Season 2 – Episode-by-Episode
2.1 The White Mountains: 2090 AD
Despite providing a recap prior to the kick-off, much of this episode is itself a recap, complete with unnecessarily protracted training for the upcoming Games. There’s some shamelessly clumsy exposition as Julius (Richard Wordsworth) takes Will aside for a dose of what he’s surely known for months (he is told to let his head rule his heart; tellingly this is exactly what he doesn’t do in the City of Gold, but Fritz does), but the reminder of how capping works is an effective call-back to the first episode of Season 1 and is Wicker Man-esque chilling as ever. It’s played up as a religious rite, “a miracle” that the Tripods perform. Most particularly, we are told, “the violence of our emotions is held in check and all youthful thoughts of rebellion are taken away” (but, as before, violence is only held in check if the plot doesn’t require a bit of conflict). There’s an intimation this is tantamount to child abuse (and by implication a suggestion that any form of religious indoctrination is the same); “How can they do it to their own children?”
Elsewhere, we see a Tripod larging it and stamping on a thieving party (kind of dumb, since most likely all available information concerning the Free Men could be sucked from a captive’s mind via subsequent capping) and the selection of would-be victorious competitors. This is rather tiresome, with Will presuming his failure and Henry getting singled out to stay back “for the vital defence of our stronghold” (presumably also because Julius doubts there is a well-stocked pie shop in the City).
Other points of interest: a naysayer proclaims the imminent demise of their Free Men community; he saw the City twenty years before, and believes that one hard winter and they’ll all be dead. No one came back from the City the previous year, meaning that all attempts to extract its secrets have met with failure thus far.
Most curious is the amount of time devoted to the wrong-footed theory regarding the origins of the Tripods. It’s quite an appealing little idea, like a false theory of evolution or mistaken history. The suggestion is that the Tripods developed via computer consciousnesses grown from human tissue. This bioengineering resulted in artificial intelligence, brains, that became discontented and, via secret inter-communications, devised the Tripods. It’s not so far from Skynet (Terminator was released the previous year), and indeed Internet dependency.
This episode gives us our first proper introduction to frosty Fritz, with his aloof contempt for fraternal feelings (“So we come to the parting of the Parkers, yes?”; there’s our last sight of Jim Baker, singularly failing to invest Henry with authority as he issues instructions). This rapidly snowballs into Will taking swings at him, once they are aboard Ulf’s boat. Maybe it’s the gap in acting skills, or just that Will’s so damn righteous, but when Fritz accuses him of lacking discipline he has our sympathies.
Another strike in favour of the Tripods peaceful regime (as long as we forget about the projected genocide of all life on Earth, of course); “The cap is supposed to protect from sickness, is that not so?” Well, that seems pretty, decent doesn’t it?
The rest of this is so-so, and thus far there’s nothing much to distinguish it from the first run. There’s slightly more zip to the proceedings, but the detours of Doctor Beanpole the Magic Herbalist and Will getting into a bar fight are just the sorts of thing the series should be avoiding. Still, there’s some genuine, bona fide filming in Switzerland this episode, rather than standing on a hill in Wales with some (quite decent, it must be said) Quantel work touching it up.
2.3 Will is Arrested
The one with Pat Butcher (Pam St. Clement) as a proud Frau, and not a single cry of “Frank” or cigarette in sight. It’s all rather awful. Shackley does some of the worst “mirth” acting you ever did see (Frau Heinitz is very big on the goodness of the Tripods; her hubby sacrificed his life in their service). Most shocking, is the sight of Will and his good chum getting their beanpoles away with a couple of young lovelies. Very forward, these girls, ordering room service and then thrusting themselves on the young “bucks”, clad in some sexy lingerie (well, in a retro, 2090 sense).
Both have had subsequent careers, their flagrant displays clearly doing them no harm; Lisa Maxwell had a long stint on The Bill (she even had a short-lived Lisa Maxwell Show following runs with – good grief – Russ Abbot and Les Dennis). Elizabeth Heery (subsequently Morton) is perhaps best known for her simperingly wet turn as Madeline Bassett in the sometimes-excellent Fry and Laurie Jeeves and Wooster. This doesn’t quite hit the lows of Season One, but it’s all filler.
2.4 Help from Friends
With Zerlina and Papagena (Maxwell and Heery respectively) in tow, the lads show up for the Games… which look like a complete dump. Your average comprehensive would be ashamed. The lads are decked out in boiler suits, and there are continued tensions with the now reunited Fritz (“What is the point of trying to rid the world of Tripods for the good of humanity, if you have no humanity?”).
As usual, though, Fritz is overly serious but more astute than his two colleagues. He wins his crucial race through previous tactical poor shows (“I didn’t want anyone to think I was a serious threat”) and does a recce that reveals the distant City. He’s also spot-on when he accuses the girls (“You are really stupid!”) since their silliness knocks Beanpole out of the competition with a sprained ankle; clearly Papagena got tired of him sharpish as she’s nowhere in sight when we next see the Frenchman (who decides to encamp outside the City and wait). The crowns worn by the victors are also really stupid.
2.5 City of Gold
Now this is much more like it. If the series in general had the pace and eventfulness of the fifth episode, it perhaps wouldn’t have got the axe quite so arbitrarily. Sure, things look iffy initially, with the fit young boys ushered into special sleeveless tunics by a man in a sleeveless tunic with a special moustache, and then ushered on to the Master’s selection process where their prime cuts are prodded by the tripodal one-eyed shockers.
But the Cityscape itself still impresses, and introduction to its ways and means is fascinating for the level of design work and effort involved. The flying green triangles, the insight into why everything is green (“The colour of the Masters’ air”), the chap who takes his helmet off, Fritz having to tell Will to shut the hell up for the umpteenth time (seriously, that Parker boy is a liability).
Will’s Master (West 468, lest we forget) is voiced by the illustrious John Woodvine, well known in science fiction and fantasy circles for his work in Doctor Who (The Armageddon Factor), Edge of Darkness, Knights of God, The Avengers(four guest spots) and, of course, An American Werewolf in London. He lends the Master a warmth and gravitas that ensures an expensive, but nevertheless slightly daft – in that it’s more Jim Henson than Xenomorph – creature design coalesces into something with presence and depth. Somehow, even Shackley seems better basking in his dulcet tones (often it’s the reverse when amateurs and pros pair up, and since I’m guessing they wouldn’t even have been on set together perhaps he had good puppeteers to work with).
Perhaps the problem with 468 (and by extension Coggy, but we won’t go there yet) is that, after all the build-up, such a benign terror is an anti-climax. At least there was a vicious bastard Master beating up Fritz in the novel. Here, it’s just humans. One might argue it underlines the daring of the cosy-friendly totalitarianism espoused by the Tripods; here’s one at the top and he’s nice as pie. He’s much more interested in Will being the obverse to the standard influx of slaves. Will’s “a strange one” – he’s also “a fine specimen” and his curiosity “attracted me to you”; the dirty old Master – and 468 is “delighted to find a human with a mind of its own”.
As such, the down side needs to be emphasised; Will is indeed very fortunate to be replacing the Master’s current servant. Fritz is introduced to a work gang, where the Black Guards inflict regular beatings (and even kill, all very emotional and violent of them). Will discovers that the girls are only good for cleaning and cooking. Most crucially, there is the outgoing slave, Georg (Keith Marsh), whose “happy release” proves to be vaporisation after “four long years of service”; he looks like a man in his seventies but is only 21 years old. It also seems that the City environment invigorates back hair. It’s an effective endnote for an effective and invigorated episode.
2.6 Will is Made a Slave
Unfortunately, the tumble in quality is almost immediate. It’s a shame, as generally the pacing in the City episodes is far superior to the surrounding ones. The plotting is entirely variable, and the thematic possibilities are left struggling to breathe.
Fritz’s escapades, as he inveigles himself into the Power Elite and learns the secrets of the Master’s power supply, are reasonably engaging. The highlight of these scenes is really James Coyle’s thoroughly sadistic renta-thug turn as Black Guard leader Borman (the name has Nazi all over it).
Borman really epitomises the broken logic at the heart of the concept of capping; if someone as vicious and violent comes through unscathed, it’s clearly a botch up. Fritz has some nice ironic lines as he pretends to be compliant (“Oh, they are very encouraging” he says of Black Guards’ lack of hospitality), and the idea of competition between the Power Elite and guards for worthy recruits is quite amusing; particularly that Borman wants Fritz to join up “if you survive the punishment”.
We’re introduced to the Pool of Fire, and most significantly learn that the Masters rely on good old-fashioned human nuclear fusion reactors for power. It’s another bit of nonsense Penfold has grafted onto Christopher’s novel. All that technology, this huge City, great machines, an artificial atmosphere, and in 100 years they haven’t managed to install their own power source?
Will’s encounters are also a little broken-backed, although there are some striking visuals; not least the Master engaging him on his views of daisies, complete with hologram thereof. As is a default with less well-considered aliens, the Master is very smart, very advanced, yet deficient to humans in some fundamental ways that show us how great we really are! So he has to ask Will “Is it pretty?”, of the flower, and even more flabberghastingly “Who designed it?” He’s ignorant of beauty (despite the Hall of Beauty), and by the sound of it, evolutionary theory and/or philosophy?
There’s an info-dump regarding home planet Trion too; Turlough never mentioned the Masters in Doctor Who, though. It has three suns, but is a water world. The Masters need no food; they receive perpetual transfusions from the suns. They also like gas bubbles, the equivalent of crack, or weed, or booze, presumably. The Masters are immortal, “relatively speaking”. Additionally, we learn from the cleaning girl that it’s impossible for the Masters to make a bad choice of slave.
Will’s tepid throughout this, except when driven to ire by his earnest, devoted and irritating roommate. Will taunts him with comments about squid-like Masters, and Boll (Edward Highmore, who played Turlough’s brother in Planet of Fire the year before and thus hailed from Trion) denounces his blasphemy. Highmore’s very good, in that you completely get why Will wants to wind him up. But really, Will couldn’t be less of a super-spy if he tried.
2.7 Hunt for Eloise
The homoerotic subtext is writ large herein, what with Fritz rushing to meet Pierre who is sat on his own at the Pink Parrot (where he spends “too much time”). No booze there, so poor Pierre must have one thing on his mind (food and juice, it appears). The real shock is the club itself, a splendour of disco lights and cheesy, apathetic background dancing. You have to wonder what bender Richard Bates had been on prior to agreeing to this, since it undermines everything they are trying to do in creating a believable setting (more shark jumping with Coggy next episode.
Piere’s a sympathetic soul, although Julian Battersby’s delivery is almost as iffy as Shackley’s at times. Fritz plays a good game of being hard to get, threatening to call the guards when Pierre makes overtures about rebellion and notes the “defect in your cap” (“Contrary to what you may think, you’re not the only one here with that complaint”; except that, according to Pierre, he is the only other one).
There’s a decent bit of cat-and-mouse here, since we’re encouraged to be as paranoid as Fritz about Pierre’s allegiances. Pierre’s been here nearly five years, so he’s fared a lot better than Georg (terrible continuity); “This place takes a terrible toll on you Fritz, and there’s no time to lose”; he’s cracking up, has a dicky heart, and will be dead before the 25 minutes are out. Pierre leads Fritz around what appear to be Blake’s 7 industrial sites, so budget or no budget, some things remain the same.
Both Will and Fritz get dealt some hefty exposition, with Fritz’s on the technical side as he seeks to learn about the Pool of Fire, a forbidden area that is a database and central store of knowledge. Even Fritz seems a little in awe (“It’s just that, in comparison with all of this, our intentions seem rather crude”). Master 468 gives Will all he needs to know about the reasons for invading Earth. We also learn there was a pinch of truth in the supposition concerning the Tripods; there was an “early cybernetic form of life born towards the end of the twentieth century” and the possibility of interstellar civilisation.
Some of the Master’s comments just seem daft, however. We’re treated to a Hitchhiker’s-esque video representation of human evolution and learn that humans are the closest relatives the Masters could find in space; so they instantly think, “Let’s subjugate them”? There’s no insight into the Masters’ psyches. “Would you be my friend, Will?” asks 468 – sure until he kills you in a couple of weeks’ time.
Why the Masters would consider themselves ugly (“a penalty for longevity”) is mystifying, since that isn’t the way species usually function. Yet that’s why they have the Hall of Beauty (whose inhabitants will be awakened on a new world in hundreds of years); at least Christopher’s book incorporated the slight queasy notion of taxidermy (and thus emphasised their ignorance of real beauty).
2.8 The City of Gold
This is the one where it all goes terribly wrong conceptually. The one with Coggy (“You can call me Coggy”). The Cognosc stuff is such a load of old cobblers, it casts an adverse spell over the whole series, but on its own terms this episode is as watchable as any of those City-set. Woodvine does a nice line in star-struck anticipation of meeting Coggy (“In all my years, I have never yet had an audience and now it is to happen and all because of you”) only to be choicely deflated when he learns it is Will who will be summoned. It doesn’t make up for Coggy, but it’s a nice touch.
We also find out about gas bubbles, the Masters’ goolies (“The spot is extremely sensitive I could have been badly hurt, killed even, by such a blow”), and there’s a series of tiresome moments concerning Eloise. These include the offer for Will to be put into suspended animation and resume his life with her on Trion, culminating in a silly dream sequence where he dances around a cardboard mindscape full of clocks before losing her and being left with only a single slipper. One that has corporeal form on leaving the Cognosc realm (that energy drain thing we see next episode would seem to enable the formation of matter?) How very Cinderella.
Elsewhere Fritz has to endure further interrogations from Borman including the threat of having his head opened for examination of his cap. And why do some Masters see red while other see green? Because it’s cool. Eight is watchable, but egregious.
2.9 Blessings of the Cognosc
An improvement, even though there’s more of Coggy and much of the drama is generated from his decision to head off to be on his own somewhere. “The Cognosc comes first” we learn, but you’d have thought other Cognoscs would have a say in Coggy running down the City’s power
The state of caps is a concern for both Fritz and Will. The former avoids being linked up to the computer, to have knowledge info-dumped (Neo-style), while the Masters who summon Will to be questioned are not nearly as disposed towards his independence as 468. They consider his virtues (imagination, intelligence, creativity) to suggest he has been inadequately capped and that he may well be deceiving them in respect of Coggy.
This culminates in Boll giving 468 Will’s secret papers and the Master announcing to Will “The time has come to examine your cap”. Will dispatches his Master with a deft goolie punch, setting the scene for the best instalment of the entire series.
2.10 The Cognosc Departs
Will: No one has ever escaped from the city in a hundred years.
Fritz: No one has ever wanted to.
This is an excellent suspense thriller of an episode by any standards, as Fritz and Will rush about attempting to enable Will’s exit via the river flowing under the wall of the City. Director Bob Blagden deserves all the credit for keeping this tense and exciting.
Fritz is hero of the almost-half hour, coming up with the plans and keeping a level head. He suggests the Master’s death is made to look like suicide, and they leave gas bubbles about indicating an overdose of the good stuff. His icy response to Will’s panicked revelation (“Congratulations, you discovered a way of killing them”) is Fritz all over.
Just as they leave 468’s apartment, two investigating Masters arrive, and a similar pace is kept up when they leave a trail to the Place of Happy Release; Black Guards descend on it and they escape in a lift in the nick of time. For some reason, the IDs of Will aren’t photos, they’re drawings. Borman wears a nice sleeveless number when he goes to commune with his Master: black, of course.
The final dust-up is also dramatic, and leaves us with the revelation that Fritz is staying, a very risky proposition (how did he bunk off his shift after only being there twenty minutes, particularly with all the suspicion on him?) This is it for Fritz, and the City. It’s back to crappy old Tripods now.
2.11 Escape from the City of Gold
Beanpole has positioned himself at exactly the right spot, without knowing how Will will escape. Why he decides it’s Will in the white tunic is anyone’s guess too (charitably, he goes for the body with the breathing apparatus). Will eulogises his comrade left behind (“I used to think Fritz was such a pain, but he’s been fantastic”) and doesn’t appear to have aged at all after a couple of months inside. He is suffering from PTSD, however.
Beanpole theorises that a real cap gives off some sort of signal, which begs the question why Will and Fritz weren’t discovered automatically on entering the city, as part of routine scanning.
After a brief return to the Swiss location shoot, it’s back to laboriously invented filler material. Hardly the way to dramatically finish off the series, but there we are. It’s all aboard Ali Pasha’s Travelling Circus, which is at least elevated by a gleeful dastardly turn from Bruce Purchase (the Pirate Captain in Doctor Who’s The Pirate Planet), giving the only sort of performance he knows; a big one. Moons of madness!
“If they have the trick of disappearing, perhaps I should offer them employment?” he says to some nonplussed Black Guards searching for Will and Beanpole. The promise of silver chess pieces for passage to Geneva keeps him from turning them over immediately, and he and Madame Titty, I mean Fatima (Alexandra Dane), plot nefariously, particularly when foolish Will leaves a cap on the carpet (we get an answer to the pressing question regarding caps; they itch). Shackley’s mock sneezing after taking some of Ali’s snuff is toe curling.
Shackley and Seel are aptly summarised as “Just a couple of clowns making up” and they go on to prove their prodigious performance skills the following week. We’re also subjected to a brace of further young thespians of dubious range. Some of the lines are particularly loquacious for homeless orphans.
Virginia Fiol’s the only notable amongst their ranks (as Raquel, the one with a crush on Will). Apparently, the circus is tolerated as it is popular, but Ali is yet another example of there being little evidence that the capping has any effect at all on one’s capacity for invidiousness.
2.12 The Forest of Death
And so it comes to an end. And what a feeble ending it is. Yes, Christopher Barry gets to rehearse the night shoot light show of the first season’s climactic episode as Tripods pursue Will, Beanpole, and the circus orphans through some woods, but it’s on the back of a plotline entirely lacking in every respect.
The centrepiece is a circus performance that just goes on and on. Will and Beanpole are the worst clowns ever, and Will volunteers to be the knife thrower’s target after scolding Ali for whipping a girl (“Never use it again on a human being!”)
I liked the touch of a Tripod circus costume wobbling about in the background; a nice bit of cultural mythologising, like the Wicker Tripod in the first season. The arrival of a Tripod looming over the circus tent has a suitably ominous air, but it’s only in aid of selling off the kids as servants to the Black Guards.
Leading the circus urchins to safety across the Welsh mountains is akin to a cut-price Sound of Music. Will’s boo-hoo bad acting on discovery of the Free Men’s destroyed camp compounds the underwhelming nature of it all. A damp squib of an episode and a fizzle of an ending “We’ll be back very soon” promises Will to the kids. He fibbed.