I can’t recall if I read John Christopher’s The Prince in Waiting trilogy – at school – prior to The Tripods arriving on television. It was certainly a close thing either way, and the TV tie-in trilogy I subsequently bought for the latter was quickly devoured. At the time, British TV science fiction was undergoing a period of significant change. Doctor Who had just changed lead actor and would be cancelled/go on hiatus between the first and second seasons of the BBC’s new SF series. Then The Tripods itself would be mercilessly axed, left on a cliffhanger and denied production of the already written third and final series (despite being an Australian co-production, one of a steadily increasing number of series not wholly financed by the corporation). It seemed that British science fiction was on the way out, with a similar lack of enthusiasm for other series on other channels such as Knights of God (left on a shelf for two years) and Star Cops (it never really had a chance with that title). Ironically, as across the Pond the genre was about to experience a rebirth.
However, aside from Doctor Who (and the quality of that one is moot, even if its popularity isn’t in question) British television arguably remains no more au fait with making decent science fiction than it was in the mid-‘80s. Be it Primeval or Outcasts or The Survivors reboot, there’s a consistent foot-in-mouth quality; a pervading embarrassment over the potential of the genre (possibly the result of prevailing feelings of inadequacy of writers growing up as sci-fi nerds and wanting to be accepted) that dilutes any potential or impact.
It took Richard Bates fifteen years to get The Tripods off the ground. He had been producing successful television for twenty years and would go on to enormous hits with The Darling Buds of May and A Touch of Frost but, with the best will in the world, he managed to stuff The Tripods up. Most fundamentally, he let it be stretched beyond its slender origins into a series probably twice the length it needed to be (the entire trilogy could have been contentedly finished in the span of the two broadcasts seasons). I’d happily wolf down anything even vaguely science fiction at the time but I couldn’t ignore some cripplingly stodgy longueurs during the first season, not helped any by lead actors who just didn’t have the chops to pull off feuding, pontificating, romancing and, well, pretty much any emoting.
Even though it’s thirty years since I last saw it, pretty much everything I took issue with then (perhaps less forthrightly; I wanted to like it) comes flooding back. Cutting out the laborious chateau and the Family of Grapes would have been a start, but then Bates would have lost half the season. The first year’s fundamental problem is not that not much happens for long periods, but that Christopher Penfold (who also wrote for Space: 1999) and Alick Rowe treat their added episodes as filler rather than as an opportunity to explore this world and the ideas behind it. There’s the occasional decent addition (the mother whose capping didn’t fully take) but as soon as the series stops and rests realisation dawns of how thin the concept is.
There’s a paradox here. The series only actually develops some vigour when Will and Henry and Beanpole are evading or attacking the fearsome Tripods. Yet the most striking idea explored relates not to straightforward heroics (Christopher made a habit of presenting less than perfect protagonists); but that the dominant regime might not actually be so bad. To be fair, the first season raises this as a question on a number of occasions, and can only settle on an answer that it’s best to possess natural freedoms and creative urges unimpeded. Yet capping doesn’t seem to stop characters being right old violent bastards; Robin Langford’s oozing malevolent Duc de Sarlat is a particularly strident example.
Ozymandias: Once that cap goes on, out go other things.
Will: What other things?
Ozymandias: A sense of wonder, curiosity. Feelings of aggression, rebellion.
One might suggest the cap isn’t overly well conceived. It’s certainly elastic enough to allow our heroes to be repeatedly threatened by those on its receiving end. There’s a certain resonance in this method of marking; visually its more striking than the bug Will has implanted later in the season (an grisly bit of Cronenberg horror for a teatime audience), but it’s tantamount to the same thing; Big Brother, mind control, conditioning, subjugating the populace. In an age of biometric passports and micro-chipped pets, the insidious onset of implanted citizens may be just round the corner. And it will come in the name of safety and protection (from others; implant those most dangerous and those most at risk first, and tackle the rest by inexorable stealth) and freedom (from fear). And why not? It seems to work for the Tripods. The cap as visual adornment does have one evident drawback; it must cause havoc with one’s hair unless you one has none (this is at least referenced in Season 2). Constantly catching, pulling, making it impossible to comb. A nightmare.
Still, the capped world is an appealingly retro- one, a post-technological utopia. It comes from the same wistful longing for a disappearing Britain as Tolkien’s work. Christopher must surely have been conscious of the themes he was playing with; the lost rural idyll, the nostalgic splendours of a pre-industrial smog. This freshly laundered Earth allows for cosiness; an acceptance of the once profligate technology in moderation, no longer in danger of reaching endemic levels. As long as it is contained, in its place, it has an appeal. This was also true of The Prince in Waiting trilogy, in which we are exposed to the appealing myth-making of future archaeology (also found in Planet of the Apes).
It seems The Prince in Waiting is commonly known as The Sword of the Spirits trilogy these days; I was a little concerned my memory was playing tricks on me but the Puffin book covers confirm it has indeed been known by the earlier title, complete with an evocative cover showing both the Sun glinting through Stonehenge and our hero clutching a sub-machine gun. I know found this particular post-apocalypse series more engaging than The Tripods; although both share a lost-technology motif, Prince’s was more enticingly mythic. At the time I would have preferred an adaption of The Prince in Waiting; in the post-Game of Thrones environment it might make a more effective (junior) transfer to the screen than The Tripods, which Disney has apparently had in development hell for the best part of two decades (Gregor Jordan, a decent director, was attached, but has now probably moved on).
Ozymandias: Oh, after a generation or two matters were very much as they are now. People living quiet lives, free from wars, looked after by the Tripods. Life is good, we thank the Tripods.
The idea of the caps that don’t “take” (causing Vagrants) is a logical one, and the encounter with some loony tunes in Episode Eleven has potential that is insufficiently explored. That’s the great sin of the series; untapped potential. The suggestions that this world isn’t so bad are compounded by the snoozerama of Will’s sojourn at Chateau Ricordeau, complete with a learned Count (Jeremy Young, who appeared as caveman Kal in the first Doctor Who story) and an alluring Countess (Pamela Salem, who was lovely Toos in Who’s Robots of Death).
The Count is more than willing to lay down the law with black guards, engage in education and all the freedoms one would expect of the classically situated landed gentry. It’s a confusing and intriguing inequity (one might have expected the Tripod’s rule of law to instil a level of pseudo-communist equality, but I guess they couldn’t be arsed so long as there’s a base level of pacification). No wonder Will begins to have second thoughts.
Beanpole: Their customs are different. But still, they are capped. They obey the Tripods.
But the Count sees the law of hospitality as paramount and gets very snippy with the Duc du Sarlat for his lack of decorum. The Count’s in no hurry to ensure the capping of the hapless trio yet he instantly falls in line when his daughter is crowned Queen of the Tournament. So it’s unsurprising Will has hitherto vacillated (“They can do what they like here. Isn’t that being free?”) The honour their daughter’s departure to the City of the Tripods bestows overcomes all feelings of parental love and affection, which they are quite capable of showing (is this a comment of the overwhelming tug of patriotism; sending all that is precious of to war?)
While it makes a (much-needed after all those trudging episodes stuck in one place) dramatic twist, it doesn’t ring true given the reality we have witnessed. Their obeisance, combined with the venom spewing Duc (“What I cannot have, no one else shall have”), further adds to the sense that a world of apparently defined rules is willing to bend in the wind of whatever plot device is called upon to step forward.
Mayor: When there is no cap in the head, the thought in the head is strange. Of travel, of adventure. This is no crime… stealing is a great crime.
A lack of curiosity and creativity does seem to be a consistently voiced drawback to capping, even if lurches in temperament are less certain. Beanpole opines that when he is capped “I will invent no more”. Madame Vichot (Anni Lee Taylor) testifies to a capping that didn’t quite take (“Capping never quenched my thirst for learning and curiosity semi-tolerance”) and presents a flip side to the joys of learning; she will never completely have restfulness (“Do not forget the gift of peace of mind, Will. I shall never have that entirely”).
The impression one gets is that the cap should instil a plane of mediocrity and intellectual lethargy. The problem is, if one removes the ingredients for conflict, seen from the second episode and the duo’s attempts at a channel crossing, there isn’t much left, particularly with Tripods off screen 95 percent of the time. It’s the same problem of realisation of an idea one encounters with, say, the Cybermen; following the idea to its letter (pure logic, emotion-free) isn’t that interesting, so it needs to be spiced up for the purposes of dramatic expediency. Obviously, there’s also a barely suppressed metaphor here for growing up; capping is induction into the adult world where all such travellers “lose their sense of wonder”.
One side of all this – the most positive – is that of intentional mystique. The ways and means of the Tripods can only be speculated upon; several times during the series the travellers ponder whether capping will automatically provide the Tripods with access to the sum total of their thoughts (including precious information on the Free Men – which is precious little, so I’m unsure why they are so concerned). As such, the motivating principle remains a nebulous one. Will didn’t even know Eloise was capped until she told him. Materially, and emotionally, there is little obvious difference. But as Ozymandias testifies, one’s capped friends and family are no longer familiar; “They belong to each and every Tripod”. The understanding is that it is worth fighting them for that, even if it sees the return to an unsettled world of wars and unrest.
The world we see, even through the mists of mid-80s BBC video (given all the location work they might at least have made it partly on film, but it would have hampered the effects work) is a striking mash-up of feudal and futuristic. We don’t always get answers (why are the Tripods letting humans use a steam engine?) and the depiction of Paris as a series of CSO backdrops makes the least of one of the most dramatic and atmospheric opportunities of the first run (Christopher Barry does a demonstrably more impressive job in the last half of the season than Graham Theakston in the first).
When the gang arrive in an empty department store, for some reason it hasn’t been ransacked for all the good stuff by the roaming new romantic goths, who then proceed to steel the plunder all that is openly available… Er, okay. There’s so much good shit lying around, including a machine gun that evokes The Prince in Waiting and “goose eggs made of iron”.
The travellers also seem to be playing chess as if they are familiar with the strategy game. Despite the shortcomings of these scenes (one wonders if the decayed present day “inspired” the opening episodes of the 23rd season of Doctor Who“fresh” from hiatus), they are effective for the ideas they present if not the execution.
Not dissimilarly, the encounter with the exiled loonies in Episode Eleven and their totem Tripod and wicker caps is a neat surface distillation of ideas of religious iconography in poetic form. The problems come with the mundanity of pageants and grape crushing. You can’t fault the Tripods; they’re doing their level best to be threatening. Will wandering around a marquee and engaging in a half-arsed argument with a fat bloke about politics is the stuff of Oxbridge garden parties rather than enabling science fiction.
The romance he embarks on (Charlotte Long, who played Eloise, died in a car accident soon after the series finished filming; another actress replaced her in Season 2) isn’t tedious because this is a Boy’s Own tale; it’s tedious because the thread is blandly written and performed. As a seemingly token gesture (and as filler) the vineyard follow-up introduces exactly the same scenario, but now Beanpole and Henry want to stick around because they have the hots for a couple of chicks themselves. Madame Vichot is the only upside to this plotline; I’d have suggested this section might have been improved if it had been revealed as a snare to trap hapless White Mountains seekers, but that sort of switch might have drawn further negative parallels with the Chateau and Duc’s behaviour.
Will: I think a Tripod is only a sort of carriage.
The most impressive part of this first series on revisiting, aside from a tremendously catchy theme tune and the ominous clarion call announcing the Tripods’ arrival (and a simple title sequence that begins in the most evocative manner but then loses it a little when it becomes all about the letters) is the depiction of the Tripods themselves. Even given the obvious limitations of three or four jointed models moving haphazardly across a landscape, and a full-scale leg and tentacle, their presence invariably packs an impact.
The sight of obviously integrated shots of a model hanging over a rural idyll still has an atmosphere, and their clarion call is wonderfully eerie. As a consistent, off-screen menace they are highly effective. Its just a shame they are dispense with for whole episodes at a time. Still, when one arrives, as if in a dream, for the tournament at the end of Episode Six, it’s an effective reminder of what this is all about.
The depiction of the Tripod menace through use of green lighting, particularly during night sequences, is a boon to impressing the menace of the menace, and hits a home run during the post-chateau episodes. First with Will’s horseback night time is-it-or-isn’t-it encounter with one of the titular creatures (an effective precursor to Whitely Strieber-esque abduction scenarios, complete with an implant requiring removal), then with the protagonists hiding out in a railway tunnel. The uncertainty of the Tripods’ motives – that they’re cunning and not merely going to bludgeon their foes to death – is a significant positive in the series’ blurred lines at this point.
It’s in the last two episodes – confirming my memory of the series’ significant up-track – that the machines are at their most dramatically assertive. First there is the encounter with one that suddenly “appears” in a quarry as the threesome are nonchalantly pushing a rail cart about (it’s always the way, something huge and unmistakable just creeps up on you unseen) and Fat Henry subsequently dispatches it (he can’t even get all that elated about his triumph, the great ginger misery).
Then comes a spectacular light show opening the final instalment; a fine example of less-is-more staging in which the impression of force results from a few well-chosen lighting effects. We also see an en-masse shot of multi-coloured Tripods, which probably elicits an engorged geek-gasm in some. It’s the Tripod equivalent of wheeling-dealing Daleks. The design of the Tripods is actually pretty good; simple, unfussy, and on the technical side shot with an eye for a scale while enforced with aural awesomeness.
And the characters. Well, then. In a today’s world of cinema beset by Young Adult adaptations we’re all more than used to variable abilities of leads to deliver the goods. Sometimes the results are on Matthew Waterhouse levels of horror (Taylor Lautner), but more generally the actors are doing their level best with material that would make no one look good (the other two Twilight leads). Sometimes, as with The Hunger Games, you get (mostly) good actors, but then the material can’t quite match them. But that’s rare. Here there are three one-time thesps who would soon retire never to be seen again.
It’s difficult to recall how I responded to their performances at the time to them, but bland performers with bland dialogue are exactly the reverse of what is needed if you’re going to encourage anyone to watch low-budget British TV science fiction. At very least what one needs is a selection of talented hams and Shakespearian silliness. The leads have been cast to looks; John Shackley is requisite pretty boy (now a hotel manager, apparently) Will. He’s competent, but in no way does he bring star charisma to the part.
Likewise, hamstrung is Jim Baker’s sullen ginger podge Henry, who gets down pat being a misery guts but is so one-note churlish his lines become a succession of crowning disasters; “The Tripods killed my parents. Perhaps one day I’ll get them back”. And so, in the penultimate episode, Fat Henry kills one “Yes, I suppose I did” he responds, in the closest he will ever get to cheerfulness (despite earlier having a grape crushing session with a couple of delightful daughters). It’s heartening to be reminded of his true twattery in the finale (and no, I’m not forgetting what happens in The Pool of Fire, but the point still stands) as he blusters, “I killed a Tripod! Me!” Fall down and worship Fat Henry.
So it’s actually Cert Seel as Beanpole whom I found least annoying (Bates all but apologises for him in the documentary on the series). Particularly surprising, since he’s been shown the classic geek card to play. With his homemade specs and talk of hot air balloons (such a shame he never got to test it out in Season Three, eh?), dispensed through a just-as-well-he wasn’t-really-trying not French accent, his upholder of rationality and moderation actually comes across reasonably well. True, there’s a sub-Trek dynamic in there, with Will’s Kirk, Henry’s McCoy and Beanpole as Spock, and such comparisons don’t do them any favours, but there’s also a winning willingness to make them flawed and prone to error. My memory is that Fritz in Season 2 was a much more convincing performer than any of them, so I will be testing that soon.
Season 1 is fundamentally scuppered by being twice as long as necessary. There is only so much repetitive dialogue (with Henry whining like Henry’s Cat) and scenarios that can be put up with. It’s only a surprise that it got renewed for a second run since, if you weren’t a willing audience (a science fiction fan), you’d have given up well before the halfway mark. That it rallies at the end actually comes as something of a surprise.
The last two episodes, with effective Tripod action and a rather good interrogation plotline, sets up Season 2 with some degree of conviction. This entails a fair amount of exposition, and a Blue Peter model of the Tripod city has a “Here’s one I made earlier” vibe, just as the deal with the big plan culminating in a rousing cheer is the kind of cheese that swamped the last two minutes of Star Wars. Given how mediocre this season is on balance, it might have been less painful to end it here, rather than the move towards the (relative) dynamism and gay discos in Season 2. Following the first season everyone wanted to up the ante, even when the results teetered into the daft or plain disrespectful (to the original).