A jaunty country-pop song tinkles over pastel-filtered shots of teens frolicking in the bush, gentle shots of ferns and rose petals… armed soldiers on watch, curls of barbed wire and overturned trucks set ablaze. By the time the bold, broken letters of the title card appear, I’m confounded by the mixed messages. From the very beginning, the ABC’s Tomorrow series employs tonal inconsistencies startling enough to give you whiplash.
I so wanted to love ABC3’s Tomorrow When the War Began. As a huge fan of John Marsden’s books, and of teen TV in general (the good, the bad and the exceedingly daggy), I wanted success from a series that sought to tap into the recent popularity of both Aussie YA and dystopian TV. It’s a shrewd move by the ABC, bringing Ellie Linton and her guerrilla soldier buddies to the small screen. Marsden’s books, which detail the invasion and occupation of contemporary Australia by an unnamed foreign army, are enduringly popular among teens (and former teens, like me, who remember them fondly). At once action-packed and introspective about the price of warfare and violence, the novels’ authentic teen voice has kept them at the top of many book lists in the two decades since it began in 1993.
In 2010, Tomorrow When the War Began was adapted into a film, written and directed by Stuart Beattie and starring Please Like Me’s Caitlin Stasey as Ellie. The film received mixed reviews, and its failure to break ground overseas (at a time when teen dystopia was just beginning to take off in the US) meant that no further instalments were made.
Right now, the ABC is dedicating a great deal of its TV programming to locally produced series for teens. There’s Nowhere Boys, the supernatural series created by TV stalwart Tony Ayres, which will premiere its third season this year on ABC3. Centred on a group of four boys who are sent, via mystical elemental magic, to a parallel universe where they were never born, the series has won multiple awards (including an International Emmy Award) and is beginning to find success in the UK and Canada.
There’s also Ready For This, the bright, energetic series from Blackfella Films that follows five Indigenous kids who move into a Sydney boarding house to follow their dreams in sports and music. Ready For This is smartly made: sweet, funny and featuring lovely performances from the powerhouse Aaron McGrath (Glitch) and Madeleine Madden (Redfern Now).
Compared with the output for young people in the US and Britain, the voice of Australian teen TV is very different – earnest but with a light-hearted goofiness. Shows like Ready For This and Nowhere Boys, as well as erstwhile series like the daffy surf-school drama Blue Water High, share a kind of DNA with the Canadian teen mainstay Degrassi, which has been around, in one form or another, since the 1980s. The tone of these shows, which often run as a moral blueprint for handling serious teen issues, is quite different to the edgier tone of popular UK series like Skins, My Mad Fat Diary and The Inbetweeners, or glossier, adult-skewing US series like The OC, Gossip Girl and the newer MTV crop (Awkward., Faking It, Teen Wolf and Finding Carter).
Now the internet is a one-stop shop for TV from around the world, it’s much easier for teen audiences to find entertainment that works for them beyond the 5.30pm slot on ABC Kids. If you like adult-skewing shows about shirtless paranormal hunks, or a series with a razor focus on youth mental illness or a saccharine musical comedy, there is an abundance of options online. Creating a more traditional teen drama, like Ready For This or Degrassi’s new Netflix incarnation, Next Class, can therefore be a gamble. As TV’s growing accessibility allows teenagers to explore more diverse viewing options, how does an earnest, younger-skewing series like Tomorrow fare among the myriad delights that age up content and cater for every YA niche?
This might be the problem at the heart of Tomorrow’s tonal missteps. In trying to appeal to both the teen viewers and the adults watching with them, Tomorrow has stumbled on a discord. When teen television caters for every niche, an ‘apply-all’ series, without a strong voice, feels morbidly unfocused.
In Tomorrow, Ellie (Molly Daniels), her best mate Corrie (the glorious Madeleine Madden) and a group of friends set off from their small town, Wirrawee, for a camping trip in the mysterious Hell, an isolated, hard-to-reach pocket of the bush. While they are away, Australia is attacked by a foreign power, and when the kids return to find their families captured by the invading army, they decide to fight back guerrilla-style, using their knowledge of the local landscape to their advantage.
The kids of this Tomorrow are a lot cooler than the daggy country teens of the 2010 film; Kevin (Andrew Creer), a true-blue country boy played in the film by the corn-fed Lincoln Lewis, now sports a man bun and a permanently pensive/moody expression. Lee (Jon Prasida), violinist son to Vietnamese-Australian restaurant owners, is now an aspiring electronic music producer.
Apart from remembering how desperately uncool the 1990s and 2000s teens were, with our Esprit babydoll dresses and surf shop cargo pants, I did wonder whether these chic Gen-Z teens would better reflect the target audience of tuned-in youngsters. After a party sequence in Hell involving sparklers and a Colour Run-style play fight (had the kids somehow smuggled acid in their backpacks?), I wasn’t convinced. Overall, the tone felt somehow both pandering and condescending.
Small things annoyed me, like the disparate filming locations, which lack the specificity that would give Wirrawee and its surrounds a real sense of place, and are guaranteed to rankle anyone with even basic knowledge of the Victorian countryside (the kids go from Barwon Heads, to Clunes, to Hanging Rock in a fairly unconvincing space of time).
The script is dodgy – it takes too long to get to the action in the first episode, which waits until the 31st of its 45 minutes to really show that something is wrong. The six kids are poorly fleshed out, even in two lengthy opening episodes, saddled with bad, halting dialogue – Homer (Narek Arman), the gorgeous idiot bad boy of Marsden’s novels, arrives with the introduction, ‘G’day, what’s up, I’m Homer,’ to which Ellie cringeworthily jokes, ‘As in Simpson.’ His determination to wear a hideous fedora hat, even when running from armed soldiers trying to shoot him, vexed me non-stop. There’s also an irksome love triangle brewing between Ellie, her beau Lee and the hyper-religious Robyn, played by Fantine Banulski as a desperate stalker type.
Finally, there’s the creators’ choice to focus more heavily on the kids’ parents, and their experience inside the Wirrawee detention camp, than either the book or the movie. With an adult cast comprising Alison Bell, Sibylla Budd and the great Deborah Mailman, it’s no wonder the ABC wanted to maximise their time onscreen. However, the downside of having such talented actors is that it makes some of the poorer performances more noticeable.
It’s also intractably uncomfortable in 2016 to watch an Australian series that condemns the internment of innocent people under poor conditions, considering our own country’s real-life propensity to the practice. Perhaps the filmmakers mean to comment on our poor treatment of the most vulnerable people on earth; nevertheless, it reads as considerably tone deaf.
There are a few lovely moments. As Corrie, Madden radiates affection whenever she’s onscreen, and herperformance lifts those of the other young actors. And the scenes when Ellie and her friends return home and discover their families missing are genuinely tense and sombre. But even then the show tends to overplay its hand: when the kids come across a ruined car on a bridge, spay-painted (bizarrely) with the words “RUN”, the kids look on as Lee says, clunkily, “I think we might be at war”.
Perhaps the best example of the tonal discord is this: a key moment in the book involves Ellie turning an unassuming ride-on mower into a deadly bomb. The bomb saves her and her friends from capture by the enemy; it also kills two soldiers, one who, she notes, isn’t much older than her. In Tomorrow, they show the scene twice – at the end of the first episode, as a tense, well-crafted action scene, and to begin the second episode, where they replay it as a bit of fun pyrotechnics with some “hip”, energetic electro-rock scored underneath, stripping the scene of its gravitas. This is the moment Ellie realises that she will kill to protect herself – and worse, that she’s naturally good at it – and this becomes yet another creative choice that begs the question: what were they thinking?
After watching the first two episodes of Tomorrow, I revisited Stuart Beattie’s 2010 film, which is not generally remembered well by people from my generation. It is a fine adaptation, with strong performances from its young leads and the perfect blend of irreverent adolescence and serious action-drama. It reminded me of the excellent adaptation of Melina Marchetta’s Looking for Alibrandi, which shared both the intelligent, non-condescending voice of the great Aussie YA novels, and the earnestness and cheeky humour of Aussie teen TV shows like Heartbreak High.
After a stellar 2015 at the Australian box office (with strong showings from Mad Max: Fury Road, The Dressmaker, Holding The Man and Paper Planes), confidence in Australian filmmaking is higher, and it seems a smart bet that young viewers will take to a locally produced teen drama as they have done with Nowhere Boys and Ready For This. I’m just not sure Tomorrow, a series that misunderstands its target audience and fails to harness the distinctive voice of Australian teen TV, is the best show to bet on.
Tomorrow When the War Began is currently screening on ABC3. Episode 2 airs 7:30pm Saturday 30 April and Episode 1 can be found on ABC iview.