The Tomorrow People was a cult UK fantasy show in the 1970s. But a new pilot with a with a US budget, proves nostalgia ain't what it used to be….
Stephen Jameson (Robbie Amell) has problems. It’s not the fact that his crazy father vanished years ago, leaving his family in debt; it’s not the fact that he’s gone off his medications and is starting to hear voices. No, it’s the fact that every so often he wakes up far away from his own home. Today, he woke up in bed with his neighbours – and, no, they weren’t happy.
His mother (24's Sarah Clarke) is sympathetic but weary and exasperated – she can barely hold down the jobs she has while keeping an eye on her teenage sons and life is genrally hard. It’s about to get harder for Stephen when he begins to realise that the voice in his head possibly ISN'T a sign that he’s inherited his absent father’s ‘illness’ but the telepathic communication from someone called Cara, who says she’s a ‘Tomorrow Person’ and wants to meet him. Before the day is out, Stephen will learn things about his past and his future and find himself in the midst of a life and death battle between those born with special powers of teleportation and telepathy and Ultra, the organisation created to contain them – led by one Jedikiah Price.
Not for the first time the classic UK series gets the reboot treatment, this time situated across the Atlantic and with all the marketing power and glamour of an American network. The real problem here is exactly that: the show has been – and there’s no easier way to break this to the unsuspecting masses – completely and utterly CW’d. It is almost physically impossible for The CW network to create and broadcast television shows that aren’t about beautiful people with (albeit fantastical) first world problems that make lips smoulder, eyes moist and eyebrows gently rise in a way that is never in danger of permanently lining those pretty foreheads. If primetime had to cast a deformed monster, it would still audition the jocks and heart-throbs first because, well…who wants to see ugly people with issues, right? (Case in point the recent Beauty and the Beast revamp). In almost every respect, whether ultimately entertaining or not, every CW show feels as if Mills & Boon and Maybelline are sponsoring the Rapture.
But even looking past the cynical beauty template, it’s the practicality and physicality of certain situations that are compromised by logic as well. It is utterly impossible to believe that even in the great dramatic sandbox that is televisual High School that the likes of lead actor Robbie Amell (yes, cousin of Arrow’s equally chisel-chinned Stephen Amell) as Stephen Jameson would be bullied by anyone in the western hemisphere. The scene in which he’s regularly pressured for his medication/drugs by another pupil makes you wonder if the casting director was wearing glasses that week because, super-powers or not, said weasely thug would have had his ass handed to him before the lunch-bell rang. The casual way Stephen is not taking medication (even before the ‘voice in his head’ tell him not to) also seems a somewhat casual and dismissive portrayal of real mental health issues, even if used as a simple plot-device.
The touchstones of the original Tomorrow People show are there despite the geographical move to America – the ability to teleport (or ‘jaunt’ as it was more affectionately known back in the Blightly of the 70s), use telepathy and even some telekinesis are all on show, as is the idea of making the base of the ‘Tomorrow People’ a forgotten underground tube/subway station in the heart of the city overseen by a (here-inexplicably) artificial intelligence computer named TIM (to be voiced by Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens). Sadly gone are Tim’s bubbly lava-lamp spheres of old to be replaced by what looks like a mere Mac Computer and a rear-projection unit. The base is a steampunk fan’s wet-dream but looks more like a themed night-club than a dirty, emergency safe-house. To be fair, though, such places do actually exist ( See here ) More subtle nods to the past are there too – even the fact that bad-guy Jedikiah has the surname ‘Price’, hopefully a doff of the hat to the original’s creator Roger Price.
Amell makes do with an average script that seems determined to make him inoffensive to anyone, with 90210/Flash Forward’s Peyton List as Cara, required to simply look like Smallville/Beauty & the Beast’s Kristen Kreuk and Australian actor Luke Mitchell playing a rebellious ‘John’ that is light years from Nicholas Young’s straight-laced character. Mark Pellegrino is always a solid boo-hiss villain (see LOST, Supernatural, Being Human-US) and here gets to play a… solid boo-hiss villain.
The original Tomorrow People – even viewed through the very rose-coloured glasses of nostalgia – was often held together by sticky-tape and sheer force of will, limited by sometimes embarassingly miniscule budgets and ever-more outrageous plots before its eventual demise. However when it left Thames Television screens in the late 70s, it had still managed to tackle the idea of mind-controlled gang culture (in the memorable The Blue and the Green where changing paintings altered the power-plays of others) and even had one later episode The Dirtiest Business where a person committed suicide rather than have her powers exploited). Tough stuff for tea-time kiddie-winks. Add the fact that the original’s memorable opening theme imagery/music (second only in this reviewer's opinion to the distinctive tones of Doctor Who) (find it here) has now also been consigned to history… well it’s just a damn shame.
The truth is that this CW version is not terrible… it’s just bland, over-manicured, trust-fund chic and generically so outfitted that it might as well have product placement running through the middle. Sometimes that's enough to attract ratings. In the UK, a contemporary reboot would likely have looked more like Misfits and seen a more disparate range of 'character' actors on show . It's entirely possible that my opinion of the revamp is coloured by my fond childhood memories. But there's one singular moment when the show's colours are on show and it loses me forever. When Cara describes herself as a 'Tomorrow Person' she adds that 'No, we didn't come up with the name…' and rolls her eyes. Right there is a revamp assimilating a brand and quietly trashing it too.
The bottom line…today’s Tomorrow People, without something to quickly differentiate it, will likely appear to be a watered-down version of not the original show or even the UK’s 1990s domestic attempt to revive it (neither widely known in the US) but of much more recent American offerings such as Heroes (and not even the better first season). Despite some good intentions and hints of potential within, there’s just no real depth on show here, merely lip-gloss and lip-service.
The Tomorrow People circa 2013 may have been built to fill a gap, but it’s populated who apparently wouldn’t be seen dead at the Gap store. Not awful… merely awfully tepid and generic, this latest version of Tomorrow only makes this reviewer pine for Yesterday once more.
The Tomorrow People airs on America’s The CW from 9th October and will be broadcast on the UK’s E4 in early 2014.