Will Egan remembers The Tripods.
It’s 1984. For the past two years Doctor Who has left it’s traditional Saturday teatime slot in favour of two episodes at the start of the week on Monday and Tuesday. A new science fiction show is about to air in its former slot, with a much larger budget that has created anger in the Doctor Who production offices. It’s even got a Radio Times cover heralding it’s new, terrifying monsters, the titular Tripods themselves.
In the preceding 32 years The Tripods has become a slightly ‘forgotten’ piece of BBC science fiction, except for in what one may call ‘geek circles’. Although there were rumors of it being made into a Hollywood blockbuster a few years ago there has no talk of a television reboot and it hasn’t re-appeared on Big Finish either, where many similar titles have seen resurgence on audio. My knowledge of the series only began a year ago or so, which led to an inevitable Tripods marathon over the Christmas period.
The series is based on three young adult novels by John Christopher in the 1960s-The White, The City of Gold and Lead, and The Pool of Fire with series one being based on the first novel. The story is relatively straightforward-by 2089AD Earth has been invaded and enslaved by the Tripods plunging it back to a pre-industrial age, with humans being kept placid by ‘caps’ that remove any thoughts of rebellion. Our three young heroes-Will Parker, Henry Parker and Jean-Paul (Beanpole)- are attempting to reach the free men in the White Mountains. The first series covers their journey through France to these fabled lands, avoiding dangers such as the Tripods, Black Guards, cannibal vagrants and erm, marriage along the way.
The phrase ‘boys own ‘adventure’ has often been applied to The Tripods, and it’s very apt as there are barely any female characters. Although an improvement over the books, women are poorly served with Will’s love interest Eloise and Madame Vichot being the most prominent. Of the three main boys, Jim Baker impresses most as Henry, showing glimpses of a good acting talent that was sadly never pursued. John Shackley as Will is more of a ‘dashing young hero’, although his performance noticeably improves as the series moves along, and Ceri Steel plays the somewhat thankless role of Beanpole well.
Adapting a short book (272 pages) into a total of 6.5 hours of screen time is always going to result in padding and that’s certainly the case with The Tripods. Although the idea of being ‘trapped’ on their journey at their Chateau and the vineyard plays into the overall narrative nicely, being stuck in the same location with little going on becomes tedious for the viewer after 3 or 4 episodes. The decision to shoot the series on videotape as opposed to film creates a slightly cheap looking quality, and it’s painfully obvious that the supposed Alps of France are in fact a very cold and wet Snowdonia in North Wales.
Much was made of the visual effects for the series before it emerged, so it’s surprising to see how few appearances the titular machines actually make, presumably due to budgetary constraints. In fact, they only appear prominently in around 5 of the first series 13 episodes, with most appearances being little more than ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ glimpses. It’s a shame as they are undoubtedly impressive models and the scenes of our three heroes being chased across the ‘Alps’ by a host of Tripods in the penultimate episode are genuinely thrilling. The use of the Black Guards (absent in the novels) to make up for a lack of Tripod action generally works, although they don’t have the same level of fear attached, with thousands of 80s children’s suffering phobias to that screech!
Perhaps the best episode in the first series it its fourth, as the boys explore a deserted and destroyed Paris. The effects of the abandoned city created by Paintbox, stand up surprisingly well, with Ken Freeman providing a particularly eerie score that makes some of the scenes in this section very creepy. There are other great moments throughout the first run of 13 episodes-the strange, mute cannibal vagrants who appear to worship the Tripods are underused but terrifying, the Tripod attacking the barn looks great and there’s some lovely interplay between the characters. Even the chateau and vinery scenes have a certain twee charm to them, albeit one that outstays its welcome.
Of course, it would be wrong to discuss the Tripods first series without mentioning the synth-king himself, Ken Freeman. Creator of the original Casualty theme and bizarrely never hired for Doctor Who, this man knew how to create electrical terror. Some of his earlier compositions during the long walking scenes do sound rather daft, but the thudding music accompanying the spotting of a Tripod raises the fear factor greatly. Oh, and the show has one of the best theme tunes ever.
The series ends with the three boys finally joining the Free Men in the White Mountains and volunteering to take part in the Games to enter the Tripod City. But that’s a story for next time….
Studies archaeology by day, frees the universe of evil, injustice and
cold tea by night. Will walks in an eternity of cult BBC science fiction
series and Big Finish. Follow him on twitter.