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.

The Prisoner

The Prisoner is a sort of Cold War, spy-thriller, 1960s-for-1860s version of Alice in Wonderland. Both Alice and Number 6 (whose name, I suspect, was intended to give him seniority over 007) disappear into another world — Wonderland on one hand and the Village on the other, both of them parodies of a very familiar-seeming England — and there do their best to both defend and discover their identities via a series of eccentric, surreal, threatening and nonsensical encounters. After all, what better way to find out who you really are than to have to defend your individuality against every form of attack 1960s paranoia can come up with, from brainwashing to hallucinogenic drugs, mind-transference to social isolation, even involvement in politics?

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History has made Britain surreal. Its cultural self-image is littered with old, unmoving artefacts and practices — judges in periwigs, soldiers in Busbies, undertakers in top hats, penny-farthing bicycles, grown men in old school ties and old school blazers. Its upper echelons — the slowest to change, so the most surreal and divorced-from-reality — are drenched in weird rituals, silly costumes, nonsensical-but-pompous titles, rules that must be obeyed because they’ve always been obeyed, and ways of doing things that have just always been that way. The only reason Number 6 can’t tell which side it is that runs the Village is that its comically parodic, overly-British version of British life is both ridiculously over-the-top and spot-on accurate at the same time.

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Both The Prisoner and Alice in Wonderland have an uneasy sort of humour: the humour of nonsense, or absurdity, something that can so easily slip into cosmic or Kafkan horror. In a sense, The Prisoner is a sitcom, as sitcom characters are characters who, whatever happens to them in the course of an episode, always return to the same situation, the same personality, by the end. This is true of Number 6, who even manages to escape the Village in ‘Many Happy Returns’, only to insist on parachuting back into it, whereupon he finds himself, of course, in the same situation as when he started. The basic joke in The Prisoner-as-sitcom is that everyone and everything is a calculated deception meant to break Number 6’s sense of himself. Ha ha ha.

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The basic situation of The Prisoner is also similar to many horror stories, where the protagonist finds themself in an isolated village whose inhabitants seem to share a secret, and may be working at making them one of them — as in, for instance, ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’.

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Both The Prisoner and Alice in Wonderland end with a trial — a nonsensical, mock-trial — which both Alice and Number 6 rise above and destroy. (The Prisoner also sees Number 6 made into the new Number 2 and put upon a throne, just as Through the Looking Glass sees Alice made into a queen.)

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Detectives, spies and secret agents were a peculiar sort of 20th century Everyman. I like to think of this collection of character-types as Existential Agents. 1908, the year that saw the publication of the archetypal Occult Detective (Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence) also saw the publication of G K Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, the first Existential Agent I can think of. Whereas Occult Detectives embody the encounter between rationality and the irrational/supernatural, the Existential Agent embodies the quest for identity, against either social or psychological forces. One pops up in Dennis Potter’s superlative The Singing Detective — which, like the final episode of The Prisoner, also features a singalong of ‘Dem Bones’ — questing through his creator’s real and fictional pasts for the clue that will release him from his personal Hell. I suspect Twin Peaks’s Dale Cooper of being at least half an Existential Agent, which immediately throws Fox Mulder under a shadow of doubt, too. (Existential Agents aren’t necessarily secret agents. Secret agents hunt for secrets; Existential Agents have secrets, often from themselves.)

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What does it all mean? Perhaps it’s like Number 6’s explanation of his entry into the Village craft competition (a genuinely escapist piece of art) in ‘The Chimes of Big Ben’:

‘It means what it is!’

Or, from ‘Hammer into Anvil’:

‘It means what it says!’

What both The Prisoner and Alice in Wonderland do is work towards creating a destabilised world, denying any obvious sense of narrative, as well as any obvious sense of rationality, to break up all certainties and create the sort of free-flowing, let-it-all-hang-out, deliquescent reality in which, free of external constraints, Number 6 and Alice can really find themselves. It’s a bit like that strange gloop a caterpillar turns into before forming itself into a butterfly.

But why am I asking what it all means? Remember, “Questions are a burden to others. Answers a prison for oneself.” Or, as they say in ‘Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling’:

‘It is possible that there is no clue to be found… Breaking a code or cipher is a finite problem. But, as I’ve said… we don’t know that there is a problem. And if there is, on what level of reasoning it is set.’

Which sounds, as it should, like the purest nonsense.