Nov 06

Non-Thriller For Kids: The Tripods, Series One

Do You See + FT17 comments • 974 views

When The Tripods was first shown I was eleven – just about the right age to be excited and disappointed by it. I can remember a playground buzz around the show, stoked by Blue Peter clips – and I can remember (though more dimly) general annoyance and lack of interest as the programme’s central fraud unfolded.*

If you’ve never seen the programme, or read the trilogy of books by John Christopher that it was based on, a recap: it’s the late 21st century, and mankind has for several generations been ruled by the Tripods, 30-metre tall machines who stride around a medievalised landscape. The Tripods, using mind-control devices (“caps”) that they implant in all humans who reach 16, have removed curiosity and scientific knowledge from man. They have also removed disease and aggression, so the docile capped population lives generally pleasant lives. Our young heroes flee their imminent capping and begin a journey to find the rumoured free human resistance to Tripod rule.

Sounds exciting? Here’s the catch: the Tripods barely appear, at least in the first book of the trilogy, which formed the basis of TV series one. They are a sinister background omnipresence much more than a driving force in the story – entirely rightly, as the boy heroes are supremely puny if directly encountering them. Also, one of Christopher’s neat touches is that the Tripods simply don’t care about the occasional free runaway – their power base is so secure they don’t even need to hunt the protagonists. So the cliffhanger of episode one, with our hero riding into the night on a horse as a Tripod looms on the horizon behind him, is unfortunate misdirection: the Tripod is probably just going for a stroll.**

Watching the series now, as a 33-year old marketing professional not an 11-year old boy, I can appreciate what a fearful dilemma promoting it must have posed. The Tripods themselves are very impressive indeed, especially for 1984 – stressing their role in the publicity would give you a big initial audience, but would also position the show squarely as a sci-fi thriller. Which it isn’t – much of it is a Tripod-less adventure story, and a gentle one at that: often the only peril our leads face is being distracted from their quest by comely French girls. That would be considerably harder to market in any case, and so the promoters bit the bullet and got the Tripod models big publicity: having made that decision, ratings and reputation decline was probably inevitable.

Actually, though, the lack of intensity and action is sneakily effective. The psychological action of the story is driven by the heroes’ regular encounters with people who are enslaved by the Tripods and also very pleasant and happy. When it is possible to fall in love with a capped girl and not even realise she is one, what exactly is the “freedom” the boys are looking, and fighting, for? (The story ducks out of resolving this particular dilemma a bit, but the theme is a recurring one.) The Tripods’ world is a simpler, more bucolic and placid one, and the slow pace reflects this well. Of course explaning this “thematic triumph” to an audience wanting Tripod death action would have been tough, and the general impression of plodding isn’t helped by the three lead characters talking like earnest Linguaphone students, and barely disagreeing.

Most of these problems – lack of conflict, lack of Tripods, lack of sci-fi content – are resolved with the considerably faster-paced second season, which is certainly better and more exciting TV. But the first series of The Tripods has a strange charm, and even grips despite itself: at the very least, it’s a rare example of a show in which boredom and padding serve a strong story-based purpose.

*I don’t remember watching much of the tail-end of series one, but obviously hope won out over disappointment, because I tuned in for the second year of the show.

**Actually, some of the most effectively chilling scenes then and now involve exactly this: Tripods roaming on the horizon, their purposes absolutely unfathomable to the heroes or viewers. Much more than confrontations with the creatures, this lets us know the ease and extent of Tripod dominion.


  1. 1
    Steve Mannion on 20 Nov 2006 #

    did they ever manage to trip one up, like in the Empire Strikes Back? still least they could get up the stairs lol amirite

  2. 2
    Steve Mannion on 20 Nov 2006 #

    according to wikipedia: ‘Disney have held the rights to The Tripods since 1997. There is speculation that a film version is in pre-production with Australian-born director Gregor Jordan signed on to rewrite and direct for Walt Disney’s Touchstone Pictures label’

    but presumably they have held off partly because The Matrix has made it difficult for films about ‘machines enslaving humanity’ to look good (or at least as good The Matrix). plus there hae been Terminator 4 since then and proposed Terminator TV series (i would actually like maybe even prefer a Matrix one personally – animated perhaps – but never mind).

  3. 3
    Tom on 20 Nov 2006 #

    Yes they do! (trip one up) – in general though the sense of individual Tripods as pretty much indestructable without a huge amount of luck and effort is well conveyed. What the Ts gain in invulnerability though they lose in effectiveness – their physical remoteness translates to a lack of direct control.

  4. 4

    “or at least as good The Matrix” — what does this mean? in the list of all films ever in order of how good they are, the three matrix films occupy the BOTTOM THREE SPACES and ALWAYS WILL

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  6. 6
    Steve Mannion on 20 Nov 2006 #

    re Matrix note i am talking mainly from a cosmetic point of view (but also an idea that ‘they’ don’t want too many films about ‘machines enslaving humanity’ on the market/holding pop cultural court at any one time). i AM quite a Matrix apologist tho (the only thing i really hate is the final fight at the end of the third film)…

  7. 7
    Doctor Casino on 20 Nov 2006 #

    LOVED LOVED LOVED these books as a kid. Was dimly aware that there was a TV show but was somehow never interested enough to try and track it down. Strongly recommend the books for anyone who likes this type of thing though – if I remember right, the things Tom points up here are the strongest elements in the books too – the bucolic medievalism has its appeal even to our resistance-movement heroes, and the effortless power of the Tripods really does ratchet up the sense of menace and suspense more than any “You’ve got to hunt down those resistance fighters at ALL COSTS!” type scenario. Great stuff. For interested parties, the books are, in order, The White Mountains, The City of Gold and Lead and The Pool of Fire.

  8. 8
    Chap on 20 Nov 2006 #

    I loved the books too. You may be interested to know there was also a prequel, When the Tripods Came.

    I’d be really interested to watch the series again.

  9. 9
    Alan on 20 Nov 2006 #

    Only read the middle book (series 2 of the show) and i never felt the need to read the other two. only mildly interested to read the 3rd one.

    i have a suggested thrillers for kids subject: THE STAINLESS STEEL RAT. After the appearances in 2000ad and recommendations from an annoying obsessed friend i went through these from our local library. they were all for laffs, but still very much thrills based

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    Tom on 20 Nov 2006 #

    I think SCI-FI FOR KIDS (booXoR division) would be an interesting project. I had pretty much zero interest in sci-fi until I hit puberty, though.

  11. 11

    YES to sci-fi for kids then i can lose myself in my LOVELY ANDRE NORTON all over again!

    i still have “the stainless steel rat ewants you”, tho haf not read it since c.12

    also by harry harrison: “A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!” (which is a what-if the victorian era reached into the 1970s kinda deal)

    i read the tripods books and remember the titles fondly — not much left of what happened (35 years is a long time), and also i wz always v.puzzled by relationship of tripod aliens to the WAR OF THE WORLDS aliens (which i knew from look and learn and world of wonder comic-strip versions)

    ie IS THIS THE SAME STORY (except the martians didn’t catch colds)?

  12. 12
    Tom on 20 Nov 2006 #

    erm YES. Except

    a) the Martians have already won.
    b) the Martians want to enslave not annihilate (can’t remember if the books ever really explain why – the Tripod-building aliums are complex and melancholic coves though)

    I think in the end they are killed by a similar rubbish weakness to something everyday Earthly.

  13. 13

    = OXYGEN! they breathe chlorine and their safety dome is cracked by the rebels

    yes, a.follows from martians not getting colds — nothing mankind could do defeated them it was up to the GERMS

  14. 14
    Tom on 20 Nov 2006 #

    There’s something else as well – I think it might be…BOOZE!

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    Rufus T. Roofdog on 20 Nov 2006 #

    In true Wells-style The Tripods predicts the rise of DVD special features by being the first “alternate ending”, ie. didn’t Christopher out-and-out admit that the premise was the future predicted by David Essex Tim Robbins the artilleryman ?

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    Doctor Casino on 20 Nov 2006 #

    I loved the books too. You may be interested to know there was also a prequel, When the Tripods Came.

    Oh yeah! That was pretty good. Not a bad plot for a martian takeover, either – they make tripods popular through subliminal advertising and a TV show, gradually as the tripods show up they just become more and more ubiquitous and society starts going to hell.

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