Thursday, June 07, 2007

The Tripods - Season 1 & 2

The Tripods - Season 1 & 2

I first saw 'The Tripods' around 20 years ago (bloody hell!) and loved it as a kid; I would re-watch episodes recorded on VHS tape over and over to such an extent that lots of stuff was indelibly imprinted in my mind and still incredibly familiar years later! I mentioned the show favourably in an earlier post about TV shows from the past. Now that I've finished watching it, I can say that it is a fine albeit flawed work of children's science fiction that doesn't hold up all that well, but is still impressive for its time.

'The Tripods', which is based on a trilogy of novels by author John Christopher, takes place around a century in the future. Mankind has been taken over by three-legged metallic machines called 'Tripods', and civilisation has rolled back to a pre-industrial age, with the great cities of the world lying in ruins. People are content, however, because the Tripods have subjugated their minds by way of a device called a cap that is implanted into every individual's brain at a certain age; the cap makes them docile and subservient and also robs them of their creativity and spirit.

Enter Will Parker (John Shackley), a young boy close to capping age living in a southern English village. Will meets a man named Ozymandius (Roderick Horn), who recognises in Will an independent spirit and a mistrust of the Tripods. He tells Will of 'uncapped' free men living in the European mainland in a place called the White Mountains (the Alps) who are fighting the Tripods, and convinces him to set out to join them. Will leaves together with his plucky cousin Henry (Jim Baker), and in France they are joined by an intelligent young man whom they call Beanpole (Ceri Seel). The first season follows the adventures of this trio as they make their way through France, avoiding Tripods, making new friends and enemies, and drawing ever closer to the White Mountains.

Season two (Spoiler Alert, unwary reader) tells the story of the infiltration of one of the Tripod's domed cities by Will and another boy named Fritz (Robin Hayter). The early episodes focus on their journey to the 'Games', an athletic tournament where the winners are taken to serve the Tripods in their domed city. Will and Fritz come out victorious in their events, and in the city they discover that humans are used as slaves by the aliens who drive the Tripods, who call themselves 'The Masters'. The two of them learn as much as they can while keeping the fact that they are not capped a secret. Will and Fritz are different in their approaches and are often at odds, but each is also resourceful in his own way and together they manage to learn a great deal about the Masters and their technology, information that is vital to the resistance.

Unfortunately, the story doesn't end with the final episode; the third and final season was never produced. The second season ends on a bleak cliffhanger, which is a shame, because I found it immensely entertaining despite all of its flaws. Since I liked it, I'm going to start with my criticisms and end with the plus points.

The biggest problem is the clunky story structure, which stops and starts and drags for certain periods. This is especially strange given that each episode is at most 25 minutes long, and there are only 25 episodes in total across both seasons - three full episodes of the fourth season are based at a Chateau in France where the story essentially grinds to a halt. The same can be said of the second season where time is wasted during the boys' journey to the games. Some of the 'travel' episodes in the second season come across as silly and fail to progress the characters or the story in any meaningful way. In the first season, the journey served a purpose; it helped depict what the world was like under the Tripods.

There are many plot points that stretch suspension of disbelief, such as the Tripods seeming inability to easily detect if someone is capped or not, and the way their Tripod machines can't see people standing literally right below them. The alien Masters also have a rather ludicrous weak-point that they leave exposed, a contrivance that beggars belief - one punch and they're dead! Some of the dialogue is also weak in places, coming across as unnatural and expository. There is an undeniably cheesy feel to certain elements, like the costumes worn by the slaves in the Tripod city and the slave disco. The cheese factor is also a bit high in the acting department - not the leads, but many of the supporting actors seemed to have shown up for a laugh. The directing is quite weak throughout, with scenes often unconvincingly executed and action coming across as comical at times. And finally, a lot of the sets and effects haven't aged too well, though this aspect is forgivable given the sheer ambition of the project for its time.

Now for what works in 'The Tripods'. I think there's a terrific story being told featuring engaging characters, with the four teenage protagonists in particular having genuine personality and often goofing around as real teenagers might. The concept of an occupying force and rebels fighting them never grows old (and is always relevant, it seems), and the incorporation of aliens, Tripod machines, non-corporeal beings of consciousness acting as computers for an entire city, and devices used to subjugate the mind are elements that give it a few new dimensions. Interestingly, the story even touches on the idea that accepting the capping process and living in blissful ignorance is an appealing choice; life under the Tripods isn't all that bad really, and the heroes are at some points tempted into following the path of least resistance. That wasn't something I was expecting.

The show is also edgy in some ways - these kids are forced to do immoral things and even kill at one point, and Fritz embodies a cold and pragmatic attitude that is at odds with Will's humane behaviour; this initially makes him appear to be a bit of a dick, but as the story progresses his character is the one who is ultimately vindicated. One aspect unique for its time is the epic multi season spanning storyline which genuinely progresses (albeit in a stop start manner), something which is difficult to appreciate today where seemingly every new series embraces long-form story telling.

Both seasons are distinctly different in terms of story and style. The first is a road trip adventure with the three boys facing various challenges and temptations along the way, while the second is more sci-fi. Both seasons are very atmospheric, with the first incorporating bucolic lifestyles and beautiful locations - its all very quaint and charming - and the second featuring a futuristic alien city with awesome technology on display. Despite the iffy production values, the alien and technological parts of the show hold up surprisingly well, thanks in no small part to the strong designs on display. The Tripod design is really iconic, and the sight of them towering over farmhouses and patrolling open landscapes is a truly memorable visual. The 'Masters' are also well done, having a non-humanoid creature design that looks truly alien.

The performances are a mixed bag, with some being horrendous and none being truly great. The leads are quite natural in their roles however, which is the key in keeping the whole thing not just watchable but quite enjoyable. They may not be great actors, but they exhibit a genuine adventurous spirit and fierce sense of independence and loyalty, which are essential elements given the nature of the story and their roles within it.

On a final note, I love the incredibly cool synthesized theme music and funky animated opening and closing credits.

So overall, it's quite mixed. Watching it with the mindset of it being a product of its time is the key to enjoying 'The Tripods'. On most objective merits it doesn't hold up too well, but it is a rewarding experience for those who can forgive those weaknesses and embrace the story and characters. I certainly enjoyed it, and found myself tempted to watch the next episode each time the credits began to roll, which is not something I can often say of older TV shows.

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