ITV made several attempts to emulate the success of the BBC’s Doctor Who during the 1970s and I was too young to enjoy most of them. I only remember watching Into the Labyrinth and the tail-end of The Tomorrow People; series such as Ace of Wands and Timeslip passed me by completely. I only really caught up with Timeslip, the Associated Television serial that ran from 1970-1971 much later, in the 90s when it was released on VHS, by which time we were lucky to still have the series at all (and then only in monochrome). I realised what a shame it was that I was too young to enjoy Timeslip when it went out (I was 1 at the time), as this really is quite a splendid example of British children’s science fiction television.
In Timeslip, two teenage schoolchildren Simon Randall (Spencer Banks) and Liz Skinner (Cheryl Burfield) discover a ‘Time Barrier’ whilst exploring an abandoned Naval base near where they are staying on holiday. Climbing through the Barrier (which they have to do on their hands and knees, a neat explanation why no adults have previously stumbled across it) can transport them into the past or into one of many possible futures. In their adventures they encounter both future and past versions of Colonel Traynor (Denis Quilley), Liz’s parents (Derek Benfield and Iris Russell) and Liz and Simon themselves. All of their adventures revolve around the same basic group of characters in different times and places, but are very cleverly tied in together.
The first serial The Wrong End of Time finds Liz and Simon back at the time of the Second World War, when the Naval base was an active part of Britain’s coastal defences under the command of a young Colonel Traynor. Also serving on the base is a young version of Liz’s father Frank (Yes folks, he’s called Frank Skinner) who undergoes some kind of trauma that remains with him to the present day. When the base is raided by German commandoes, it is revealed that this is no ordinary military outpost and Traynor is working on an early form of laser that, if it falls into the hands of the enemy, could affect the outcome of the war. Not only that, but the German commander Gottfried is working for the Soviets in 1970, so it could also affect the present day.
The Wrong End of Time establishes a lot of elements that will carry on throughout the series. Liz’s mother shares a telepathic bond with her daughter, but it is difficult to control and only available when Liz is in the past. Colonel Traynor is involved in the development of new technology and that will also prove an important part of future stories. This adventure is thinly stretched over 6 episodes and there’s a lot of escape and recapture shenanigans, but it never really becomes boring and it’s best to pay attention because a lot of this will prove important in future episodes. Liz and Simon represent two different extremes of human nature – Liz is the heart, always reacting with emotion to events, and Simon is the brains, coming across as something of a boffin. They can both be a bit annoying at times, but their human frailties put them across as more believable characters than the proactive kick-ass superkids of today’s fiction.
The second story is The Time of the Ice Box, which throws Liz and Simon forward in time to futuristic 1990! Can you imagine such a thing? This time they’ve moved in space as well as time, finding themselves at an Antarctic research station whose staff have nicknamed the ‘Ice Box’. Liz is horrified to discover that a future version of her mother is working at the station – then even more horrified to discover that the bitter, ambitious girl called Beth that she’s working with is actually a future version of Liz herself! The chief experiment taking place in the Ice Box is into HA57, a longevity drug, but it turns out that this miracle medicine is not all that it’s cracked up to be. The failure of over-reaching science is a running theme throughout Timeslip and one which we’ll see again and again as the series goes on.
The head of the ‘Ice Box’, Morgan C. Devereaux, is played by John Barron and his performance at first seems puzzlingly eccentric – until it’s revealed that he is in fact the world’s first human clone… and not an entirely successful experiment! This explains the apparent paradox of Colonel Traynor’s assertion that Devereaux is dead in 1970. There’s a much more sci-fi feel to The Time of the Ice Box, not just the ideas; the sets and costumes have a terrific futurist feel that brings to mind Patrick Troughton era Doctor Who stories like The Ice Warriors and The Wheel in Space. At 6 episodes, this story is the same length as The Wrong End of Time, but it feels much fuller, without so much escape-and-capture padding; its only real flaw being that the ending is a trifle abrupt. However, it does have the advantage of having the only surviving colour episode (part 6), which gives us an idea of how splendid this must have looked in its original form.
Taking things to the opposite extreme is The Year of the Burn, where the Time Barrier leads Liz and Simon to a future where the Earth is perishing through Global Warming – even though the phrase was not coined until 5 years later in a Science magazine article by geochemist Wallace Broecker. Southern England is part tropical rainforest, part desert and city-based technocrats (including Simon’s future self, Controller 2957, played by genre favourite David Graham) are deciding the future of mankind. Meanwhile, out in the wilderness, Liz’s future self Beth is completely different from her Ice Box persona, running an artsy hippie commune whilst trying to eke sustenance from the parched earth. Hiding in the corridors of the technocrat HQ is an aged and discredited Traynor, secretly steering the technical control of the weather towards his ‘Master Plan’ and destroying the environment in the process.
In Year of the Burn up, the ideas of cloning and environmental manipulation postulated in the earlier stories are brought to the fore. The whole destruction of the environment angle was topical in 1970 and, if anything, it’s even more so now – though at the time, non-one would have believed that any ruling body would be reckless enough to ignore the obvious deterioration of the world’s weather. The production is quite forward thinking in its casting of a black actress Merdel Jordine in the significant role of Vera and its design of the technocrat costumes being basically white suits with slightly altered lapels looks quite modern. Unfortunately, like the second instalment of Sapphire & Steel, it drags in at an unwieldy 8 episodes; there’s an awful lot of running through jungles and over parched wilderness, which becomes very noticeable after a while. Still, it’s an enjoyable (if padded) story and the studio sets looks fantastic.
For the final instalment of Timeslip, the 6-part serial The Day of the Clone, the regular writer Bruce Stewart stepped down in favour of erstwhile Doctor Who script editor/writer Victor Pemberton. In this intriguing and surprisingly complex story, the Time Barrier takes Liz and Simon not to the distant past or the far future, but to 6 years in the past, where the shadowy government agency that Colonel Traynor works for is being set up. The plot cleverly weaves in all of the elements from the previous stories, with the secret department experimenting with cloning, longevity and sonic mind control. Heading the organisation is the original Morgan C. Devereaux – he may not be a clone, but the version of Traynor they encounter is. Liz and Simon realise that the cloned Traynor is the evil version they met in The Year of the Burn Up and he has to be stopped. But what has happened to the real Traynor?
This is a very clever story and a brave way to end the series; for a time travel show to end with a serial in which the time travel element is minimal is quite unexpected. However, as I said before, this story ties up all of the story threads that have been presented throughout its predecessors, which is more than a lot of modern series for a more grown-up audience have managed to do! There’s a definite development of the characters of Liz and Simon as the series goes on, with the two of them being noticeably more mature in The Day of the Clone than they are in The Wrong End of Time. Timeslip ends with an open door, suggesting that there could be further adventures to be had beyond the Time Barrier, but apart from a recent Big Finish revival (and let’s face it, what series doesn’t have one of those?) the show ended after 24 episodes.
Timeslip is a great series from a time when they really knew how to make kids’ TV. In terms of production values, it towers over both Ace of Wands and The Tomorrow People, rivalling the best that Doctor Who had to offer at the time. It’s a real shame that, save for a single episode, the series only exists in monochrome, as it would be great to see more of it in its original colour format. Though there’d never be a full run in colour, as some episodes of The Day of the Clone were filmed during the ITV colour strike of the early 70s and only ever existed in black & white. There’s also a very good tie-in novel by Bruce Stewart based on parts of The Wrong End of Time and The Time of the Ice Box, which is well worth a read if you can get your hands on it, and a gorgeous Look-In comic strip that is well overdue a collected edition! Timeslip might get overlooked a bit in favour of some of the bigger, glossier sci-fi of the 70s, but it certainly deserves a place in the high ranks of Great British sci-fi telly!