to be simple.” “No. It is you who are complicated.”), but he can hear Sky’s thoughts and see Sky’s telepathic pictures, and he once visited a place that looks like this Juganet thing, though he can’t recall where, or what, it was. So Arby and Jane borrow their dad’s Land Rover (they’re late teens: Arby drives a Land Rover and Roy’s got a motorbike), kidnap mad Tom and the hospitalised Sky, and take them on a jaunt to Glastonbury Tor. Which, it turns out, isn’t the Juganet, but is getting close.

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Sky is a bit like E.T. Only, whereas E.T. isn’t above a little emotional bonding while he tries to phone home, Sky is only interested in his human helpers when he wants rescuing. Once he’s recovered, he wants to be left alone so he can find the Juganet and leave this age that he knows only — and ominously — as “the Decline”. His task is to help humankind after “the Chaos”, not before it. As far as he’s concerned, before it, we’re beyond help.

Sky is, it seems, intended as a chastening reminder that our modern age is but one tiny step — and, most likely, a mis-step — on its way to some future evolution we can’t even begin to appreciate. He believes “It is the destiny of all intelligent beings to stand outside space and time,” and that modern man’s mistake is to “believe in machines”:

“You do not reach the stars with rockets, any more than you invent radios by shouting at the sky.”

Goodchild, on the other hand, seems even more reactionary:

“…the way to intelligence is the way to destruction… You have made man an alien. An alien force throttling life on this planet.”

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Sky could almost be a prelude to The Changes, shown at the start of the same year (Sky was ITV, The Changes BBC). The coming “Chaos” could be the “Changes”, in which a Merlin-like force (Goodchild’s first name, Ambrose, links him with Merlin) initiates a UK-wide revolt against machines. Both shows seem to be both rejecting hippie back-to-nature idealism (Sky is taken in, briefly, by a hippie couple awaiting a mystic traveller foretold in the prophecies of Merlin; he repays their kindness by disillusioning them, then attracting enough creeping greenery to destroy their caravan), while also wagging the finger at our love of technology.

What happened between the 1970s and the 1980s, when the whole idea of technology as a step too far seems to have been quietly dropped? (As were standing stones, and mad Welshmen.) There’s a real feeling that these 70s kids’ TV shows — Sky, The Changes, to a lesser extent The Moon Stallion — were grappling with issues that aren’t to be found in their 80s equivalents (The Moon Dial, Elidor, The Box of Delights), which were just as, if not more, magical in content (no more technology masquerading as magic, though — it was pure magic all the way), but don’t seem to be addressing social issues beyond the coming-of-age adventures of their protagonists. And so, while perhaps those 80s shows are that much more timeless, they don’t necessarily have the unity, depth, and cultural relevance of the best of the 70s ones. Or is that just my own nostalgia?

The Moon Stallion

The Moon Stallion was first broadcast on the BBC at the end of 1978. I don’t remember seeing it, though I may have caught it when it was repeated in 1980, on the Sunday teatime slot I so associate with BBC kids’ fantasy (perhaps because of the Narnia adaptations they showed in the late 80s). Anyway, I may not have seen it at the time, but sitting down to watch it now, I certainly feel I know it: it’s archetypal kids’/young teen fantasy of the sort the 1970s did so well (see The Changes, King of the Castle, and Children of the Stones earlier on this blog). Perhaps the fact it’s set in Victwardian times — or BBC costume drama times, anyway — that helps to recall so much classic, E Nesbit-style magical mystery romps, but The Moon Stallion isn’t an adaptation, it was written for the TV by Brian Hayles, the creator of the Ice Warriors and the planet Peladon for Doctor Who, as well as the scriptwriter of Warlords of Atlantis (also on this blog).

Sarah Sutton in The Moon Stallion

The other key Doctor Who connection, of course, is that it stars Sarah Sutton (later to play Nyssa of Traken) as the blind girl Diana. Visiting the home of Sir George Mortenhurze along with her younger brother and her father (an archaeologist brought in by Sir George to help prove a local King Arthur connection), Diana, though blind, sees the Moon Stallion, a wild horse of supernatural repute that, it turns out, Sir George and — even more — his groom and would-be “horse warlock” Todman have designs on capturing. Sir George wants the Moon Stallion because his wife died shortly after seeing it; Todman wants the Stallion so he can control the Moon Goddess, ride into Tir na Nog, and gain magical power. Dismissive at first of Diana’s link with the Moon Stallion, Todman later uses her to try and capture it. Throughout, Sutton plays Diana with a great deal of dignity, which really adds to her vulnerability at the key moments when she’s threatened.

Diana and Todman, The Moon Stallion

In The Hill and Beyond, their encyclopedia of children’s TV drama, Alistair D McGown and Mark J Docherty say The Moon Stallion “in the final examination is no more than an entertaining hotchpotch of enticing legends and myths… a wonderful piece of light melodrama fit for any Sunday afternoon… a looker, then, but rather directionless as a story.” But David Pringle, in The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Fantasy, says “Hayles’s script was one of the most accomplished fantasies specially written for television.” I’d certainly say it was better than McGown and Docherty imply — The Moon Stallion may feel a little too made to seem like an adaptation of a classic kids’ book that never was, but I think it has a lot going for it. True, some of that may be nostalgia on my part. Recently, I’ve had a craving for that whole 1970s mystical-magic kids’ adventure thing, with its gleeful pick’n’mix of folk legends, King Arthur, standing stones (also, in this case, the White Horse of Uffington and the nearby Wayland’s Forge), magical moonlight, stately homes with family secrets and windswept moors by night, and The Moon Stallion was my latest fix. (I had to track it down on a German DVD, as it’s not available in the UK.) Like The Changes and Children of the Stones, The Moon Stallion (briefly) ties science up with magic, equating the two and implying that modern man’s loss of connection with the land, and his loss of respect for old beliefs, will lead to his undoing. As the Green King, a mystical figure who guards the way to Tir na Nog, tells Diana after giving her a future-vision of Concorde and a nuclear mushroom cloud:

“Your science is the magic of ancient times, forgotten, in darkness, now rediscovered and, not understanding its past, rushing into self-destruction, as so many times before…”

The Green King, from The Moon Stallion

And this, ultimately, is the substance to the tale that Docherty and McGown say it lacks. They say: “…the discovery of strange magic by a vulnerable and pretty young virgin is usually a metaphor for sexual awakening in the gothic novel but Hayles deploys Diana on a purely surface level.” But, although Diana does spend a lot of the tale at one remove from the action — necessarily, perhaps, because her visionary connection with the Moon Stallion, and the Green King, can short-cut the tension — the tale is ultimately not about her coming-of-age, but about a much wider confrontation with, and acceptance of, death. Sir George wants revenge on the Moon Stallion for his wife’s death; Todman wants power, and that includes power over death. As the Green King says, “the wolf in man’s” lust for power so often ends in his own destruction, and it is only once these greedy figures have been done away with that it can be set back to rights. At the end, it is Sir George’s daughter who inherits his home and lands; the whole story has a feeling that what’s needed is a little less male power-grabbing, and a little more of the Moon Goddess’s feminine influence, and respect for what cannot be controlled. (Even Sir George’s demand that local evidence for King Arthur be found and confirmed feels like him trying to dominate and control elements of myth and legend, rather than feel any reverence for them.)

The Moon Stallion

It’s not the story that lingers in the mind, anyway, but the magical and visionary feel of a connection with things of the imagination — things of moonlight, and of the ancient past — along with a lot of shots of people riding horses over magnificent rolling countryside, and down hedgerowed lanes, in flowing gowns and cloaks. Perhaps it’s best watched as a welcome dose of nostalgia, but, then again, fantasy is all about magic from the past.

The Moon Stallion

(Full cast & credits at The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Film and Television here; also, details of a comic strip adaptation of The Moon Stallion from the girls’ comic Tammy.)

Children of the Stones

Oops, a bit more 70s TV. This 1977 series belongs to that subgenre of horror/science fiction stories (which includes John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos, Ramsey Campbell’s The Hungry Moon, and the Jon Pertwee Doctor Who story The Daemons) in which a village is isolated by a magical barrier, so that some evil/alien force can gather its strength before moving on to take over the rest of the world. With Children of the Stones, the evil force is, oddly enough, happiness; those villagers affected greet each other with a “Happy Day”, know what each other is thinking, and tend to be inordinately good at maths. But of course the reason this happiness is evil is that it’s one man’s idea of happiness, imposed on its subjects without their consent.

It’s the end of this 7-part series that really makes it a children’s serial. This isn’t a criticism; it’s just that you need to have a certain amount of awestruck credulity (or childlike sense of wonder) to accept the final explanation for what’s going on. The bowl-shaped rock beneath the village is a transmitter for pure evil? So that it can be sent towards a black hole? Right.

I’m not ruining the story by revealing this, because Children of the Stones is best accepted as you’d accept a weird dream — for its sense of mystery and menace, not its logic. This is particularly true for the way the story comes to an end, because I really have no idea what happened there. Something to do with time. All very odd. But before that you have plenty of the sort of thrills and weird chills any devotee of 70s horror TV and film will love: a mysterious stone circle, an old painting depicting an ancient ritual being held there, a mad lord-of-the-manor type with an oddly purposeful interest in astrophysics, a boy with burgeoning psychic visionary powers…

Peter Demin and Gareth Thomas as son and father in Children of the Stones

For me, the best part of the series was the relationship between the two main characters, the father and son who arrive as outsiders in the village. There’s something very affecting about the way they get on with each other, how naturally they work together, and the trust they have in each other, that takes their characters that little step beyond the usual sort of stock relationships encountered in this type of story.

And here’s a nice little YouTube clip of Stewart Lee using Children of the Stones and The Changes (reviewed on a previous Mewsings) to discuss how the representation of teenagers on TV has changed from the 70s.