By Alan Gibson and Jeremy Paul. Zooming over the grey skyline of early ’80s London is a quaint flying saucer piloted by Dominick Hide (Peter Firth), a “correlator” from the year 2130, observing the movements of London buses in order to replace historical records which were destroyed in an unidentified millennial apocalypse. Curious about a great-great-grandfather he understands to be living there, Dominick breaks all protocol and lands his saucer in London, falling haphazardly in love with Jane (Caroline Langrishe), whose carefree, bohemian life puts the sterile domesticity of Dominick’s future spouse Ava (Pippa Guard).
Shuttling back and forth between eras, Dominick manages to exasperate both. Finally, after his saucer is nicked by a travelling funfair, Jane reveals she is pregnant. It slowly dawns on Dominick that he has become his own great-great-grandfather, and what’s more his sinister overseer Caleb Line (Patrick Magee) tells Dominick it was all planned from the start – the anomaly of his parentage had been known for some time, and Dominick was allowed to break the rules to fulfill it. Dominick makes one final visit to Jane, with a bit of financial help for her and their new son in the form of next Saturday’s football pools results.
This has long been a fondly-recalled entry in the series for those of a certain age, mainly due to obvious genre reasons, but it’s perhaps surprising how well it stands up today. Making allowances for the undernourished production design (the tweeness of the saucer is mocked by many citizens of 1980, in a refreshing change from the usual disbelief-suspending shock and awe), it has a story which follows the sci-fi conventions while not forgetting to include real character. Firth as Hide makes what could easily have become an annoying idiot savant role endearingly innocent – the hazards and responsibilities he has to deal with in 1980 are met with perfectly-judged polite confusion.
This makes for both pleasant comedy and unforced pathos – the very qualities which attract Jane and Dominick to each other are also the root of unbridgeable differences. On that level, it’s a simple and fairly conventional romance, which is the main strength of the script – this down-to-Earth focus prevents it running away with grandiose half-baked ideas to which a great deal of ambitious science fiction is all to prone. Yes, it’s a sentimental tale, but sentimentality is what it’s about – the hopeless nostalgia for our present of a future race shorn of all mankind’s animal trappings by the march of civilisation.
Television has mused on the likelihood of technology infantilising us before (Nigel Kneale’s great Year of the Sex Olympics, shown in the Wednesday Play strand), but here it’s realised perfectly – every ‘civilised’ advance Dominick’s era enjoys (eg. sex being a clean, passionless affair after which partners offer a solemn “thank you”) is shown to have emotionally retarding effects in the past (when Dominick chances on Karl Howman and ‘friend’ shagging on a bit of waste ground, there’s no embarrassment or possibly even comprehension about what they’re up to).
The future is indeed a sterile, emotionless void – all plastic surfaces, Muzak holograms, instant dinners and shiny jerkins (although tea appears to have survived the holocaust). It’s not visually impressive, but the script makes that part of the point – while technology is superior, in every other aspect the future world is lacking compared to the present, and it knows it. Thus the production never overreaches itself in the manner sci-fi of a restricted budget can tend to do – the only jarring scene is a long conversation between Dominick and Ava where it has for some reason been deemed a good idea to superimpose their talking heads over each other rather than cut to and fro in the conventional manner.
A wistful theme song from Rick ‘Fingerbobs‘ Jones (fronting his band Meal Ticket) completes this delightful play – certainly not a big-hitter in relation to many of the Play for Today heavyweights, but a memorable and well-written diversion with a little bit more to offer than at first seems.