Days of Future Passed

David Sheldrick on Timeslip

First published March 2002

It happened in the afternoon
When soon enough was not too soon
A man was walking on the moon
Like they used to do
And I was sitting on the steps
Waiting for whatever next

- “And On We Go” by Stephen Duffy – The Lilac Time, Fontana, 1990

For me, these words perfectly encapsulate the sense of a ’60s childhood. On the one hand its ordinariness – the “sitting on the steps”, the sense of boredom as well as of discovery and freedom in “whatever next” – and on the other, this ordinariness being played out against a background of extraordinary events like the 1969 moon walk and a child’s vague awareness of the burgeoning psychedelic culture, a barely glimpsed kaleidoscope of possibilities beyond suburban middle England. Looking back, as the writer does here, the moon landings are viewed not so much with wonder, but almost with nonchalance, fondness and not a little melancholy – these magical events which have become collectively interwoven with our pasts; their innocence, and ours, are no more.

For a child of the late ’60s, much of the “otherness” of that time was viewed through television – whether the Apollo space missions or Top of the Pops. It’s difficult to believe now how incredibly subversive – and somehow liberating – it was then just to see men with long hair on the box.

In 1970, Timeslip (ATV, 1970 – 71) took ’60s otherness and showed how it might make itself felt to contemporary children, a hole in a fence leading to other realities, an extended journey of the imagination. In its sense of possibilities it was very ’60s. But its particular take on that sense of possibilities was very ’70s. It was about time – the influence of the past and dystopian visions of the future. It also looked as much within as without, asking questions about our identities and histories and asking who we might become. Whereas many ’60s outings in telefantasy were essentially optimistic, forward-looking hi-tech space adventures (most Gerry Anderson, Star Trek) or surreal, playful fantasy (The Avengers, Adam Adamant, the style if not always the intent of The Prisoner), Timeslip had a more ’70s self-examining, even downbeat feel, searching the past and questioning the future, not merely reaching forwards to a bright new tomorrow.

By 1970, the forward rush of the ’60s had all but exhausted itself and a more doubting, self-examining mood set in. The space race, which seemed to encapsulate the expansiveness and optimism of the ’60s, began to feel a little misplaced in the new age of economic uncertainty. In this introspective mood, time rather than space became a greater preoccupation. In adult television, this expressed itself rather conservatively in the form of historical dramas like The Six Wives of Henry VIII (BBC, 1970), Elizabeth R (BBC, 1971) and the nostalgic Upstairs Downstairs (LWT, 1971 – 75), but in children’s television, ideas around time found more imaginative expression as a whole mini-genre of supernatural/fantasy dramas grew up: Catweazle (LWT, 1970 – 71), Jamie (LWT, 1971), Shadows (Thames, 1975 – 78), The Georgian House (HTV, 1975), Nobody’s House (Tyne-Tees, 1976), Children of the Stones (HTV, 1977), Raven (ATV, 1978), Come Back Lucy (ATV, 1978), The Clifton House Mystery (HTV, 1978), Echoes of Louisa (ATV, 1982). All of these series concerned themselves in some way with time, or more particularly, the past. Sapphire and Steel, (ATV, 1979 – 82) although not a children’s series was originally intended as such and is worthy of mention here as being one of the ultimate time series. The BBC did contribute to the genre but tended to do so in the form of more conventional adaptations of novels like Tom’s Midnight Garden (BBC, 1974). What distinguished most of the ITV series is that (with one or two exceptions) they were written specifically for television. Perhaps the most notable BBC contribution was The Changes (BBC, 1975), based on Peter Dickinson’s trilogy of books and concerned with the turning back of time in often violent ways. The Changes was also steeped in very ’70s values of nostalgia for a perceived golden pre-industrial England and these “natural”, anti-technology values are also very present in Timeslip. All these series have a sense of the past as being very much alive, something we can tap into (Timeslip), or something which can impose itself on the present (The Changes). So, overall, ’70s children’s television drama was something of a haunted beast.

Timeslip is important because it pioneered the “time series” of the ’70s and did so more ambitiously and with greater complexity than any of its successors. (Granada’s The Owl Service of 1969 could be seen as paving the way.) Timeslip‘s format of four distinct but vitally interconnected stories over an amazing 26 weeks makes it unique. More amazing still is the fact that although themes and storylines are interwoven within and between the four stories, each stands up well on its own and even dipping into an episode at random one is caught by the sense of urgency of the script, acting and direction. Crucially, the series never loses its child’s eye but equally it refuses to patronize, dealing with a range of complex issues never touched on before in children’s television – this was script editor Ruth Boswell’s aim when she created the series.

How often as children did some feature of our neighbourhood arouse our imagination – an abandoned outhouse, a boarded-up building, even a rubbish tip – and present the possibility of darker, stranger more exciting worlds? In Timeslip, Liz and Simon pass through a hole in a fence to the past or the future. They live our childhood nightmares in all their terror as well as excitement and we journey with them. It’s the series’ combination of traditional children’s adventure story and SF elements which makes it so compelling. The tautness of the storytelling, the sense of adventure, the keenness of Liz and Simon’s reactions encourage our own. Despite the complexity of the concepts and themes explored, as storytelling Timeslip remains always direct and clear-headed. The intertwining of the physical and the psychic, the personal and the political (for want of a better word) is another of Timeslip‘s strengths. The worlds Liz and Simon inhabit are not generalized ones but highly particular, inextricably bound up with their own histories and identities. What forces made them? Who are they and what might they become? Is Liz to be the manipulative Beth of the Ice Box or the fearless earth-mother of the Burn-Up? In fact, it’s almost possible to see the series as a kind of adolescent rite of passage for Liz and Simon expressed in psychic/supernatural terms – their attempts to come to terms with themselves, Liz’s family and the world they are about to inherit.

For all its pessimism in presenting our sometimes unsympathetic future selves and their heartless worlds, overall Timeslip could be seen as essentially optimistic because these futures are only projections. As the series points out, the future is not fixed and certain but one of a number of alternatives created in the light of the present, something we can control. This is a very ’60s idea of the world, one of infinite possibilities but tinged with a ’70s note of caution – some of those possibilities are dystopian, even dangerous and the series is a plea to examine the current trends which may bring these about. Doomwatch (BBC, 1970 – 72) used similar extrapolatory devices to explore ecological and other ideas – so too, in its way, did the excellent 1970 Doctor Who parallel world story “Inferno”.

The two young leads serve Timeslip well. Spencer Banks as Simon brings an air of boffinish enthusiasm to the role, verging on the right side of geekiness. Cheryl Burfield as Liz – petulant, girlish, spirited, sometimes a little too relentlessly whiny – complements him well. Their growing affection for each other is nicely underplayed as their adventures bring them closer. Spencer Banks was to become something of a stalwart of ’70s “time television”, appearing in The Georgian House and David Rudkin’s Penda’s Fen, (BBC, 1974) amongst others.

To take each of the four stories in turn, “The Wrong End of Time” is probably the second strongest of the four. The opening episode – seen from a 21st century perspective – has interesting things to tell us about childhood in 1970. For example, it’s noticeable how similar to the adults in the series Liz and Simon’s clothes are. Their school holidays are the stuff of legend – in the first episode the much anticipated six weeks of freedom give way to a reality of emptiness and not much to do. They are very much left to entertain themselves in a way which seems at odds with the shepherded experience of many of today’s children. The rural landscape around St Oswald seems unyielding. There are none of the theme parks and visitor attractions of today, just father’s idyll of a summer’s gentle caravanning to wile away the time – “all alone in the English countryside” as Liz comments. Playstations, mobiles, Walkmans and other distractions are still two or three decades away. Yet it is this very unclutteredness which allows the imagination freedom to take form. The mystery of the nearby deserted naval station asserts itself and a spell is cast.

The wartime setting is interesting. By 1970, the World War II was 30 years old and a whole generation had grown up with no memory of the war nor of the austerity and conscription which followed it. It’s as if by 1970 we could afford to take a backward glance at the War and view that time as another world, just as the changes of the ’60s were sweeping away much of its legacy – deference to authority, one voice Britain, moral certainty, the remnants of a post-war militarized society. Wartime settings emerged in a number of TV series around this time – A Family at War (Granada, 1970 – 72), Colditz (BBC, 197 2- 74) and of course Dad’s Army (BBC, 1968 – 78), but Timeslip was unique in showing how this other world can still penetrate into the present of 1970 where key questions about the past remain unanswered. Frank Skinner has lost his memory of the war years but the children recover it for him by living through their father’s earlier trauma.

The sense of claustrophobia and threat at the Naval Station are well realized. Thankfully, the Germans are not portrayed in a clich├ęd jackbooted manner and the relationship between Traynor and Gottfreid is well drawn, especially when the latter’s appeal to Traynor as a fellow scientist fails and Traynor feels sorry for him.

The sense that all the 1970 characters are struggling to understand something entirely new and uncharted – time travel – emerges strongly. Traynor’s charming manipulativeness masks a greedy fascination. Jean’s gift of “seeing” what is happening in 1940 but being powerless to influence events, is poignant, especially her night-time walk to the time barrier when she “sees” Liz being shot in 1940. The speculation amongst the adults about what is happening to Liz and Simon, the discussion about time travel and about the nature of time itself are handled with a seriousness which lends a real edge to the children’s experiences – can they be killed in the past or only in the future? Can time be “changed”? How can they return to the present? Is what they are experiencing real or subjective? – according to Traynor it is the latter. Everyone’s reactions are credible, therefore our interest is maintained.

“The Wrong End of Time” could almost be a standalone story. It lacks the common threads which ingeniously link its three successors. The final episode, where Liz and Simon pass through the time barrier, fully expecting to return to 1970 but instead find themselves in a frozen wasteland, is perhaps the most startlingly effective of the series’ cliff-hangers because it is so completely unexpected and so utterly strange.

“The Time of the Ice Box”, set in 1990, is, for me, the strongest of the four stories because suddenly we are introduced to a plethora of adult subjects – cloning, brain-computer links, a longevity drug, spare-part surgery, not to mention a kind of virtual-reality fantasy machine – all interwoven into a complex and compelling plot. The dramatic stakes are raised because Liz and Simon are to be the subjects of some particularly gruesome experiments in replacement limbs and because Liz has a disturbing glimpse of her possible future in Beth whom she can barely recognize as herself. The story is driven by questions surrounding the longevity drug (the “sudden ageing” death of Edith Joynton is perhaps the single most horrific moment of the series), the identity of the Institute’s strange leader Devereux (an excellent Max Headroom like John Barron) and ultimately the whereabouts of Frank, Liz’s father. What happened to the family in the last 20 years to bring them to such a hellish place as the Ice Box? For children’s television it is hard-hitting stuff and an air of menace is never too far away. Beth is frightened of the past, Liz of the future and Simon … the coldly detached side of Simon begins to manifest itself. He cannot help but be fascinated by what he sees around him and unlike Liz is easily able to put aside “unscientific” reactions of horror.

Visually, it’s very like late ’60s Doctor Who in its Troughtonesque claustrophobic style – banks of flashing computers and reel-to reel tapes, pop-art costumes, oh and Larry’s Mungo Jerry-like haircut. Viewing in black and white perhaps enhances this sense of Timeslip looking like a ’60s series (all but one episode of Timeslip survives only as black and white footage). It may also add to its sense of authenticity, ironing out the studio feel of the icescape.

A rare use of incidental music occurs in “Icebox” – when Liz walks across the ice towards the barrier then pauses to find her father encased in ice. Generally the lack of music in Timeslip adds to its austerity (again, parallels with “Inferno” which is probably one of the bleakest Doctor Who stories and likewise makes very little use of music).

After the dramatic momentum of the “Time of the Ice Box”, you just want the next story to crank up the tension another notch or two. In this respect, “Year of the Burn-Up”, set in an alternative 1990, fails to deliver and is probably the weakest of the four stories. The pace slackens somewhat, perhaps because this story is more concerned with the relationship between Liz and Simon than its predecessors. It would have benefited from being trimmed to six episodes maximum, like its companions. The scene in which Simon easily overcomes a clone with a lamp is one of the few really clunking, badly choreographed pieces in the series. The scrambles across the rocks are less than exciting and episode five’s cliff-hanger is far too melodramatic (thankfully Alpha 4′s staring eyes are left out of the reprise at the start of the next episode). Studio jungles rarely work well on television; this is better than some (Doctor Who‘s brightly lit “Kinda”) but not as atmospheric as others (‘Who‘s “Planet of Evil”). The supporting characters are less engaging than in certainly the two earlier stories and it’s difficult to become too upset at the fate of Vera’s cabbages. 2957 as Simon’s future self is also a little irritating – a fussy bureaucrat rather than the brilliant scientist one might have expected. And why those tightly buttoned three-piece suits in the soaring temperatures?

In casting an eye to the future, Timeslip often showed remarkable prescience in its choice of themes. Two ideas central to “Year of the Burn-Up” are cloning and climate change – both now realities of life in the 21st century.

Denis Quilley’s deranged, messianic Traynor, with his wild white hair and obsessive eyes, is by far the most interesting character here. The charming man of 1970 has become a victim of his own meglomaniacal dreams of scientific conquest. Quilley draws on his classical actor’s background throughout the series but no more so than here, with his animatedly impassioned monologues. Just listen to how his voice is raised as he repeatedly talks of “the light … ” (dramatic pause) ” … and the darkness!”

The final episode of “Burn-Up” and all of the final story, “Day of the Clone”, were written by Victor Pemberton, but there is no sense of a change of style from the Bruce Stewart penned episodes. I like the fact that Liz and Simon travel back in time, but only by five years, to a subtly changed landscape – the scenes in which Simon comes tantalizingly close to meeting his younger self are handled with a deft humour. The whole story has a strange feel, perhaps because of its proximity to the present of 1970. Maybe its harder to believe in the extremity of the events shown when they’re happening only five years previously, but this knowledge does add an edge to the narrative, as if Liz and Simon are finally closing in around the mystery. At the end, all is resolved but as Jean, Frank, Liz, Simon and Traynor stand by the barrier and Jean tenderly holds her daughter, fundamentally it’s no cosy ending – they have each been profoundly affected by events and a sense of unease remains. Now the future really begins – but which future is it to be?

Like any television series, Timeslip has its flaws – one of the most often cited is the inconsistencies concerning Traynor’s age. He looks about 50 – 55 in 1970, which would make him only 20 – 25 in 1940 – surely too young to be in charge of a naval station? It is never explained how the time barrier is able to take Liz and Simon to different locations such as The South Pole, as well as different times. Why is some of Jean’s vision of the past “general” and unrelated to Liz’s actual experiences in 1940? What exactly are the images of Beth Liz sees in her bedroom mirror – are they a waking nightmare or a form of psychic link? There are also various cases of characters seeming not to remember events from the past. At one point Simon comments on this as if to acknowledge the inconsistency, but it is never explored further. Some of these apparent flaws are almost inevitable in a series of the length and complexity of Timeslip. They don’t detract from its essential integrity and perhaps only serve to highlight the way in which most issues concerning the vagaries of time-travel are acknowledged so thoroughly.

Overall, the series remains a milestone in children’s television drama, albeit a sadly overlooked one. Its scope, intelligence and ambition – not to mention its sheer length – are possibly unparalleled. Maybe in a parallel time, they still make series like it. And maybe, somewhere, I’m still “sitting on the steps” waiting for such a series to begin.