When the Tripods came to TV

First published: 2018

Chris Hallam examines an alien invasion saga with a difference…

It is now been over fifty years since the Tripods first strode boldly onto the British science fiction landscape.

Alien invasion stories were, of course, nothing new, even then. The difference was that in the Tripods’ case, the invasion was already over. Planet Earth was long defeated and seemingly totally in thrall to their new metallic masters: gigantic hemispheres supported by three gigantic legs. Creator John Christopher later admitted he’d “unconsciously stolen” the idea of the Tripods’ appearance from the Martian conquerors of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. He was being modest. There are definite similarities between the two. But there was rather more to the Tripods than that.

The first book to feature the metallic monsters, The White Mountains written by John Christopher (whose real name was Sam Youd) appeared in 1967. Two more books, The City of Gold and Lead and The Pool of Fire soon followed. Then, in the mid-Eighties, the first two books were made into two BBC TV series. A final book, a prequel, When The Tripods Came appeared in 1988. Primarily aimed at a teenage audience, the Tripods had become a science fiction franchise in their own right.

The enemy within

At first it seems as if there is nothing wrong. Aside from a few ominous references to “Tripods” and people being “Capped,” the first few pages of the opening volume (The White Mountains) suggest the book is set at some point in England’s past, specifically Winchester, perhaps in or around the year 1800. Only gradually do we learn the truth. Early on, the young main characters are confused by an ancient sign: “Danger, 6,600 volts”. It means nothing to them, but to us, the meaning is only too clear. This is the future: perhaps a century or more from now. But it is a future where human development has been pushed back to pre-industrial levels. The main characters have never even heard of trains, cars or electricity. It is as if the industrial revolution never happened.

As in Orwell’s 1984, the populace has been fed a misleading portrait of the pre-invasion world. “We know it was the Black Age,” says one character. “There were too many people, and not enough food, so that people starved and fought each other and there were all kind of sicknesses…” It is not simply propaganda which is blighting the path of human development, however.

We do not have to wait long before we meet the source of the problem. The gigantic robotic Tripods stalk the Earth “Capping” humans in a special ceremony organised by the already Capped adults for their young as soon as they reach adolescence. The Caps are metal plates fused to the heads of the humans through which the conquered native population receive orders from the Tripod conquerors. The Capped are not zombies, not exactly. They still talk, eat, drink, do jobs, get married, farm and cook. But their minds are no longer truly their own.

As if this wasn’t chilling enough, we soon learn that as many as one in twenty Cappings fail: the Tripod’s messages are unable to reach the human brain properly, leaving the wearers in a state of perpetual confused delirium. The result is that a sizeable swathe of the populace is made up of the consequences of these malfunctions: sad wandering figures known as “Vagrants”.

It is from one such ‘Vagrant’ – in fact, a man pretending to be one, who goes by the name “Ozymandias”- that the book’s hero, Will Parker comes to realise the truth, only days before he is due to be Capped himself. Discouraged by the slavish Stepford Wife-like quality that befalls the personality of his friend Jack after his Capping (a process that involves being drawn into and briefly taken off by a Tripod), Will is determined to avoid such a fate. He flees and begins a perilous journey, ultimately joined by two colleagues: his cousin Henry and a tall, highly intelligent French boy known as “Beanpole”. They travel to the one region of the planet apparently free of Tripod influence: the white mountains of Switzerland.

Fifty years on, the book remains a compelling read. The Tripods themselves appear relatively infrequently, ensuring maximum impact when they do appear: sometimes as a distant but still unnerving presence lumbering across the horizon or occasionally looming up and lashing out, attacking ships or people apparently on a whim. There are even stories of the Tripods letting captured humans run free before hunting them down for sport. The book has some similarities to John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids in which another group of futuristic children escape their pre-industrial homesteads, albeit for very different reasons.

Origin of the species

But who or what exactly are the Tripods and where do they come from?

Ozymandias, the man who inspires Will’s journey, has a couple of ideas. “There are two stories about them,” he begins. “One is that they were machines made by men, which revolted against men and enslaved them…The other story is that they do not come from this world at all, but another.”

Both of these stories turn out to be partly true. The Tripods do come from outer space but the means by which they took power turns out to be through the man-made medium of television. Once in charge, they ensured humanity reverted to a pre-industrial level of technological development, perhaps to protect themselves from a sophisticated military assault or at the very least to prevent nasty rumours being spread about them on the internet.

Ozymandias also speculates that the Tripods may be just the vehicles for the alien controllers within. We learn more about this in the second novel, The City of Gold and Lead in which Will and another boy, Fritz adopt fake Caps and are able to gain access to one of the domed cities in which the Tripods’ hideous Masters live. Conditions are appalling for humans. The gravity levels are set at a much higher level than usual, to make the Masters feel at home but making it almost impossible for humans to move. Will also discovers that the Masters’ ultimate aim is to flood out the Earth’s oxygen with their own poisonous green air, rendering human survival impossible but ensuring the Masters can wander about as they please. A spaceship providing the means to do this is apparently only a few years away from reaching the Earth.

In the final book of the trilogy, The Pool of Fire, the battle to defeat the Tripods thus becomes very urgent indeed.

The trilogy ended. But with the Tripods having conquered the Earth by harnessing the power of TV, surely it made sense that in the real world, the Tripods should try and conquer the world of TV for themselves? In 1984 and 1985, this finally happened: the Tripods came to BBC1. Whether they may genuinely said to have conquered the medium remains to be seen.

A trilogy in two parts

The first series of The Tripods was broadcast in the popular BBC 1 Saturday afternoon teatime slot, across 13 weeks between September and December 1984. It had been a long struggle: producer Richard Bates had been trying to get the series on the box since the early 1970s.

It was a busy time for sci-fi and fantasy. The US extra-terrestrial series V had just been broadcast on ITV that summer and Ghostbusters was first shown in UK cinemas in December. On the British front, the Fifth Doctor Peter Davison had just regenerated into the Sixth, Colin Baker, Children’s ITV had just shown the terrifying John Wyndham adaptation, Chocky (also produced by The Tripods’ Richard Bates) and in November, the BBC launched its dark Christmas fantasy, The Box of Delights featuring the onetime Second Doctor Who, Patrick Troughton.

The series opened with a caption stating it was the year 2089AD, followed by the appearance of a 19th century style horse and cart. What followed was a generally faithful translation of the book from page to screen. It’s always easy to mock old British TV sci-fi but The Tripods was a big deal at the time and had a reasonable budget. A 12-part series based on the second book appeared in the autumn of 1985.

There was a fair amount of publicity.  The series made the cover of the Radio Times and a computer game was produced for the ZX Spectrum. The three young main cast members, John Shackley, Jim Baker and Ceri Seel appeared on Blue Peter and were interviewed by presenters Simon Groom and the late Michael Sundin, while Goldie the dog slept on the floor in front of them. The following year, Groom alongside Peter Duncan and Janet Ellis presented another feature, exploring the second series’ special effects. Janet Ellis described the City of Gold and Lead as “a real triumph of design and special effects” while Peter Duncan (who had played a small part in the 1980 film Flash Gordon) dressed in Will’s costume and was superimposed so as to appear in the City itself where he explained the concept of colour separation overlay. Simon Groom, meanwhile, reassured any nervous viewers that the Masters, the alien controllers of the Tripods were made of nothing more than plastic foam filled with bubbles, enhanced by camera and lighting effects. A similar item appeared on BBC Breakfast Time introduced by Debbie Greenwood. The Daily Express described it as “the most imaginative and compelling teatime adventure in years”.

Some scenes had been filmed at Saltcombe Castle, residence of the famously roguish Tory MP and diarist, Alan Clark. Clark’s diaries record he took a liking to “little Charlotte Long” the aristocratic young actress playing French love interest, Eloise, undeterred by the fact Long was a teenager while Clark, at this point, was married and in his fifties. Tragically, Long was killed in a car accident, aged just 18, while the first series was still being broadcast. Her character appeared only briefly in the second series where she was played by future Howard’s Way actress Cindy Shelley.

Not all the criticism of the series was favourable. The acting was variable in quality and things occasionally got boring. The show frequently got nine million viewers but was still often beaten by the popular quiz show Blockbusters which was broadcast at the same time on ITV. A common complaint was that for a show called The Tripods, the Tripods themselves appeared fairly infrequently. Creator John Christopher himself, meanwhile, was less keen on the heroes’ four-episode digression to a French farm. The farm visit had no equivalent in the actual book, featured no Tripods and was largely irrelevant to the story. Christopher did, however, generally enjoy the adaptation. He had not enjoyed an earlier 1970s film version of his apocalyptic novel Death of Grass (filmed as No Blade of Grass) watching it on TV for a short while but apparently going to bed during the first commercial break.

On an episode of Did You See…? hosted by the Ludovic Kennedy, the sci-fi author Brian Aldiss labelled the series “a rather a clumsy piece of engineering” and likened it to a Hovis bread commercial. “What I don’t like about it is that it’s a certain type of British science fiction which is looking backwards instead of forwards,” he said.

Other guests were more ignorant but no less keen. One, at least, liked the theme music, which to anyone listening today is heavily reminiscent of the theme to long running medical drama, Casualty. (Both were in fact written by the same man: Ken Freeman). The guests also seemed confused as to whether the series was supposed to be set in the still quite recent 1970s or medieval times. None were correct.

As it is, The Tripods will always remain tragically incomplete. Much to the eternal annoyance of fans everywhere and to the lifelong regret of producer, Richard Bates, the show was cancelled before a third series was ever made.

The TV trilogy remains forever unfinished.

Back to the future

The story was not quite over, however. In 1988, twenty-one years after the first book, John Christopher produced a prequel, When The Tripods Came which aimed to explain how the Tripods conquered the Earth in the first place. Set in the near future, the book opens with an early attempt at a physical Tripod attack on Earth which centres on Dartmoor. A dog is killed and the Tripods are subjected to a blast of classical music before being speedily dispatched by jet fighters. The surprise alien invasion attempt appears to have been a lamentable failure. “A Close Encounter of the Absurd Kind,” jokes the teacher of one of the boys almost caught up in the attack. “What sort of goons would dream up something so clumsy and inefficient as a means of getting around?”

A new animated TV show, “The Trippy Show” soon begins mocking the would-be invaders. And here the trouble begins. It soon develops a fanatical cult following. Some people seem unaffected, but for others it seems to have a dramatic impact on them. The main character is horrified when his teenaged sister flies into a hysterical rage when he accidentally fails to video tape the latest episode for her. Fans soon start fleeing their homes to form communes. The Daily Mail reports on “A Trippy Brainwash?” while the teacher quoted earlier begins acting oddly. “I saw you burn that evil newspaper,” he says to some affected pupils, “They had one in the Common-Room and I burned it too…hail the Tripod!” Soon social breakdown, chaos and mass Cappings ensue. Yes, the Caps have appeared for the first time.

The Tripods are back.

Quite aside from the heroic role played by the Daily Mail in proceedings, not all aspects of the book convince. It is never really fully explained how The Trippy Show gets made in the first place. Author John Christopher was well into his sixties by this point and there’s a bit of a dated 1960s feel about the Trippy phenomenon.

Nevertheless, it’s a gripping read. John Christopher died in 2012, aged 89. Disney bought the rights to the franchise in 1997.

Have we really seen the last of the Tripods? Only time will tell.

Empty World: Revisited

If you studied English at secondary school during the 1990s, there is every possibility you will remember reading the book, Empty World, by John Christopher.

The book tells of a disease which originates in Asia before rapidly spreading across the world and devastating the global population. Although published in 1977, the book obviously has plenty of resonance to anyone reading in 2020 as the world struggles to tackle the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic.

The novella focuses on a teenaged boy, Neil Miller. Neil is living with his elderly parents after having been orphaned in a road accident when he first begins to hear news reports of a new mysterious disease coming out of India. Initially, just a minor story chuntering away in the background, concern rises as the news coverage gradually reveals that the ‘Calcutta Plague’ spreads further and further across the world. Soon there are rumours it has arrived in Britain. Neil’s grandfather is old enough to remember the Second World War. He suggests spreading rumours should be made into a punishable offence again, as it was then.

Soon the Calcutta Plague’s presence in Britain is beyond doubt. One of Neil’s elderly teachers succumbs to it, as do both his grandparents. The disease takes the form of a fever, before generating symptoms which appear to emulate a very rapid version of the ageing process. This is not very similar to COVID-19 at all, although the fictional plague does attack older people first. Eventually, it becomes clear that it is infecting pretty much everyone including some children Neil knows of his own age (fifteen) and younger. This resembles the progress of COVID-19 in some respects. The elderly are undoubtedly being hit harder by the virus although contrary to early rumour, children can get it badly and die from it too.

The key difference, however, is that while the vast, overwhelming majority of people who get COVID-19 survive, with the exception of a few random people like Neil who get the initial fever but subsequently seem to be immune, the fictional Calcutta Plague kills anyone who gets it. As the title of the book suggests, the story is essentially apocalyptic. Neil finds himself roaming or driving down completely empty streets, looting empty shops and  battling an inevitable brief explosion in the rat population, the disease having killed nearly every human on the Earth.

As terrible as the current COVID-19 pandemic is, we should be grateful it is not quite as bad as that.