When setting out to make The Tripods for BBC TV, producer Richard Bates faced the daunting prospect of having his work judged against two veritable institutions. Firstly, there was the source material: the critically and popularly acclaimed trilogy of books by John Christopher (the SF pen name of prolific author Sam Youd). Secondly, there was Doctor Who, in whose traditional Saturday evening timeslot The Tripods was to be broadcast, and against whose ailing ratings it would be measured as a successful (or otherwise) purveyor of children’s SF drama. Working in Bates’s favour was, of course, the strength of Youd’s post-apocalyptic, historically regressed invasion-cum-resistance adventure narrative, but also a budget of unprecedented splendour and the opportunity to shoot on location across England, Wales and Switzerland. Composer Ken Freeman – who’d previously played keyboards on Jeff Wayne’s musical interpretation of The War of the Worlds – synthesised a classic score full of portent and menace. Veteran Doctor Who director Christopher Barry was brought in to direct. The battle lines were set.
“This was when Richard Bates was making The Tripods. He scrupulously sent advance scripts and asked for comments and thanked me for them, but took no notice.” – Sam Youd, interviewed by Colin Brockhurst in 2009.Series 1 of The Tripods comprises 13 half-hour episodes (although these appear to have been edited down to 25 minutes for commercial broadcast and, frustratingly, at least some editions of the DVD), and follows The White Mountains, which is the first book of Youd’s trilogy. Screenwriter Alick Rowe clearly set out to closely capture the spirit and much of the detail of the original book, and at first any deviations reflect merely the disparity that necessarily must exist between a written first-person narrative and a more visual depiction of context and conflict. That the adaptation becomes looser as the series progresses can largely be explained (and was, by Bates to Youd) as a different sort of necessity: that of having used up the allotted portion of location work and thus having to extemporise new material for a studio setting. Despite any affront this might have caused to those who read first and watched second, the narrative and its realisation remain compelling. The eponymous tripods are used sparingly, but to good purpose, and where The Tripods overtly broke from Doctor Who’s mould in allocating more of its budget towards realistic settings and effects than towards a high-profile principal and guest cast, nevertheless the acting stands up. The three main characters (Will, Henry and Beanpole) are adolescents, and the actors (John Shackley, Jim Baker and Ceri Seel), though largely inexperienced, were rigorously auditioned – there were 400 applicants for the role of Will – and play well off each other in carrying the story forward. (Many viewers today would be genuinely surprised to learn that none of the three went on to establish an acting career subsequent to The Tripods.) The cliff-hangers are less forced and certainly no less effective than the pantomimic “end of episode” howlers that seemed de rigueur of John Nathan-Turner’s Doctor Who at the time, and perhaps the worst criticism that can be made of the first series of The Tripods is that some of its more extreme moments of character imperilment are, upon resumption, glossed over with little or even no explanation proffered. Notwithstanding such liberties, the production as a whole succeeds admirably in portraying both the subjugation of mankind and the three boys’ at times harrowing quest to find the free men living in the white mountains. The Tripods averaged somewhere in the vicinity of 6.3 million viewers across the 13 episodes of its lustrous debut. A month later Doctor Who returned to Saturday evenings after its dalliance with midweek broadcasts, and in comparison averaged 7.1 million for the season.
“After the reasonably faithful book-replication at the beginning, I was probably bound to find the increasingly wide divergences irritating. My guess was that someone thought he could improve things by following a more orthodox science-fiction path. … I just thought it silly. The second series got so far off my path that I just couldn’t recognise it.” – Sam Youd, ibid.Series 2 of The Tripods comprises 12 half-hour (or 25-minute) episodes, and ostensibly is based on The City of Gold and Lead – the second book of Youd’s trilogy, in which Will and newcomer Fritz (Robin Hayter) infiltrate one of the tripods’ cities and encounter the beings who have enslaved mankind. The acting remains very good, as do the special effects in fashioning an alien environment that successfully walks a tightrope between the bedazzlingly futuristic and the fuzzy electrobuzz of Plastic Bertrand’s music video for Ça Plane Pour Moi. The story adaptation, however, in the second series comes not from Alick Rowe but rather courtesy of Christopher Penfold, who had made numerous contributions to Space: 1999 and seems to have taken this as some sort of creative licence to senselessly pervert Youd’s original work. With no obvious impetus for doing so, Penfold cuts the casual brutality of the alien masters and pastes it (along with a recurring, fetishist riff) onto privileged macho men guards whose function is inexplicable within the world setting and who present more as a sadistic clique of collaborationists than the docile, mind-controlled slaves of the book. By spurning not just the physical but also the textual gravity of Youd’s scenario, Penfold strips the series of much of its narrative weight, thereby rendering The Tripods in much the same faux dark, yet garish and rather discordant shades that ran through mid-eighties Who. Considered as an unfolding adventure, series two of The Tripods still holds the viewer’s attention, but there are jarring ups and downs, and by the point where Penfold has invested his version of the city of gold and lead with a kitsch synth-sleaze nightclub and a wholly manufactured, manifestly unnecessary second race of alien beings, audience figures were starting to drop, averaging out at 5.1 million across the twelve episodes. This, as it turned out, was more than the next season of Doctor Who would manage (4.8 million), but it was at best a Pyrrhic victory. Michael Grade (then controller of BBC1) had little time for SF that didn’t pull its weight, and so Doctor Who was sent into hiatus, Colin Baker uttering the bitter parting words “Carrot juice, carrot juice, carrot juice”. The Tripods was axed altogether, and what had been intended as an Empire Strikes Back-style purgatorial ending that would leave people pining for the third series (“Has it all been for nothing?” Will laments), turned out to be the proverbial it: a most sombre and unsatisfying conclusion indeed.
Never repeated by the BBC, yet fondly remembered and in sufficient demand as to be released 25 years later on DVD, The Tripods remains an engrossing SF adventure drama that will appeal to today’s young adult audience every bit as much as it did to that of the mid-1980s. Though relatively sedate in terms of plot, none of the episodes feel slow-moving. In fact, viewers may well find themselves swept along, watching several instalments at a time and caught up in events until the bad penny drops and suddenly, confoundingly, the adventure is cut short. It is impossible now to say whether the unmade third series would have done justice to The Pool of Fire – the concluding book, in which Will, Henry, Beanpole and Fritz head a last-ditch attack to overthrow the masters and save the Earth from the deadly terraforming that has been planned. It could perhaps have been as rousing and poignant as Youd’s own dénouement. In the wrong hands it could have been a fiasco. Without the act of observation, we’ll never know; but if the series’ cancellation hangs dourly over television history, clouding our appreciation of the BBC, at least in this instance there is a silver lining: very few people who watch The Tripods will be content to finish off where Michael Grade drew his bottom line; many will turn to the novels, and in doing so will come to know Sam Youd’s enthralling trilogy (plus prequel) in its written form, and also, hopefully, the wider canon of his John Christopher output and thence the enduring lure of imaginative and well-crafted science fiction.
DVD release: 23/9/2009 (2|entertain / BBC Worldwide). Original broadcast: 15/9/1984 – 8/12/1984 (Series 1); 7/9/1985 – 23/11/1985 (Series 2).