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.