Season 2 of The Tripods arranges itself, quality-wise, very close to the inverse of the first. As a whole it’s a significantly improvement, but more particularly it flies by during the mid-section, where Season 1 was bogged down in torpid chateaus and dreary vineyards. The surrounding material is less certain, with the faintly tepid competing in the games (and some shagging!) and, a significant anti-climax, the last couple of episodes devoted to a travelling circus (so much so that my recollection was of the season ending pretty much with Will escaping the City of Gold solo; which, dramatically, it pretty much does).
The DVD release of the both series includes BBC4’s The Cult of… The Tripods “documentary”, with Robert Llewellyn jovially taking the piss and Jim Baker being very game to discuss his brief stint at acting is a better-than-nothing look at the show, but comes up short in a number of respects (not least because – presumably as he nixed it – Robin Hayter’s Fritz doesn’t get a mention). I was curious to hear the received wisdom that Baker gave the best performance of the first season’s trio. Let’s face it, none of them were exactly jostling to tread the boards at RADA but the dismissive “Ceri does his bit” ignores that, while Seel’s not up to much as a thespian, he’s still the most personable of the three (which counts for a lot when acting chops are negligible).
Baker’s only in the first few episodes of the season, as per the novel, since Henry doesn’t make it to the games or the City (we’re supposed to believe he has valuable skills to aid “the vital defence of our stronghold”. Perhaps he intended to build a wall of pies around their base?) In his absence it’s Will who develops the food fetish. Seel bookends the series (which means he’s in the dullest sections), so the rest is down to Shackley and Hayter.
Of the regulars it’s Hayter who impresses the most on the acting front, not that his competition is fierce. Which is to say, he flounders and fluffs at times but he’s a comparative Olivier in any scene he shares with Shackley. It might help too that he’s got a bit of edge (although this didn’t aid Baker during Season 1). Fritz is a no-nonsense German, intentionally devoid of courtesy and empathy (so as to provoke Will’s ire for some nice dramatic conflict) but usually right in the rational calls he makes regarding the appropriate course of action.
It’s entirely down to Fritz, rather than the headstrong and regularly-putting-his-foot-in-it Will, that escape from the City is even possible. Hayter plays the nasty bastard to good effect in the pre-City episodes, and from thence Fritz is fully unveiled as a shrewd planner once they arrive; a close-to-perfect spy. Hayter’s no Mark Strickson (Turlough in Doctor Who at about the same time), but there’s something of the same spark to his performance. What he may lack in experience, Hayter makes up for in being fully present in every scene.
Shackley hasn’t improved drastically since his first stint, which means he varies between just about competent and complete plank. He’s at a loss when called upon to deliver a rousing speech, and sometimes indulges in whining when a bit more mettle would have been warranted. But lets face it, he’s been cast because he’s pretty, and this season has some particularly curious aspects when it comes to all things pretty.
As the Cult of… there’s a “What were they thinking?” vibe wafting about at times during the City sequence. Will and Fritz, the young bucks, are let loose in the City of Gold, clad in pristine white sleeveless lederhosen, introduced to their routines by a lacklustre YMCA-reject and selected to the service of their Masters as house boys. The Masters select only young men for special duties.
A few changes have been made from the book in this regard such that it isn’t entirely homoerotic – except in the visual sense – as there are also women about doing household chores. Which is all very pre-emancipation, but at least they aren’t all sent to Hall of Beauty (where they reside as basically aesthetically pleasing stuffed exhibits in the book; here they are in suspended animation, to be awakened many years in the future on the Masters’ planet Trion).
If this wasn’t enough, the local human hangout (reserved for The Power Elite, but still, it’s a particularly unlikely indulgence on the part of the Masters to have a club complete with flashing disco lights for the benefit of boogying slaves) is called the Pink Parrot bar. When middle-aged Pierre (Julian Battersby) – well, he’s 25, due to the debilitating effects of the environment – invites Fritz along for a nice quiet drink it’s nothing so much as an old cruiser putting the moves on his young chicken.
It’s a testament to Bob Blagden’s direction that this doesn’t remain the pre-eminent identifier of the City scenes. Quite the contrary, he manages to deliver the best, most propulsive and dramatic episodes in the series’ run. Blagden had designed the Blake’s 7 titles and was approached for his effects experience. What’s most evident here is that, in contrast to many of his BBC peers at the time, he knows how to edit a sequence and keep up the pace. Invariably when the City episodes fall down it’s a result of scripting rather than direction.
There’s an argument to be made that The Tripods is the inverse of Doctor Who at its best; flashy, “cutting edge” (for British TV) special effects but with amateurish performances where it counted. This had changed a bit by the time The Tripods aired; Who’s effects were still variable, but several of the performers in the series would give The Tripods troop a run for their money. Much of the City model work is not up to snuff by today’s standards but, as an attempt to muster convincing Blade Runner-inspired cityscapes on a TV budget, it can’t help but remain impressive. It helps immeasurably that the model is shot to good effect; there’s a sense of scale, and the 3D spinning triangles give a sense of movement and activity.
It also has a genuine atmosphere, a sense of strangeness, otherness. True, when the scene switches to a disused mine, or we get shots of about six actors trotting down a city street, or we see a power station, the effect is diluted (occasionally it even offers the unwanted vision of the Season 1 Blake’s 7 industrial estate), but there’s a consistent sense that the production team are trying to do something special. And even now they have succeeded in creating a claustrophobic, unnatural environment. It’s quite a feat.
As for the Masters… Well, they’re okay. No one is going to be seeing them as a vision of terror, or an amazing piece of design work, but for what they are they’re reasonable (there’s one with a horn, which adds a nice differentiation). John Woodvine’s special delivery as Will’s Master West 468 adds immeasurably to the overall effect. Notably, Fritz doesn’t even meet his Master (unlike in the book, where he’s a vicious sod).
Season 2 has a much more that’s discussion worthy than the first. Far, far more is revealed, and much, much more is changed substantially from the novel. All of which merits some consideration. I’ll discuss some of these points in the episode pieces themselves. Much continues to confound about the proposed effects of the caps, with the result that the only reliable conclusion is that they instil allegiance to the Masters. Anything else, be it dulled emotions or creativity, is up for grabs.
Perhaps the biggest talking point of Season 2, in relation to the way the makers stray from the book, is the introduction of Cognoscs. For all the good, and not so good, aspects of the City episodes, this is the most egregious, unnecessary and lacking in coherence. At the time I recall being incensed and bewildered by the change, one so profound it seemed to betray the entire narrative Christopher had created. I recall looking back through the book for some, any hint at their presence to no avail. Now, I mainly wonder what they were hoping to achieve as very little about their hierarchical presence makes any sense. These are beings that none of the (current) Masters have ever met, yet they obey them without question. Is this some comment on religious thinking (except we see they do exist)? West 468 fills Will in on the background to the Cognoscs (“Coggy”, as Will’s personal chum is called, which only makes it that much worse).
Master West 468: You will want to know what a Cognosc is. The city, Will, is a brain. At the top of each of these pyramids is a separate cell of intelligence connected via the Pool of Fire at the centre. Each of these cells is a Cognosc, a being so much more advanced than we Masters, and it has no physical presence at all.
Okay… Will questions his Master further, and is told that some were originally Masters like himself.
Master West 468: They were selected for their superior intellect. Their minds were translated away from their physical bodies into the very structure of the universe itself.
It might be at least something if the idea was presented that ascendency to the state of a Cognosc represented some form of enlightenment or moral superiority, but we learn that Will’s Coggy is something of an exception to the rule. So what does the concept add? Not a lot.
It also creates serious logic holes. Coggy has requested an audience with Will because he sees into his mind. He sees this before Will ever goes to talk to him. Therefore, Fritz’s concern that all would be scuppered should Coggy talk to his fellow Cognoscs is irrelevant. Any Cognosc that so chose could, presumably, dip into either of their minds and see what was up (it’s a not dissimilar issue to the capping; why would Tripods kill Freemen when capping them would yield all the secrets of their group?)
Coggy is voiced by Christopher Guard, who would show up to much better effect in the following year’s really-very-good Return to Treasure Island as Jim Hawkins. Guard isn’t a great voice actor though, and makes Coggy distinctly underwhelming. Which is the idea of the Cognoscs all over, really. The Cognosc tells him “I like the whole idea of resistance to capping”. Is he a playful Olympian, who dips into the ways of man for his amusement? He dismisses 468 as an “arrogant amoeba” for suggesting Masters might ascend to the state of Cognoscs. So what’s the deal? What’s their connection with Masters? Would this ever have made any sense? Are other creatures throughout the galaxy similarly in thrall to this “space brain”?
Later, when Coggy drains power to enable his departure (an odd idea in itself; surely, if he has no physical form, he can travel unaided by corporeal beings’ means of propulsion?), the Masters give him ultimate priority above all else. We have no insight into this obeisance. When Will has his second and final audience with the Cognosc, he is told “I’m leaving you to help yourselves” and that he likes hopeless idealism. It’s as if Christopher Penfold (who also contributed to Space: 1999) wilfully decided to stick a spanner in the works of a comprehensible storyline just for the hell of it. He regards the Masters’ behaviour as “the worst kind of space imperialism” and is off to find (as Will puts it) his own space “desert island”.
It’s this element that most seriously dents the overall impact of the City segment of Season 2. I’m not one to begrudge changes to a novel – read the novel if you want something true to the novel, don’t expect an adaption to be wholly beholden – but it should make the changes it makes for good reasons (with at least the intent to aid the transfer of medium). The Cognoscs don’t improve or ease any aspect of the story, neither in the hierarchy they suggest, nor in the Masters obeying them (why would they acquiesce to those who have no hold over them?)
Complaints about camp costumes and Uncle Monty-esque Masters are nothing compared to the way the Cognoscs undermine the series. Could they have been a positive? It’s difficult to see how. The books are wholly absent of a metaphysical element, and weren’t especially crying out for one. If one’s going to be shoehorned in, it needs solid foundations. What we get is a blithe space playboy, which has the knock-on of making the whole quest seem pointless (perhaps on that level it might be seen as approaching a Wachowskis’ Matrix-esque perpetual game in which the struggle is an end to itself, but if Penfold has any great design it fails to shine through).
It’s the Cognosc who informs Will of the plan to Trion-form the planet, which is true enough. I’m not so sure about the whole nuclear reactor deal. So the Masters have used a man-made nuclear power station for 100 years and are only now at the point of implementing their own supply? Why would they would use tatty second-hand goods? It serves to dovetail the mining and the spaceship being sent from Trion, but makes little other sense.
Master West 468: The peace of space was being threatened.
On the other hand, the most intriguing element of the information provided by 468 is the idea that the Masters’ intervention was essentially a benevolent one. Well, of a sort. The lesser of two evils, where they were looking at eliminating a potentially cosmic menace. If it weren’t for their OTT decision to gas all the humans there would be an argument for the Masters methods, which bring peace to both the Earth and the Universe. They could “no longer stand by waiting for your people to grow up” so they chose to “neutralise your sick minds through the cap”. The result is a mix of War of the Worlds martial mentality with The Day the Earth Stood Still intervention (it’s also the poise struck by much UFO-related channelled material, which alternates between benevolent and destructive but frequently subsists on the idea of intervention only ever being based on the Earth growing too big for its boots and requiring action when things go too far; see also Star Trek for the inverse).
Another intriguing concept is the rapid aging that takes place. Georg (Keith Marsh) gets a “happy release” in Episode Five; he is 21 years old, but looks seventy, and has been there four years. His old age is said to be remarkable, but only two episodes later we learn that Pierre, who is 25, has been there for five years. He looks a good twenty years younger. A symptom of being in the Power Elite? Unlikely, since Georg isn’t exactly subjected to hard labour as 468’s servant. More likely, a consequence of the difficulty of trying to render aging of at least 10 City years to every normal one. Still, it’s a good idea, but who will be going down the disco after six months of wear and tear and realisation thoroughly dawns?
The Cult of… suggests The Tripods Season Three was cancelled prior to Season 2 completing production, let alone airing (the “Has it all been for nothing?” added as a meta-reference to the curtailed end of the series) whereas the booklet in the DVD release indicates this occurred near the end of the run of Season 2. Either way, it was a blunderingly short-sighted decision, one symptomatic of Michael Grade’s lacerating blade at the BBC at that time.
I doubt that The Pool of Fire would have matched the best of the second run. The travelogue would be back, unfortunately given how limp that tended to be. The most interesting aspect of the novel, the capture of a Master, would have featured in Episode Four, and there would have been a (most likely) feeble traitor-in-the-midst subplot. Retained would be the faintly silly and entirely underwhelming alcohol weakness of the Masters. Added to that, the balloon assault always seemed like an anticlimactic and unlikely means to exact ultimate defeat; one can only guess it would be even less commanding on a green screen budget.
What stands out in the series isn’t especially the wooden acting, rather shallow philosophy or sometimes laboured pacing, it’s the successful imbuing of a sense of world-building and atmosphere. The future-past combination is infused with a decayed remembrance of the present and impressively realised (visually and aurally) alien intruders. This may be insufficient to gives the series a truly lasting appeal, but it makes it more than a footnote. And, if you can slog through the dull spots, there are sufficient interestingly ideas to make the series as a whole worth visiting.