Remembering THE TRIPODS: Series Two

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Will Egan returns for series two of The Tripods.

Previously - Remembering The Tripods: Series One

When we left our three young heroes they had (finally) reached the freemen of the ‘White Mountains’ and had promptly volunteered themselves to take part in ‘the Games’ so they can infiltrate the city of the Tripods. So it’s no surprise that we begin the second series in a rather overcast Snowdonia-sorry I mean the Swiss Alps, with the boys practicing their respective sports. Based on the second novel of John Christopher’s trilogy, The City of Gold and Lead the second series first debuted in late 1985.

One of the criticisms often levied against the first series of the show is a distinct lack of screen time for the titular villains. Series two rectifies this early on, with the first two episodes both featuring some serious Tripod action, including a particularly impressive attack scene in a forest as Will and Beanpole make their way to the games. There’s an enjoyable subplot involving the plague stricken bargeman’s wife in episode two, but episode three and four are probably the weakest of the entire series. The scene of the boys trying to hide from the Black Guards at a feast gets dull rather quickly, then descends into ludicrous farce (hiding under her dress, really?!?) and involves Pat Butcher committing one of the worst German scenes ever heard on screen.

The Games themselves are horribly underwhelming, mainly because they’ve blatantly been filmed at a disused and rather scruffy looking stadium. Compared to their magnificent city, it’s pretty clear arena building is not one of the strengths of Trion architects. The overall episode is really dull as it involves little more than multiple scenes of the boys taking part in their respective sports, although the last 5 minutes or so promise much more for the future. It’s fair to say that the moment Will and Fritz enter the city is when the series really kicks into second and maybe even third gear.

The more observant amongst you may have noticed that the ‘lineup’ of the main characters has changed in this series. Sadly, the excellent Jim Baker as Henry departs after just two episodes while Beanpole is missing from half of the series after failing in the long jump due to an injury sustained while investigating an abandoned home. Will is the only mainstay throughout and is now joined by Fritz (Robin Hayter), who seems to be something of a German version of Henry in all honesty.

Widely featured in the publicity for the series (including Blue Peter!), it’s fair to say the City of the Tripods is an impressive creation. In fact, the revealing shot of it is a pretty breathtaking moment and is probably the best effect seen in the majority of the BBC’s 80s sci-fi output. Due to winning their games, Will now becomes a servant for one of the ‘Masters’, while poor Fritz is forced down a mine by some slightly S&M looking Black Guards to do back-breaking work on a mysterious new construction. It’s often been noted that the scenes in the city now appear to have more than a slightly homoerotic whiff about them. The constant mentions of losing ‘interest in girls’, the rather tight white leotards the slaves wear (including a Freddie Mercury lookalike!) and the fact the nightclub is called the Pink Parrot have probably all contributed to these ideas. Once you get past the fact that some scenes look like they're part of a Frankie Goes to Hollywood music video, it soon becomes clear that the episodes set in the city are actually really good.

The Masters themselves are an interesting bunch, showcasing a rare attempt in classic BBC science fiction to create a non-humanoid alien life form. In general, they look surprisingly good, although there is an unintentionally stupid scene where two speak in their own Trionian language. John Woodvine is an excellent choice as the voice for Will’s Master West 468 (named after his street and house number) and the scenes between them were some of my favorites in these episodes. Fritz meanwhile escapes the mine to spend most of his time in the ‘power sect’ area of the city, which is in fact an underground power complex that one can visit if you wish to go to a ‘geeky’ TV filming spot (info at Alas, I visited long before my discovery of the wonder of the Tripods.

The episodes rattle along during this part of the series at a cracking pace, although there’s the occasional scene that drags on too long such as the ‘panic in the city’ scene that involves a lot of teenagers in very ‘kinky’ gear looking shocked. A definite highlight is Will finally meeting the true Masters of the city, the mysterious ‘Cognosc’ delightfully voiced as an almost manic child by Christopher Guard. Absent from the books, very little is ever discovered about these all-powerful entities but there is a great dream scene between Will and Eloise (now played by Cindy Shelley after Charlotte Long’s tragic death) that’s revealed to be nothing more than a ‘teasing game’ of the Cognosc.

The city escape scene is rather thrilling by The Tripods standards, although the final two episodes are a little disappointing. After half an episode is wasted of Beanpole rescuing Will from the river, the two boys spend most of their time with a travelling circus. Bruce Purchase who played the Pirate Captain in Doctor Who’s The Pirate Planet is somehow even more manic as the circus ringleader here, while the scenes of performances to escape the Black Guards drag on for too long and are hardly riveting. The members of the circus are actually an interesting bunch with Virginia Fiol giving a particularly good performance; while the scenes of them chased by Tripods in the dark depths of the forest are rather creepy. The reveal scene of the destroyed Freemen is a really rather shocking and leaves a brilliant cliffhanger for the third series.

Only it never happened. The scenes of Will screaming, “Has it all been for nothing?” have taken upon a new level of meaning as this was to be the final scene of the entire series. Unfortunately, the accountants of the BBC and Michael Grade (say no more) had decided that the series was not pulling in enough viewers compared to its relatively high production values. So it was that the third and final series was never made and we are therefore left with the highly unusual case that the villains have apparently won (on screen at least).

Thankfully, the legacy of The Tripods has lived on and Disney has even held the film rights since 1997, although a movie has yet to appear. Groups such as the League of the Freemen have kept the series in the memory of many and both series are now available on DVD, which I highly recommend buying. Of course, the books are still available including the unsurprising ‘tie-in’ version above with John Christopher also penning a prequel, When The Tripods Came in 1988. Although the Tripods does have a number of flaws (slow, wooden acting, outrageous costumes) in the end it’s a hugely enjoyable ‘boys adventure’ with some cracking events, brilliant cliffhangers, a superb score from Ken Freeman and is just a wonderful piece of classic British science-fiction. I can say safely that The Tripods did not disappoint me at all (frustrated occasionally, perhaps) and I'd urge others to check it out.

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.

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