The 70s was a great time for TV. Whether it was drama, comedy, documentary or stupid escapist tatt, the 70s turned up some of the best television ever made – although sometimes ambition exceeded either the budget or the technology.
Even kids TV was great, particularly if it was science-fiction or fantasy. Not only was it well made, it was intelligent. Whether you watched the Beeb and caught Doctor Who, The Changes or The Moon Stallion, for example, or watched ITV and tuned in for Timeslip, Ace of Wands or Children of the Stones*, you could pretty much be guaranteed something interesting that made you think.
The reasons for the high quality of kids’ sci-fi TV are clear. Not only were there people with an ethos of creating decent programming for kids at both networks, a competitive duopoly that encouraged innovation and a captive audience with little else to do but watch tele, thus avoiding lowest common denominator worries, there was access to really good, high grade hallucinogenic drugs.
Whether it was magic mushrooms, LSD or even peyote, TV writers were knocking back quite extravagant amounts of not quite illegal substances, giving them a new view on reality, writing and the creative process.
Sky is perhaps the most obvious example of a kids’ show written by people on drugs**. Created by Bob Baker and Dave Martin in 1975, it was a curious seven-part serial about an alien that comes to Earth.
So far, so simple, no?
What differentiates it from other similar fare is that it’s clearly off its face. Sky is a time traveller with incredible powers from another dimension. Or maybe another universe. Except he might be a god. Just like Jesus and any other religious figure in fact, since they were all time-travellers too.
He’s arrived here before the correct time – we’re still “before the chaos” – and needs to get to the future where he can show the surviving people of the Earth the right way to live in harmony with the Earth. Trouble is, the Earth of today senses that’s he’s alien and tries to repel him, just like an immune system repelling a bacterium. While he searches for ‘the Juganet’ – the way to the future – Sky is attacked by trees and plantlife, before eventually the Earth creates something in human form – ‘Ambrose Goodchild’ – to destroy Sky.
It’s never been repeated, it’s never been released on VHS or DVD, but you can watch it some of it on YouTube. It’s a Lost Gem. Here’s the title sequence followed by a clip to get you in the mood. You might need to be taking something though.
Sky is interesting for many reasons. In terms of trends, it stands as a nexus in TV production almost like the archaeopteryx linking early 70s TV dinosaurs with late 70s TV birds (yes, that metaphor is strained).
You can see the influences of its predecessor The Tomorrow People (not least in terms of semi-naked boys as heroes) at work in some of the imagery and concepts; the music by Eric Ransome is similarly influenced by The Tomorrow People but also foreshadows the incidental music of the later BBC serial The Omega Factor; there’s similar ideas to The Changes, Sapphire and Steel and Blake’s 7; and some of the concepts of language shift used in later episodes pop up in Doctor Who stories, such as The Face of Evil.***
In short, it is pretty much an exemplar of everything 70s.
Reasons to love Sky
But as a show, not just as a piece of history, there are reasons to love it, too. Okay the pacing’s off and pretty much the first five episodes see Sky in this never-ending circle of slipping into a coma after being attacked by plants, recovering then being attacked by plants again – not quite up to Into the Labyrinth levels of repetition but getting there. The strange yokel children that Sky meets are utterly useless as companions. The seventh episode doesn’t so much conclude the story, which pretty much peters out in its first two minutes, as add an apocrypha. And it doesn’t make the blindest bit of sense.
Yet it’s utterly fascinating. Episode 1 (which you can watch below) is almost like avant garde theatre at times.
But most of the fascination comes from the telepathic, teleporting, telekinetic Sky. Like Sapphire and Steel who followed, Sky isn’t an alien desperate to be human and with human emotions, he’s an angry, cold god who doesn’t give a toss about his worshippers. He just needs them to help him. He insults them regularly because they are over-complicated yet stupid. His motivations are unclear and almost unfathomable, and his explanations barely explain anything. He doesn’t want to help us, because we’re all doomed – he just wants to help our future descendants. And if anyone gets in his way, he’s willing to do unpleasant things to them if necessary.
Although we automatically side with him, we’re never really sure why, since he thinks our way of life is wrong – we should be living in harmony with nature. Yet Sky’s nemesis ‘Ambrose Goodchild’, the Earth’s created saviour whom we should be siding with, is annoyed with the fact that Sky’s godly predecessors gifted humanity with intelligence, thus setting us against the Earth. The Earth would rather we were stupid and unchanging. Sky represents the powers of the sky, as his name suggests, and wants us to travel to the stars, although without using machines.
The conclusion (spoilers)
For six episodes, Sky slowly gains in strength while the Earth does its best to destroy him. As well as Goodchild and any living plants, the Earth uses the birds (or maybe just the crows), incarnating them in human form as well, before eventually Sky becomes too powerful for these manifestations to do anything to him – so they decide to get revenge on the humans until Sky forces them to back down.
He departs this time, wiping his companions’ memories of his existence and without so much as a word of thanks. However, one of the companions, Arby, follows him to the future through the Juganet, which is to be found at Stonehenge and other stone circles.
We then get a glimpse of our telepathic descendants, who live off the land and who vaguely recall spaceflight and machines through their own cargo-cult ceremonies and wicker man totem. Their simpler life makes them more open to the correct teachings than ours does and Sky is there to lead them. He sends Arby back in time, leaving him with his memories and some of the knowledge Sky was to give the future humans.
Except Arby decides to ignore Sky’s teachings and live as he always does since none of it really matters, a suitably depressing and realistic outcome for a 70s show.
While the acting is pretty iffy throughout, Marc Harrison, who plays Sky, is eerily engrossing, not least because he always wears coloured, whole-eye contact lenses; Robert Eddison who plays Goodchild is equally eerie, although whether his acting is poor or simply designed to highlight the differentness of Goodchild is debatable.
As a show, it’s pretty creepy and the fact it’s not actually that accessible or readily understandable makes it far less of a throwaway show than most – in fact, my wife bet me a tenner I wouldn’t be able to explain it. While imperfect, it does challenge and its originality is refreshing. It’s fondly remembered, but Network has the DVD rights and they’re not releasing it yet.
You can find the first few episodes of Sky for yourself on YouTube, but here’s the opening to episode three, Goodchild, which sees Sky being a bit of a git as well as the arrival of his nemesis.
* You’ll notice how I glossed over The Tomorrow People there. It was just awful and everyone responsible should probably be locked away for the public good
** For legal reasons, I’d like to point out that they weren’t. I was just making that up. It’s not true
*** I’m curious as to whether Captain Jack’s coat in Torchwood might be an homage to Sky’s get-up in earlier episodes