Big Finish Review: Timeslip Volumes 1 & 2
The latest British television property to be revived by audio drama company Big Finish Productions is the 1970 ATV science fiction series Timeslip. The series, conceived for a childhood audience, received acclaim for its ambitious discussion of scientific and moral issues with a narrative complexity that did not underestimate the erudition of its viewers.
The two Big Finish-produced serials follow very much in the tradition of the original series, both in tone – by dealing with topical issues like war and overpopulation – and format – with both serials consisting of six half-hour episodes. Returning to their original roles are Spencer Banks and Cheryl Burfield, who are joined by Sarah Sutton, Orlando Gibbs and Amanda Shodeko.
The Age of the Death Lottery and The War That Never Was are directed by Helen Goldwyn and produced by David Richardson. Both volumes are available from the Big Finish website. Here are the synopses...
The Age of the Death Lottery by Andrew Smith
Decades after their childhood experiences passing through a mysterious ‘time barrier’ that could transmit people into the past and the future, two adults - Simon Randall and Liz Skinner - encounter two youths from the 1980s, Neil and Jade... and realise the barrier is open again.
Following them through the barrier in search of a missing friend, they find themselves many years into the future, when over-population has brought the Earth to its knees. So a radical reform has been undertaken - a mass culling of parts of the population known as the Death Lottery. Not everyone supports this idea. Rebels know as refusers battle the government and the sinister Enforcement Bureau - and Liz discovers that her old friend Charlotte may be responsible for the whole thing.
The War That Never Was by Marc Platt
Escaping from the future, our heroes find themselves in the distant past... sort of.
It’s 1953, but a very different 1953 from the one we’re used to. The UK has still not recovered from a second World War that lasted an extra year longer than in our history. The Americans had to step in to save the besieged country, dropping another Atom Bomb on Berlin. They are now running the grateful UK as if it is part of the US and are now expanding their empire against the growing might of the Soviet Union.
The Time Barrier has been discovered and is being studied by a team of scientists, whilst strange items are being smuggled through from different time periods - weapons perhaps, traded with the future? Spivs and racketeers run the streets, and the US Government plan highways through time... And behind it all is a very familiar face.
Timeslip is an intelligent and imaginative speculative fiction series. Although the time travel component of the plot draws comparison with other science fiction series, Timeslip distinguishes itself by its emphasis on thought-provoking social issues and scientific discovery.
The Age of the Death Lottery
The ideas at play in The Age of the Death Lottery are highly relevant to the world in the present day; the consequences of overpopulation are often evaluated scientifically, and potential solutions debated. The serial does not shy away from portraying the immorality of a randomised death cull of the world’s population, nor the ambition of revolutionaries who resist the totalitarian state’s overbearing reach.
The six-part format brings a depth to the narrative that a one- or two-part story simply could not achieve. Writer Andrew Smith devotes much of the runtime to exploring the complexity of the issue and the repercussions of population control. The character of Charlotte Trent (played by Sarah Sutton) is key to this debate: the extreme lengths to which she will go in an effort to manage the global population are fantastical and morally bankrupt, but her actions are laid out believably within the context of her radical-thinking character.
Drawn into this conflict are Jade and Neil, students from 1982 transplanted first into 2020, and then again into 2042. Amanda Shodeko and Orlando Gibbs give impressive naturalistic performances that convincingly sell the threat to their characters, although not without a little humour on Neil’s part. In returning as Simon and Liz, Spencer Banks and Cheryl Burfield take on endearing, quasi-parental roles; the pair’s previous experience travelling through the time barrier proves reassuring not only for Jade and Neil but also for the audience as complications to the plot ensue.
Apart from Doctor Who regular Sarah Sutton, Big Finish listeners may not be overly familiar with the work of much of the cast, which affords the whole series an energising freshness. Avid listeners may pick out the cameos from crew members such as Helen Goldwyn, but otherwise remain free to enjoy the drama as presented without being distracted by a certain actor’s other performances for Big Finish.
The Age of the Death Lottery is a superb serial that effectively utilises its cast, structure and tone to depict an examination of ideas that is at once faithful to the spirit of the original stories and heavily portentous.
The War That Never Was
After encountering an alternative future in the previous serial, The War That Never Was establishes a dangerous alternative past in which Simon, Liz, Jade, Neil and Charlotte become embroiled. The success of this serial is heavily reliant upon Marc Platt’s imaginative flair and narrative talent. There are some superlative story ideas – such as the importing of technology and weapons from the future to the year 1953 – detailed plotting and a tantalising drip-feed of information across the six episodes.
The familiar-yet-different version of Britain lies severely broken after a protracted end to the Second World War, one that involved a third atomic bomb dropped this time on Munich. Owing to extensive American interference in Europe, the UK of this 1953 has become yet another state of the union which celebrates Fourth of July and plays baseball at Lord’s. There is an invasive policy of thought reform, and the Americans are in control of the time barrier – a garish alternate past indeed.
An intriguing group of characters has been assembled, and the most important thing is that listeners care for their wellbeing. They may frequently put themselves in danger in pursuit of either the truth or the welfare of their companions, but that would prove worthless if they were depicted in such a way that did not lead the audience to feel for them during those moments of peril. The scripts, combined with the actors’ performances, convey the necessary moments of humanity and vulnerability to create this effect.
Neil’s absence for the first half of the story is starkly evident but makes his eventual reunion with Jade all the more gratifying; their relationship is one of the best aspects of these stories. On the other hand, the revelation that Charlotte Trent is the instigator of events from behind the scenes feels like a slight repeat of the first serial, as does the resistance-against-authority subplot.
Platt maintains a level of tension and energy that never dips below exciting. The War That Never Was, like The Age of the Death Lottery before it, also has some very solid cliffhangers, not all of which you see coming. There may be a few more bumps in the road than the first serial, but it is no less rewardingly complex or character-centric in its storytelling.
An hour of interviews is included for both releases. It is clear from the outset the whole production team relished the chance to revisit Timeslip: producer David Richardson, executive producer Nicholas Briggs and script editor John Dorney each share fond memories of their initial encounters with the series and the subsequent delight of working on this revival.
Of particular import is Richardson’s rationale for shifting the location of the barrier to Crystal Palace Park, and Andrew Smith’s endearing memories of re-enacting the barrier transition with school friends. Marc Platt discusses his desire to introduce a twist to the archetypal alternative history story format, and is complimentary of the strong relationships among characters both new and returning.
Spencer Banks recounts being invited to a pre-production meeting with Big Finish to discuss the possible future directions of Simon and Liz, while Cheryl Burfield recalls her first days in rehearsal and on set. The lifelong friendship that has developed between the two is charming; they equally share an abiding fondness for the show, each other and the companionship between their characters. Both commend the natural extensions upon Liz and Simon from the original stories through to these two new serials.
At first glance, Timeslip may not seem like much. But if given a chance, the series proves an entertaining exploration of topical moral and scientific issues. The currency of ideas evident in the original four serials broadcast in 1970 and 1971 is dutifully replicated in these two new releases from Big Finish. That the fifty-year-old material of those stories still proves relevant today, only further highlights the prescience of the original production team.
Far from being simply a nostalgia-fuelled return to the 1970s, Timeslip Volumes 1 & 2 clarify the urgency of topical issues and excavate humanity’s propensity to ignore problems of their own creation. David Richardson is on record saying he hopes there will be more Timeslip at Big Finish; based on the quality of The Age of the Death Lottery and The War That Never Was, so does The Digital Fix.