Monday 7 January 2013

The Tripods

Society works best when we're all working towards a common goal as it promotes a healthy sense of organisation. It's when a little bit of chaos and rule-bending comes into play that the foundations of society wobble a little bit.

However, I'm all for a bit of a free will. Well, as far as 'free will' can actually be realised. Anyway, yes, we need a little bit of freedom as it elevates us above the status of a subservient drone. And, it's this relative freedom which allows mankind to advance and develop new ideas.

What if, though, this free will was suddenly disabled? Sure, we'd be organised, but to a sinisterly mundane level of herd like efficiency. And, just consider for a second, what if this free will was curtailed by a gang of three legged, bulbous cyclops eyed aliens with a rather dubious taste in club culture?

The answer, of course, lies in The Tripods.

Genre: Sci-fi
Channel: BBC1
Transmission: 15/09/1984 - 23/11/1985

Will Parker (John Shackley) and his cousin Henry Parker (Jim Baker) are both hurtling towards that magnificent adolescent milestone of hitting 16 years old. However, whereas in the present day this entitles the individual to an enhanced sense of freedom, Will and Henry are facing a rather different proposition.

Around 100 years previous, a mysterious alien force, travelling in enormous, three legged metal machines, invaded Earth and comfortably took control of the entire population. Through a process of 'capping', whereby a metal cap is implanted to the skull, the Tripods have managed to wipe out concepts such as war and greed, but all at the expense of humanity's free will.

And it just happens that this capping process takes place on humans when they reach 16. Will and Henry aren't entirely keen on the whole capping process, but their doubts are magnified exponentially once they meet a seemingly crazy vagrant with tales about what the Tripods are really up to.

A vagrant, of course, is one whose capping went wrong, resulting in their brains being permanently scrambled and being pushed to the edges of society due to their manic uselessness. However, the vagrant that Will and Henry encounter has an unrivalled wealth of wisdom and knowledge about the society they live in.

Naturally, Ozymandias (Roderick Horn) is most definitely not a vagrant. In fact, he's part of a collective known as the Freemen who plan to bring down the Tripods and re-install man as the shaper of his own destiny.  Ozymandias advises Will and Henry to skip their capping and head across the Channel to join the Freemen in the White Mountains.

Along the way, Will and Henry will pick up their trusted ally Beanpole (Ceri Seel), a French youth with a curious and inventive mind, as they make the long and arduous trek to the White Mountains. Once there they will begin planning to not only infiltrate the Tripod's domed base, but also bring them crashing down on their three legs.

Bringing The Tripods to Life

Broadcast between 1984 - 1985 over the course of 25 episodes, The Tripods was a joint adaptation by the BBC and Australia's Network Seven of the trilogy of Tripods novels authored by John Christopher in the 1960s.

Producing the show - and catalyst for it's inception - was Richard Bates who brought in Alick Rowe to adapting the trilogy. The menacing score to accompany this adaptation, powered by an army of furious synthesisers, was Ken Freeman (no relation to the Freemen).

The show was handed the Saturday 6.30pm slot on BBC1 which had previously been the home to Doctor Who for many years. As a result, The Tripods was privy to a heavy round of promotion which involved numerous TV slots and the front cover of the Radio Times.

And key to the buzz surrounding The Tripods were the lavish special effects which would become the sole focus of all promotions. Utilising a Quantel Paintbox workstation, the team behind The Tripods could manipulate video images in a way which Doctor Who could only dream of.

However, despite The Tripods being built up as revolutionary take on TV sci-fi, it was to fall foul of Michael Grade's war on TV sci-fi. Therefore, despite The Tripods' narrative being comprised of a trilogy of books, only the first two were adapted for TV before the project was cancelled.

The viewing figures hit a peak of 9.5 million viewers, but the average audience was around 6 million. Not terrible for the time, but disappointing when compared to the viewing figures that The A-Team was achieving on ITV. Michael Grade explained the decision to drop The Tripods thusly:

"Response to the first series of The Tripods was very disappointing both in terms of popularity and appreciation. The second series has shown no improvement"

Perhaps the biggest and most heartfelt tragedy relating to The Tripods was the death of actress Charlotte Long who portrayed Will's love interest, Eloise de Ricordeau, in the first series. After Charlotte's death in a motor accident, she was replaced for a non speaking scene in the second series by Cindy Shelley

An Exploration of Free Will

I was still in nappies by the time the first series of The Tripods aired, so missed the whole affair the first time round. My introduction to sci-fi TV came around a year after the second series of The Tripods finished when I started watching this little known show called Doctor Who. I often wonder what happened to that.

Anyway, I soon become addicted to sci-fi and was particularly intrigued by these strange VHS tapes I started seeing in shops for some show called The Tripods. It looked intriguing, but my pocket money wasn't enough to purchase one of these mysterious videos which featured an array of beguiling images.

A few years later I started secondary school and, nestling in the school library, was a compilation of all three books from The Tripod's trilogy. And, best of all, it was a TV tie-in version of the story and featured a large screenshot on the front cover along with some suitably retro 80s fonts.

Unfortunately, I didn't get far reading it as I was beginning to forego books for the pleasures of late night TV that I was now aware of thanks to finally getting a TV in my bedroom. A clear case of TV trampling all over literature, but I just had to watch The Vicar of Dibley, okay?

I never forgot about The Tripod's, though, and it's dystopian vision haunted my thoughts regularly. Thankfully, 2009 finally saw the complete series released on DVD, so I could finally hold The Tripods up to the light and examine all its resplendent glory whilst cowering in the shadow of its chilling bleakness.

Now, the biggest accusation attributed towards The Tripods is that it's overlong and takes far, far too long to get from A to B. And, you know what? It's a damn good point. The first book in The Tripod's trilogy comes in at around 200 pages, but on TV this is stretched out to six and a half hours.

Whilst certain sections are quite, quite amazing - such as the abandoned Paris scenes which contain the same terrifying shivers as The Walking Dead - other passages feel like a slow trudge through treacle. Perhaps the most mind numbing are the Chateau sequences which drag on for an interminable amount of time, but add barely a footnote to The Tripods' narrative.

The episodes at the vineyard are also frustratingly dull, but they do feature some fascinating scenes where Madame Vichot (Anni Lee Taylor) reveals her capping was not 100% successful in eradicating her sense of wonder. More interesting revelations such as this sprinkled throughout the first series would have made for much more engaging viewing.

The first series also contains a number of episodes which see Will, Henry and Beanpole walking long distances with very little happening, but I've always found these episodes resonated strongly with me. They evoke that gang like mentality we all fall into during our youth and recall, for me anyway, many endless walks where crushing mundanity was the norm.

Much more exhilarating, however, is the second series which starts at a brisk pace with our heroes planning an audacious expedition into the heart of The Tripod's main city. Although there's still a sense of wandering boredom at times, the length of the second series is packed full of variety thanks to the shifting narrative and this goes some way towards atoning for the first series' sluggish pace.

Perhaps most captivating in the second series' narrative (and indeed the entire series) is the friendship which Will strikes up with his Master (named 468). Despite the nefarious intentions of 468 and his associates, he appears to be genuinely interested in Will. This interest however, is just as nefarious as his end goals, but Will must persevere with this facade to glean what precious information he can.

The second series also contains a particularly trippy scene where Will meets one of the most powerful beings in The Tripod's city, the Cognosc. A particularly high brow piece of sci fi, it's a mind bending piece of TV which sees Will's conscience being invaded and analysed by this high level consciousness. It's disturbing, but also helps to kick start Will's dramatic escape from the city.

The fear and bewilderment generated by The Tripods isn't purely limited to cerebral exercises either. There are also a number of visual scares for kids to peek through their fingers out.The forest scene featuring filthy hordes of cannibal vagrants is akin to something from a horror film and the late night Tripod hunts are dizzying displays of predator-prey relationships.

However, the accusations of prolonged thumb twiddling levelled against The Tripods are most certainly fair. It was moving in the right direction, though, and maybe the third series would have been a particularly pacy beast. Sadly we'll never know.

The special effects employed in The Tripods are, of course, one of the big talking points, so let's take a look at these. Well, yes, they're certainly leagues ahead of Doctor Who and Blakes 7, so it's encouraging that the BBC were ready to explore new techniques. However, it would have been even nicer had they been a bit more generous with the special effects.

They're certainly impressive, for the time, but the majority of the first series allocates less than a minute per episode to these eye-catching effects. The rest of the time, all we're treated to is the bottom third of a Tripod's leg which must have been nothing short of a nightmare to transport about and position.

Again, much like the plot, the second series seems to pick up in this respect and the special effects are much more prevalent. In particular, the scenes set within The Tripod's city are exciting little slices of visual delight and hint at a level of design Doctor Who could benefit from, but never did (Trial of a Timelord opening scene aside).

The non-computer generated effects, however, are your typical archaic BBC designs of the day which still appear to be stuck in a Jon Pertwee era episode of Doctor Who. I'm always particularly irked by the amateurish 'Monster Munch' design of the Masters which undo a lot of the goodwill built up by the computer graphics.

Nonetheless, The Tripods retains a striking aesthetic and is definitely an interesting peek into production techniques of the time. One completely bonkers area of the production, though, is the homoerotic take on club culture which is beamed through The Pink Parrot nightclub for the slaves in The Tripod's city. Frankly, it looks like the venue for a great, lost Frankie Goes to Hollywood video. And who doesn't want to appear in such a thing?

Special mention also needs to go to Ken Freeman's soundtrack which conjures up the required emotional smorgasbord of aural delights to match the action beat for beat. Anything less broody and electronic would have felt like an anticlimactic score, but here it's a wonderfully aggressive stab of electronic coldness which embody the sinister movements of The Tripods.

And what about the young actors journeying through this landscape of slow thrills and sumptuous visual delights? Well, as with most British TV of the 1980s, the acting is a suspect mixture of the decent, the wooden and the downright monotone.

Our three leads, thankfully, manage to be an engaging bunch. Although Jim Baker takes a little while to get going, he's settled into his groove as Henry Parker by the end of the first series and grows throughout the second series. Beanpole, meanwhile, has a geekish, intelligent charm which Ceri Seel conveys through a mixture of natural smarts and charismatic patter.

Most exciting, though, is John Shackley who displays an impressive range of emotions whilst playing Will. From rallying against The Tripods wicked ways, to infiltrating The Tripod's inner sanctum and his romantic liaisons with Eloise, Shackley demonstrates he's a capable young actor, but sadly acting wasn't for him and he departed the world of showbiz shortly afterwards.

As I've already mentioned, there's also a lot of sub par acting on offer and it's difficult, and rather unfair, to single any particular actors out. If we're going to highlight anyone else for their acting then it would be Roderick Horn as Ozymandias whose time on screen is only fleeting, but he always retains that aura of an old, trusted friend you're delighted to see.

It's a charm which is missing, perhaps, too often from The Tripods but reminds you that there's some magic contained deep within the show's DNA.

Triumvirate of Brilliance?

Whatever you say about The Tripods, you can't say it's boring. Well, you can, but that's all part of it's curious charm and underlines its cult appeal.

Being based upon a fantastic trilogy of books (and they really are rather splendid), the BBC found themselves in an enviable position with The Tripods on their hands. Unfortunately, the adaptation process, for rather inexplicable reasons, has gorged itself on an excess of banal, humdrum adventures.

Although this appeared to have been rectified by the second series, it's no surprise that the viewing figures were so disappointing. A more streamlined episode run, maybe 6 - 8 episodes, could have created a tighter narrative to keep viewers on course, but this was not to be the case.

Nonetheless, The Tripods contains plenty to explore and there's the unfettered imaginations of how the third series would have unfolded to keep you busy for years to come.


Jim Baker interview from Fantasy Image issue 3, 1985


  1. I come across as very naive and a little disrespectful, which isn't how I'd wish to sound, but overall reading this article again has brought back many memories, and yes those ARE my answers as far as I can remember...cringe cringe!!

    1. You were the only one out of the 3 that went on to more acting .

      Beanpole Ceri Seel was only active as an actor for a few years in his youth. Today the devout Buddhist works as a teacher in London .

      John Shackley He now lives with his wife and children in Chile. He works in a senior position for a major hotel chain.

      I wonder the show cancel 3rd series turned them off acting ?
      After watching Tripods Dvd ..found out which was sad
      Charlotte Long, who played Will's love interest Eloise, died in a car crash shortly after the start of transmission of the first series. For the second series, the role was briefly recast, with Cindy Shelley appearing as Eloise during a dream sequence.

  2. Thanks for visiting, Jim! We're honoured!

  3. Classic tv: crying shame that Grade and the bean counters at the Beeb didnt appreciate the fact at the time!

  4. Great article. I just watched this all again on youtube (i first saw it when it aired) and cant believe the 3rd series wasn't made. I've read the books and it wouldve made excellent watching.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Stephen! Means a lot!

      Yeah, I'd love to have seen the third series on TV, but God knows how they would have managed all that action on a 1980s budget!

  5. I was 8 or so when i watched these, in place of dr who. Loved it & read books at same time.Think i missed first series. On dvd series 2 turns out 2 be a lot better. The 3 central characters are great & the sfx blew me away back then. Plus an epic quest reminiscent of LOTR(perhaps 4 me only!?)Fab 4 learning a bit of French too!

  6. I was a fan of the show as a kid, it was horrible when they cancelled it. Ive been watching it on DVD recently. They should animate the third they have been doing with the lost Doctor Who episodes.

    1. That's not a bad idea! Can't ever see it being made but there is definitely a market for it

  7. Animation is the way to go if they want to make the series complete. It is so long now the original actors couldn't possibly do it and recasting is unlikely. I would love it if they at least did this as the series was one of a kind. War of the worlds is not as good at all despite people saying it is very alike. It is a much better concept. I love the tripods. RIP John Christopher.

  8. I LOVED this show as a kid. As someone else mentioned, I too was 8 years old in 1984, and just the right age for a sense of wonder. I bought the trilogy of books after the 3rd series was cancelled. Loved it, but also, as someone mentioned, it may be hard for them to have made in the 1980s (although maybe not-the 2nd series was wonderful, and the city of gold is a difficult concept to realise)

    People have said that the Pink Parrot and other aspects of the city have a weird vibe to them-I never saw it that way! Not then, and not now. There WERE females in the city, it wasn't like a bunch of men were dancing with each other.

    Jim Baker speaks of the lovey-dovey aspects. I personally REALLY liked the addition of the vineyard family in the first series, and I especially thought Kristy (Henry's love interest) was cute (remember, I was only 9). I did think the two girls in the second series (who befriended Will and Beanpole before and during the games) were a bit over the top. I remember one episode ending with the four of them in a passionate kiss (I mean two separate couples) and I thought that was too much.

    I know they probably won't make the third series, but if they did, I think they could still use the same actor who played Fritz. Remember, the city ages you, and he doesn't get out for a few months.

    This is just a nitpick (about the books really). I never understood why they would send Beanpole to the games. I would think he would be more useful at the base rediscovering and inventing. He is a scientific genius after all!

    I do like how in the show, there is a bit more technology than in the books. The Freemen have electricity as an example. I don't think the outside world should have what it does though-at one point in the show, the boys seem a steam train, and also the boat that takes them to the games has an engine (that Beanpole manages to fix)

    Those are tiny nitpicks, but I am glad to share them with someone who knows what I am talking about (none of my friends have even heard of the Tripods)

    Ok, well, thanks for reading my rambling ravings!