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Timeslip (1970-1971) is one of many ITV science fiction and fantasy series seen as rivals to Doctor Who. With an audio revival from Big Finish approaching, Andrew O’Day looks at its relationship with its near-contemporary Doctor Who story Inferno.
Discussions of the ATV children’s series Timeslip (1970-71) generally position the programme in opposition to the BBC’s Doctor Who. Timeslip was developed by Ruth and James Boswell, and instigated by Renee Goddard (then head of scripts at ATV), for transmission on Monday afternoons at 5.20pm as the last ITV children’s programme of the day before the ITN evening news bulletin. Its lead writer Bruce Stewart said their intention was to produce a programme more rooted in contemporary issues than Doctor Who. (None of those involved would have known anything about the shift in Doctor Who’s tone and content intended for the 1970 season). As a series concerning contemporary misuse of technology, Timeslip is more often compared with the BBC’s Doomwatch (1970-72) than with the time-travelling Doctor, even though Timeslip too involved journeys through time. However, there are connections between Timeslip and Doctor Who, particularly regarding the serial Inferno (1970). This article will explore this intertextuality, but as Timeslip was screened so shortly after this Doctor Who it would be foolhardy to claim that one influenced the other.
Don Houghton’s Inferno begins on our Earth where Professor Stahlman is drilling through the Earth’s crust to harness energies found near the Earth’s core. After the first episode the Doctor is transported with the TARDIS console not to a future version of this Earth, but rather, as he puts it, sideways to a parallel Earth. The parallel world sees Great Britain as a fascist republic, paying homage to George Orwell’s Nineteen eighty-four, where the Doctor encounters distorted counterparts of the characters from ordinary Earth: the Brigadier’s double is the Brigade Leader, complete with sinister eye patch, and the scientist Liz Shaw’s double is the military officer Section Leader Elizabeth Shaw. A poster reading ‘UNITY IS STRENGTH’ is pinned to the wall and just as in the BBC’s 1954 adaptation of Orwell’s novel, a portrait of design department head Roy Oxley was used as the face of future autocrat Big Brother, a portrait of visual effects department head John Kine from that adaptation was placed here. The drilling on this parallel Earth is more advanced, and what the Doctor sees happen on this parallel world is what would occur on our Earth were Professor Stahlman not stopped. A sense of doom is associated with the parallel world, where the Doctor cannot put things right and where all the counterparts meet their demise as lava engulfs the world. However, the Doctor is able to escape back to our Earth and although his warnings are, as in the parallel world, ignored, Professor Stahlman transforms into a Primord (creatures created by a scorching green ooze from the drilling) before the Earth’s crust is penetrated and the Doctor kills him with a fire extinguisher. There is hence a pattern of a space and time traveller witnessing what would happen in the future and returning to the everyday to resolve matters.
The first Timeslip serial, The Wrong End of Time, sees the children Simon Randall and Liz Skinner go through a time barrier from 1970 into the past of the 1940s during the Second World War. There, they meet younger versions of Liz’s father Frank and the mysterious Mr Traynor, here Frank’s commanding officer in the Royal Navy. In the second serial The Time of the Ice Box, the children encounter the first alternate future in an Antarctica of 1990, comparable with the parallel Earth of Inferno, which provided a vision of what could happen on future Earth. In The Time of the Ice Box, Simon and Liz are taken to a biological research base where experiments are being carried out on human volunteers primarily into producing the longevity drug HA57. At the research base, there are future versions of Liz’s mother and Liz herself (an emotionless scientist known as Beth) whereas in Inferno there were parallel versions of characters from the Doctor’s Earth. Furthermore, Liz’s father Frank has been buried in the ice for a decade as an experiment and this future Liz quite naturally wants to ensure never occurs.
The third serial, The Year of the Burn Up, provides another alternate future, again of the year 1990. Contrasting with the cold future of The Time of the Ice Box, the possible future in Burn Up sees Simon and Liz arrive in an England which is covered in tropical rainforest. Once again, there is a future version of Liz and here also of Simon. Liz’s older self is again Beth, but unlike in the previous serial this Beth is a character that Liz aspires to be like, a hippy figure who lives in a village with others who have rebelled against technocracy. Simon’s older self, meanwhile, is known by the number 2957, has usurped Commander Traynor’s role as director of the Ministry of Forward Development, and is hence charged with implementing a master plan. In revenge, Traynor sabotages the ministry’s computer, which results in catastrophic global warming. Those in this future thus seem doomed, corresponding with the end of episode six of Inferno when those on the parallel Earth are engulfed by lava. As Pete Boss notes ‘an alternate 1990 Britain [is] pitched somewhere between the Wellsian and the Orwellian’ (Boss, 53) and in this way the serial also echoes Inferno. Where in Inferno an elitist dictatorship with its own Big Brother figure is overturned from underground as the green substance drawn from the Earth by Stahlman’s project turns people into Primords who resemble the Morloks of Wells’s The Time Machine, in The Year of the Burn-Up Beth’s pastoral Misfits can be compared to Wells’s Eloi being overthrown by technocrats who with their subjection of nature and landscape to the capabilities of machines are effectively hyper-educated Morloks.
The final serial, The Day of the Clone, sees Simon and Liz in the present of 1970 and recent past of 1965, making sure that the alternate futures they have witnessed do not occur. Timeslip thereby follows a similar pattern to Inferno where the Doctor returns to our Earth and makes it so that events do not follow those in the parallel world which were a possible future. In The Day of the Clone it transpires that Traynor’s superior in 1965, Morgan C. Devereaux, is responsible for the alternate futures that Simon and Liz have witnessed. Devereaux has cloned Traynor, who was a threat to his project, But time can be rewritten so that the dystopian futures do not occur and the real Traynor is released from his prison in 1970 while his clone is disposed of in the time barrier by an invisible force.
The forms of Inferno and Timeslip differ. Twentieth-century Doctor Who is a series of serials, comprising a certain number of episodes. Inferno is a seven-episode serial, with each episode lasting approximately twenty-five minutes, where the narrative of the parallel world and our Earth is self-contained. Therefore, the following Doctor Who serial, which would actually start the next season, was completely different. Timeslip is also a series of serials, with the series lasting twenty-six episodes and each serial having its own title. However, Timeslip differs from Inferno since the serials are not self-contained but all contribute to an overarching narrative. Simon and Liz first visit the past and then witness alternate futures in the first three serials, and then the fourth and final serial is explanatory and involves things being put right so that the alternate futures do not occur.
There are other Doctor Who serials which present alternate futures with which Timeslip can be compared. Day of the Daleks (1972), for example, provides a vision of an alternate future where the Daleks have enslaved mankind and it is up to the Doctor to ensure that this does not happen. Later, in Pyramids of Mars (1975), the Doctor provides Sarah Jane Smith with a devastating vision of what the Earth would look like in her time of 1980 were Sutekh not stopped in the early twentieth century. Post-2005 Doctor Who has also presented parallel universes. There are also many other science fiction programmes that present parallel worlds or alternate futures but the scope of this article has been limited to comparing 1970 Doctor Who and its contemporary Timeslip in a way not done before.
I’d like to thank Dr Matthew Kilburn for his encouragement with this article as well as my muse Dr Anjili Babbar and Richard Harris and Tim Harris for their continued friendship.
Tides 44 is, at time of publication, available to buy through this link
Arnold, Jeff, ‘Breaking Barriers’, Time Screen: The Magazine of British Telefantasy, 9 (1986).
Barnes, Alan, ‘The Fact of Fiction: Inferno’, Doctor Who Magazine 436, 50-60.
Boss, Pete, ‘Timeslip: Putting Aside Childish Things’, Lorna Jowett, Kevin Lee Robinson and David Simmons, eds, Time on TV: Narrative Time, Time Travel and Time Travellers in Popular Television Culture, London: I.B. Tauris, 2016, 43-56.
Chapman, James. Inside the TARDIS: The Worlds of Doctor Who. 2nd ed, London: I.B. Tauris, 2013.
Stewart, Bruce, ‘Timeslip Memories Part Two’, timeslip.org.uk, 2002.