Cyberworld or Nuthutch? Dualities and debts in Doctor Who and Timeslip

Image Credit: Matthew Kilburn

Image Description: The Timeslip novel 

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, Matthew Kilburn considers some of its broader associations with Doctor Who

Timeslip was broadcast between 28 September 1970 and 22 March 1971. Over twenty-six weeks viewers watched as Liz Skinner (Cheryl Burfield) and Simon Randall (Spencer Banks) travelled between their present of 1970 and projections of different pasts and futures through a time barrier located by the fence of a disused Second World War naval base. As the narrative develops it becomes apparent they are exploring the career of the enigmatic Commander Charles Traynor (Denis Quilley), Liz’s father’s commanding officer at the base in 1940, a manipulative but initially benign force in the present, and either absent or a dangerously dualized participant in potential and actualized futures.

Timeslip is a touchstone both for children’s television drama of the period and for science fiction and fantasy television. It is a multicamera video production, like Doctor Who was for almost all its twentieth-century run, but uses video cameras on location too rather than or as well as film. Some series had already done this, such as the detective series Public Eye (1965-1975) when based in Birmingham, but Doctor Who would not until Robot (1974/75). Although children’s output was one of the least-developed parts of ATV, Timeslip benefited from writers with strong track records–Bruce Stewart and Victor Pemberton–and an imaginative in-house co-creator, Ruth Boswell, who script-edited the entire series.

Unlike Doctor Who, but anticipating later contemporary children’s series, it spends a lot of time on relationships. The growing attachment between Liz and Simon is underplayed, especially in the first serial when both Cheryl Burfield (then eighteen) and Spencer Banks (then sixteen) seem to play well below their actual ages, but there is a definite shift during the second serial. In the third serial, The Year of the Burn-Up, Simon travels to the future on his own. Liz, in 1970, is unable to explain to her parents why she wants to make sure Simon is all right, to which her father responds that his little girl has suddenly become a big girl. It’s in The Year of the Burn-Up that Cheryl was able to change out of her jumper and tartan skirt and into an outfit which was still youthful but which was not trying to pass her off as an early adolescent.

This maturing of Liz comes during the first of two stories in which she meets versions of her future self. In The Time of the Ice Box Liz meets the cold,
methodical Beth, who underwent mental enhancement training, including drug therapy ten years into Liz’s future and emerged as the loyal servant of a centrally-directed society who addresses her mother by her first name without any sign of affection and who could only find a place for her father at the Ice Box by making him into a subject for an experiment in cryogenic suspension. Beth is a true cyberwoman, adapted to a cybernetic society where relationships and resources alike are closely regulated. Amidst technology, machines and clones, she is a loyal technocrat with little independent identity.

Simon’s projected future is also as a technocrat, but in different circumstances. He needs no training beyond marination in the bureaucracy of Traynor’s Ministry of Forward Development. Perhaps consequently, he’s more susceptible to supporting the Burn-Up’s Beth than the Ice Box’s Beth is to protecting her family, although the deployment of traditional societal gender assumptions must of course be a factor here. Ice Box’s Beth is masculinized by a society whose leadership is represented by a male clone–this is a society which can, if it wants, do without women (or indeed without gender). In contrast Beth of the Burn-Up is a nurturer extreme, mother of a colony who have rebelled against technocracy and who use technology sparingly, and who keeps the Simon of this future losing the last traces of his compassion and empathy despite pressures from his place at the apex of the scientific-administrative hierarchy.

Doctor Who could never quite make an entire story about the deception and abuse of youth, despite this being a concern of the late 1960s and its anxiety about the rise and the nature of youth culture, its inspiration and its betrayal. It touched on the subject in The Enemy of the World (1967/68), The Dominators (1968) and The Krotons (1968/69). Timeslip’s The Day of the Clone faces this head on, revealing that the elderly inhabitants of a government research centre in 1970 were young people in 1965, aged prematurely by longevity drugs which will never work. In Doctor Who terms, the project founded by Morgan Devereaux wants to turn human beings into figures rather like the Time Lords of The War Games, but the results of the project express the stagnation implicit in the great powers such beings would wield, and includes the brutal failsafe of unpredicted rapid ageing to which the unhappy students are sacrificed.

Timeslip’s limited run didn’t allow it to explore its own potential for longevity. While Traynor’s final comments to Liz and Simon suggest that they might use the time barrier again, the audience never find out whether they do, or whether as they grow out of its secret they might pass it on to younger children. Its format is tied to an awareness that a quarter of a century had passed since the end of the Second World War; it considers the development of society and technology since the war and displays scepticism about centrally-directed improvement and its susceptibility to the vagaries of personal ambition, as well as questioning the effectiveness of those who would claim, like Burn-Up Beth, that small is beautiful. In this it is at odds with much Doctor Who of the early 1970s which celebrates communal life on a small scale–see Colony in Space (1971) and The Green Death (1973)–or expresses faith in liberal-minded technocracy, such as UNIT under the benevolent influence of the Doctor.

Timeslip endured in the memory of those who watched it. A comic strip based on the series endured for nearly two years in Look-In, the ‘Junior TV Times’, from the magazine’s launch in January 1971 to December 1972. Although Liz and Simon were seen off on their first adventure in Look-In by Commander Traynor and Liz’s parents, with Liz’s mother unable to maintain a telepathic link with her, this element was immediately dropped and Liz and Simon embarked on a series of adventures with little or no relation to the present day. Commander Traynor resurfaced in the fourth Look-In story as an eccentric motivated by the hope of finding treasure in a seventeenth-century shipwreck, with the children travelling back in time of their own volition to establish the ship’s location. Liz and Simon were drawn as children of about ten or eleven, more identifiable from the point of view of the target audience of Look-In. Nevertheless, Cheryl Burfield and Spencer Banks made appearances as themselves in Look-In too, in Cheryl’s case as a cover star. Look-In launched at the same time as Countdown, a ‘space age comic’ with similar glossy production values, which included a Doctor Who strip; the two series were in more direct competition in illustrated form than they ever were on television.

Lastly, it was another print incarnation of Timeslip which might have had a greater influence on the direction of Doctor Who. In 1970 Pan Books published Timeslip, a novelization of the first two serials (right). It was one of a small number of books from Pan aimed at a young readership tying in with film and television programmes. In 1971 this range expanded into a new children’s paperback imprint, Piccolo, which included a reissue of the Timeslip book. The 1972 wave of Piccolo titles included The Making of Doctor Who, the first non-fiction book about Doctor Who. Its authors Terrance Dicks and Malcolm Hulke became the mainstays of the Doctor Who novelizations which rival children’s imprint Target began publishing in 1973. The Timeslip novelization is an indirect ancestor of the Doctor Who fiction range.

Tides 44 is, at time of publication, available to buy through this link

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