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The Tomorrow People at Big Finish, part one

August 5th, 2008 (02:16 am)
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Some time ago, I promised an article on Big Finish's audio series of The Tomorrow People. I'd been listening to the audios when undertaking a mundane job which involved a great deal of cutting and pasting text, and when that was done had moved onto something else and not got round to writing the article. It's been several weeks now since I finished listening to the series, but needed to return to it to pick up a few points. This post concentrates on the first season of Big Finish stories, which means I should clean the flat more, or get round to getting an MP3 player at last, or something.


Listening to the audios through, and then returning to the start of the series, I was reminded of someone on a newsgroup with whom I had a discussion about The Tomorrow People several years ago. I'd ended up praising Secret Weapon as the moment where The Tomorrow People came closest to breaking out of its children's television straitjacket, and challenged Doctor Who as a true family programme. He said that he just wanted to laugh at its flaws.

Big Finish's Tomorrow People series starts out appearing to have updated the series in all its eccentricities, setting out to be a bit of a laugh. The series starts with The New Gods, whose villains are a broad and unsubtle take on the Posh and Becks phenomenon, complete with their celebrity baby, Camberwell. Much of the first episode is taken up with the initiation of a new tomorrow person, Paul, which enables the format to be reintroduced easily; and, much as in the most comparable story from the original series, The Blue and the Green, the new member of the team is fully integrated by the end of the story.

The only characters to be carried over from the original series as regulars are John and TIM. Their relationship is presented as much closer than it was on television; a great deal of time has passed since War of the Empires, and John and TIM come over sometimes as a long-married couple. It's not clear, to begin with, how long the other established tomorrow person in the Lab, Elena, has been around. She's presented as not being much older than Paul – who is a student of some sort, and in the puberty-and-just after catchment area established for Tomorrow People in the original series – and at this stage in the series there are vague suggestions that they could be paired off, but this does not happen.

John is much more starkly presented as the leader; much older than Elena and Paul, and it appears that more fun is going to be had at the expense of his conservatism than happened in the 1970s. Nicholas Young recaptures the character effortlessly and accurately, while Philip Gilbert takes TIM to domains of archness he never reached on television. The events of The Hearts of Sogguth and The Living Skins were clearly an early influence on Big Finish's idea of John's character, as he is easily possessed by the forces of darkness and it falls to his less experienced but more worldly friends to stop him.(Others more versed in these questions than me will be able to rule whether he was wearing a pink sweater in this story or not.)

The first story was written for Big Finish by Rebecca Levene and Gareth Roberts; with their track records, it's not surprising that in several ways it's the most televisual of the audio stories, and also a self-aware parody of elements of the original series. Gary Russell wrote the second story, The Deadliest Species, and it is again a homage to some of the less praiseworthy aspects of the television series, but uses it as a springboard to start to question the format. Where the 1970s television series and its 1990s successor both postulated that a human race which was incapable of killing other people was an evolutionary leap forward, Big Finish's Tomorrow People live in a harder world. Several times in the series homo superior are told that their evolutionary pattern offends Darwinian principles. Much later Craig Hinton's Spiritus Mundi offers listeners homo thanatos, which, apart from being linguistically tortuous (though, I suppose, no worse than television) suggests that homo superior are one chromosome away from becoming something decidedly inhuman. This is after the limitations of the Tomorrow People have been well and truly delineated, with a few lines that really should have been used on television: when Paul tells Elena in The Deadliest Species that he's 'good in a scrap', Elena replies “Not any more, you're not.” The insistence that Tomorrow People can't kill other people is overturned when the murderer of Kenny and Hsui Tai is revealed to be Stephen, who has become a victim of Stockholm syndrome and has become a tool of a Sorson assassination plot.

The Sorsons were thinly sketched on television, and Gary Russell's script turns them into imitation Daleks. This is still early days for the audio series: having the Sorsons screaming 'Sorsons are supreme!' en masse suggests that the listeners won't expect anything with integrity of its own. In similar vein, the scene where John and TIM react to the death of Hsui Tai must be one of the least sincere performances in the history of performance. Much of The Deadliest Species exists to establish the Big Finish series' attitude towards the Tomorrow People canon, which is established as including not only the 1970s series but also the 1990s series. The 1990s Tomorrow People, though, are treated by TIM as outside the loop, as if they were not part of the project.

This sense of a project shows that amid the silliness of the early Big Finish Tomorrow People stories lie the pointers towards the way the series will develop. The way in which the newly broken-out Paul is told, deadpan, that he is now an agent of the Galactic Federation, and that he doesn't have a choice in the matter, might have been greeted by listeners with amusement, as a matter-of-fact statement of what the original series had taken for granted: that once someone had gained their telepathic, psychokinetic and teleporting powers they would want to use them for the good of wider humanity. In the care of Big Finish, it becomes fairly clear early on that the Tomorrow People as we have known them are John's project. Stephen can be turned by the Sorsons because he harbours a lingering resentment against the uses to which John has put him, and John can't wholly disavow what Stephen alleges (though at this point the accusations are pitched in such a way that the series could never have picked them up again).

In the third story, The Ghosts of Mendez, the audience is introduced to art gallery 'C.E.O.' (they normally have directors, surely?) Georgie Franklin, mocked by Paul as one of John's ”hippy love-chicks”, but seemingly a very early Tomorrow Person, who was romantically involved with John but disagreed with his understanding of the Tomorrow People's mission, and left to pursue her own career without letting her powers dominate her. Georgie isn't greatly developed before she is absorbed into the gestalt creature which is the 'A' threat of the story, a sort of homage to the creature in The Quatermass Experiment. The 'B' threat is Caine, played by Big Finish regular Maggie Stables, who runs the research project into homo superior at DERA. The use of this acronym perpetuates the television series' preference for referring to real world institutions, such as the KGB and the SIS in The Dirtiest Business, though in the audio dramas characters perpetually spell out the name by its initials rather than pronounce it as one word which is more normal. Caine is a thoroughly ruthless character who regards all people as potential experimental subjects, and she is one of the most effective recurring characters in the series, all the more so because the Tomorrow People have little awareness of Caine's involvement in their affairs. Listening to The Sign of Diolyx, the overlong fourth instalment, the sacrifice of emergent Tomorrow Person Alison's powers to protect the world, without asking her, is one of many questionable actions throughout: John and Paul's attempt to recruit Alison early in the episode borders on intimidation. The episode is also worth noting as a variation on televised Doctor Who's The Stones of Blood, and its showcasing of one of the giants of cult TV acting beloved of Big Finish casting, Gareth Thomas, here in Welsh mode a few years before his similar turn in Torchwood.

Next part – more on John's development, and on shifts in self-awareness.