A funny thing happened about three minutes into the first episode of The Tripods: I became enthralled. Well ok, it’s not so funny, really. The BBC has had science fiction television down to a (duh) science since at least ‘63, the year Dr. Who hit the small screen. Initially put off by the chintzy synth soundtrack and the overwhelming eighties-ness of the whole production, I realized my prejudgment was incorrect at the precise moment where the tripod extends its mechanical arm and picks up a character named Jack for “capping.” Jack was eventually released but I remained in The Tripods’ grasp for the remainder of the warm episode, spell-bound by the beautiful scenery, the intriguing story, and the consistently great acting.
The Tripods was one of several adaptations (including a serial comic in Boy’s Life magazine and an interactive fiction video game) of John Christopher’s (aka Samuel Youd and a load of other pen names) young adult trilogy of the same name, which was comprised of The White Mountains, The City of Gold and Lead and The Pool of Fire, all published in the late 1960s. Heavily indebted to but markedly different from H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, Christopher’s novels detail the adventures of Will, a thirteen year old English boy and his friends as they resist (and ultimately challenge) the rule of a race of aliens called “Masters” who have wielded gigantic, three-legged robots called “tripods” to enslave the unwitting human race. Got all that?
Good. But despite the drama inherent in the plot, both the series and the novels are light on the bleepy bloopy side of scifi and heavy on the philosophical. This particular post-apocalyptic world strays from the standards. It’s not, to take one cliche, rife with robots and video monitors or, to take the other, deserted and barren. There’s no manly man anti-hero at the helm. Rather, the fictional Wheton and its surrounding worlds are lush and non-industrial; its heroes are outcasts and teenagers. This, the first episode of the first series finds Will starting to ask questions about the mysterious “capping” ceremony, which is set to take place on the fourteenth birthday of all his village’s boys and girls. Like those asked in most post-apocalyptic worlds, Will’s questions are alternately snubbed, ridiculed, and finally answered by a shifty character, a “vagrant” (a villager whose capping has gone terribly, terribly wrong) who clues him in to the existence of the titular “White Mountains,” where he can supposedly escape from the technology-controlled, curiosity-deprived world of adulthood.
Barring the show’s composer (Ken Freeman, alleged inventor of the string synthesizer), there aren’t any standout names among the cast and crew of The Tripods (at least, not to a BBC/scifi layperson). As the BBC has proved again and again, putting a bunch of their stalwarts together and quietly letting them do their thing almost always yields quality television. If pressed to attribute the artistic success of The Tripods to one animal or vegetable, that would be producer Richard Bates. Bates was so enthusiastic about bringing the trilogy to television that he licensed the show all the way back in 1969, about fifteen years before his labor of love actually hit the airwaves. Bates was heavily invested in what was something of a dream project for him. Tripods superfan Graham Nelson notes, “Bates himself says that ‘It damn near killed me,’ and the other main players were as caught up as himself. Ken Freeman, for instance, recalls an obsessive period in which he ‘ate, slept and dreamt Tripods’. 1” While the show’s cancellation was a blow, Bates would go on to be produce a revered serial adaptation of The Darling Buds of May, which hit British television in the early nineties and launched the career of a young Catherine Zeta-Jones.
When it ended, I hoped that Network Awesome had the next episode on deck. Would Will and his pal ever get to the white mountains? Luckily, we can find out: There are two whole series of The Tripods out there, one covering the events of the first novel, the other covering the second. Unfortunately, it would appear that the suits in UK were hardly holding their collective breath in anticipation of a third series. Due to the classic conflict of interest presented by the hefty budget requirements of a decreasingly popular show, it was cancelled before the third series could be produced, despite the fact that it had already been written. Toss another shrimp on the “brilliant but canceled” barbie.
And like most shows deserving of that title, a vocal cult (and the obligatory fan-site that looks suspiciously like the personal homepage of every computer science professor I’ve ever had) has developed around the series. While it was on the air, the series occupied the hole in BBC’s coveted “teatime” slot on Saturday afternoons, filling a science fiction gap that the cancellation of the inimitable Dr. Who had left there for more than a year. The ratings steadily fell but the imagery of The Tripods was burned into the brains of a generation of BBC watchers (and subsequent generations of home video traders, Internet users, you know how it goes). It just might be rediscovered by a broader audience sooner than you’d think. The Tripods has been licensed for film for ages and a big screen adaptation could be out as early as next year. The Cult of the Tripods, a half hour documentary included with a 2009 DVD set, goes so far as to call The Tripods “The Trilogy to End All Trilogies,” and while I may hesitate to go that far, it truly is a lost classic.