Skip to main content

Has it all been for nothing?

The Tripods
Season Two

Season Two of The Tripods arranges itself, quality-wise, very close to the inverse of the first. As a whole it’s a significantly improvement, but more particularly it flies by during the mid-section, where Season One was bogged down in torpid chateaus and dreary vineyards. The surrounding material is less certain, with the faintly tepid competing in the games (and some shagging!) and, a significant anti-climax, the last couple of episodes devoted to a travelling circus (so much so that my recollection was of the season ending pretty much with Will escaping the City of Gold solo; which, dramatically, it pretty much does).


The DVD release of the both series includes BBC4’s The Cult of… The Tripods “documentary”, with Robert Llewellyn jovially taking the piss and Jim Baker being very game to discuss his brief stint at acting is a better-than-nothing look at the show, but comes up short in a number of respects (not least because – presumably as he nixed it – Robin Hayter’s Fritz doesn’t get a mention). I was curious to hear the received wisdom that Baker gave the best performance of the first season’s trio. Let’s face it, none of them were exactly jostling to tread the boards at RADA but the dismissive “Ceri does his bit” ignores that, while Seel’s not up to much as a thespian, he’s still the most personable of the three (which counts for a lot when acting chops are negligible).


Baker’s only in the first few episodes of the season, as per the novel, since Henry doesn’t make it to the games or the City (we’re supposed to believe he has valuable skills to aid “the vital defence of our stronghold”. Perhaps he intended to build a wall of pies around their base?) In his absence it’s Will who develops the food fetish. Seel bookends the series (which means he’s in the dullest sections), so the rest is down to Shackley and Hayter.


Of the regulars it’s Hayter who impresses the most on the acting front, not that his competition is fierce. Which is to say, he flounders and fluffs at times but he’s a comparative Olivier in any scene he shares with Shackley. It might help too that he’s got a bit of edge (although this didn’t aid Baker during Season One). Fritz is a no-nonsense German, intentionally devoid of courtesy and empathy (so as to provoke Will’s ire for some nice dramatic conflict) but usually right in the rational calls he makes regarding the appropriate course of action. 


It’s entirely down to Fritz, rather than the headstrong and regularly-putting-his-foot-in-it Will, that escape from the City is even possible. Hayter plays the nasty bastard to good effect in the pre-City episodes, and from thence Fritz is fully unveiled as a shrewd planner once they arrive; a close-to-perfect spy. Hayter’s no Mark Strickson (Turlough in Doctor Who at about the same time), but there’s something of the same spark to his performance. What he may lack in experience, Hayer makes up for in being fully present in every scene.


Shackley hasn’t improved drastically since his first stint, which means he varies between just about competent and complete plank. He’s at a loss when called upon to deliver a rousing speech, and sometimes indulges in whining when a bit more mettle would have been warranted. But lets face it, he’s been cast because he’s pretty, and this season has some particularly curious aspects when it comes to all things pretty. 


As the Cult of…  there’s a “What were they thinking?” vibe wafting about at times during the City sequence. Will and Fritz, the young bucks, are let loose in the City of Gold, clad in pristine white sleeveless lederhosen, introduced to their routines by a lacklustre YMCA-reject and selected to the service of their Masters as house boys. The Masters select only young men for special duties. 


A few changes have been made from the book in this regard such that it isn’t entirely homoerotic – except in the visual sense – as there are also women about doing household chores. Which is all very pre-emancipation, but at least they aren’t all sent to Hall of Beauty (where they reside as basically aesthetically pleasing stuffed exhibits in the book; here they are in suspended animation, to be awakened many years in the future on the Masters’ planet Trion).


If this wasn’t enough, the local human hangout (reserved for The Power Elite, but still, it’s a particularly unlikely indulgence on the part of the Masters to have a club complete with flashing disco lights for the benefit of boogying slaves) is called the Pink Parrot bar. When middle-aged Pierre (Julian Battersby), well, he’s 25 due to the debilitating effects of the environment, invites Fritz along for a nice quiet drink it’s nothing so much as an old cruiser putting the moves on his young chicken.


It’s a testament to Bob Blagden’s direction that this doesn’t remain the pre-eminent identifier of the City scenes. Quite the contrary, he manages to deliver the best, most propulsive and dramatic episodes in the series’ run. Blagden had designed the Blake’s 7 titles and was approached for his effects experience. What’s most evident here is that, in contrast to many of his BBC peers at the time, he knows how to edit a sequence and keep up the pace. Invariably when the City episodes fall down it’s a result of scripting rather than direction.


There’s an argument to be made that The Tripods is the inverse of Doctor Who at its best; flashy, “cutting edge” (for British TV) special effects but with amateurish performances where it counted. This had changed a bit by the time The Tripods aired; Who’s effects were still variable, but several of the performers in the series would give The Tripods troop a run for their money. Much of the City model work is not up to snuff by today’s standards but, as an attempt to muster convincing Blade Runner-inspired cityscapes on a TV budget, it can’t help but remain impressive. It helps immeasurably that the model is shot to good effect; there’s a sense of scale, and the 3D spinning triangles give a sense of movement and activity.


It also has a genuine atmosphere, a sense of strangeness, otherness.  True, when the scene switches to a disused mine, or we get shots of about six actors trotting down a city street, or we see a power station, the effect is diluted (occasionally it even offers the unwanted vision of the Season One Blake’s 7 industrial estate), but there’s a consistent sense that the production team are trying to do something special. And even now they have succeeded in creating a claustrophobic, unnatural environment. It’s quite a feat.



As for the Masters… Well, they’re okay. No one is going to be seeing them as a vision of terror, or an amazing piece of design work, but for what they are they’re reasonable (there’s one with a horn, which adds a nice differentiation). John Woodvine’s special delivery as Will’s Master West 468 adds immeasurably to the overall effect. Notably, Fritz doesn’t even meet his Master (unlike in the book, where he’s a vicious sod).


Season Two has a much more that’s discussion worthy than the first. Far, far more is revealed, and much, much more is changed substantially from the novel. All of which merits some consideration. I’ll discuss some of these points in the episode pieces themselves. Much continues to confound about the proposed effects of the caps, with the result that the only reliable conclusion is that they instil allegiance to the Masters. Anything else, be it dulled emotions or creativity, is up for grabs.


Perhaps the biggest talking point of Season Two, in relation to the way the makers stray from the book, is the introduction of Cognoscs. For all the good, and not so good, aspects of the City episodes, this is the most egregious, unnecessary and lacking in coherence. At the time I recall being incensed and bewildered by the change, one so profound it seemed to betray the entire narrative Christopher had created. I recall looking back through the book for some, any hint at their presence to no avail. Now, I mainly wonder what they were hoping to achieve as very little about their hierarchical presence makes any sense. These are beings that none of the (current) Masters have ever met, yet they obey them without question. Is this some comment on religious thinking (except we see they doexist)? West 468 fills Will in on the background to the Cognoscs (“Coggy”, as Will’s personal chum is called, which only makes it that much worse).


Master West 468: You will want to know what a Cognosc is. The city, Will, is a brain. At the top of each of these pyramids is a separate cell of intelligence connected via the Pool of Fire at the centre. Each of these cells is a Cognosc, a being so much more advanced than we Masters, and it has no physical presence at all.

Okay… Will questions his Master further, and is told that some were originally Masters like himself.


Master West 468: They were selected for their superior intellect. Their minds were translated away from their physical bodies into the very structure of the universe itself.

It might be at least something if the idea was presented that ascendency to the state of a Cognosc represented some form of enlightenment or moral superiority, but we learn that Will’s Coggy is something of an exception to the rule. So what does the concept add? Not a lot.


It also creates serious logic holes. Coggy has requested an audience with Will because he sees into his mind. He sees this before Will ever goes to talk to him. Therefore, Fritz’s concern that all would be scuppered should Coggy talk to his fellow Cognoscs is irrelevant. Any Cognosc that so chose could, presumably, dip into either of their minds and see what was up (it’s a not dissimilar issue to the capping; why would Tripods kill Freemen when capping them would yield all the secrets of their group?)


Coggy is voiced by Christopher Guard, who would show up to much better effect in the following year’s really very good Return to Treasure Island as Jim Hawkins. Guard isn’t a great voice actor though, and makes Coggy distinctly underwhelming. Which is the idea of the Cognoscs all over, really.  The Cognosc tells him “I like the whole idea of resistance to capping”. Is he a playful Olympian, who dips into the ways of man for his amusement? He dismisses 468 as an “arrogant amoeba” for suggesting Masters might ascend to the state of Cognoscs. So what’s the deal? What’s their connection with Masters? Would this ever have made any sense? Are other creatures throughout the galaxy similarly in thrall to this “space brain”?


Later, when Coggy drains power to enable his departure (an odd idea in itself; if he has no physical form surely he can travel unaided by corporeal beings’ means of propulsion?), the Masters give him ultimate priority above all else. We have no insight into this obeisance. When Will has his second and final audience with the Cognosc, he is told “I’m leaving you to help yourselves” and that he likes hopeless idealism. It’s as if Christopher Penfold (who also contributed to Space: 1999) wilfully decided to stick a spanner in the works of a comprehensible storyline just for the fuck of it. He regards the Masters’ behaviour as “the worst kind of space imperialism” and is off to find (as Will puts it) his own space “desert island”.


It’s this element that most seriously dents the overall impact of the City segment of Season Two. I’m not one to begrudge changes to a novel – read the novel if you want something true to the novel, don’t expect an adaption to be wholly beholden – but it should make the changes it makes for good reasons (with at least the intent to aid the transfer of medium). The Cognoscs don’t improve or ease any aspect of the story, neither in the hierarchy they suggest, nor in the Masters obeying them (why would they acquiesce to those who have no hold over them?)


Complaints about camp costumes and Uncle Monty-esque Masters are nothing compared to the way the Cognoscs undermine the series. Could they have been a positive? It’s difficult to see how. The books are wholly absent of a metaphysical element, and weren’t especially crying out for one. If one’s going to be shoehorned in, it needs solid foundations. What we get is a blithe space playboy, which has the knock-on of making the whole quest seem pointless (perhaps on that level it might be seen as approaching a Wachowskis’ Matrix-esque perpetual game in which the struggle is an end to itself, but if Penfold has any great design it fails to shine through). 


It’s the Cognosc who informs Will of the plan to Trion-form the planet, which is true enough. I’m not so sure about the whole nuclear reactor deal. So the Masters have used a man made nuclear power station for 100 years and are only now at the point of implementing their own supply? Why would they would use tatty second hand goods? It serves to dovetail the mining and the spaceship being sent from Trion, but makes little other sense.


Master West 468: The peace of space was being threatened.

On the other hand, the most intriguing element of the information provided by 468 is the idea that the Masters’ intervention was essentially a benevolent one. Well, of a sort. The lesser of two evils, where they were looking at eliminating a potentially cosmic menace. If it weren’t for their OTT decision to gas all the humans there would be an argument for the Masters methods, which bring peace to both the Earth and the Universe. They could “no longer stand by waiting for your people to grow up” so they chose to “neutralise your sick minds through the cap”. The result is a mix of War of the Worlds martial mentality with The Day the Earth Stood Stillintervention (it’s also the poise struck by much UFO-related channelled material, which alternates between benevolent and destructive but frequently subsists on the idea of intervention only ever being based on the Earth growing too big for its boots and requiring action when things go too far; see also Star Trek for the inverse).


Another intriguing concept is the rapid aging that takes place. Georg (Keith Marsh) gets a “happy release” in Episode Five; he is 21 years old, but looks 70, and has been there four years. His old age is said to be remarkable, but only two episodes later we learn that Pierre, who is 25, has been there for five years. He looks a good 20 years younger. A symptom of being in the Power Elite? Unlikely, since Georg isn’t exactly subjected to hard labour as 468’s servant. More likely, a consequence of the difficulty of trying to render aging of at least 10 City years to every normal one.  Still, it’s a good idea, but who will be going down the disco after six months of wear and tear and realisation thoroughly dawns?


The Cult of... suggests The Tripods Season Three was cancelled prior to Season Two completing production, let alone airing (the “Has it all been for nothing?” added as a meta-reference to the curtailed end of the series) whereas the booklet in the DVD release indicates this occurred near the end of the run of Season Two. Either way, it was a blunderingly shortsighted decision, one symptomatic of Michael Grade’s lacerating blade at the BBC at that time. 


I doubt that The Pool of Fire would have matched the best of the second run. The travelogue would be back, unfortunately given how limp that tended to be. The most interesting aspect of the novel, the capture of a Master, would have featured in Episode Four, and there would have been a (most likely) feeble traitor-in-the-midst subplot. Retained would be the faintly silly and entirely underwhelming alcohol weakness of the Masters. Added to that, the balloon assault always seemed like an anticlimactic and unlikely means to exact ultimate defeat; one can only guess it would be even less commanding on a green screen budget.


What stands out in the series isn’t especially the wooden acting, rather shallow philosophy or sometimes laboured pacing, it’s the successful imbuing of a sense of world-building and atmosphere. The future-past combination is infused with a decayed remembrance of the present and impressively realised (visually and aurally) alien intruders. This may be insufficient to gives the series a truly lasting appeal, but it makes it more than a footnote. And, if you can slog through the dull spots, there are sufficient interestingly ideas to make the series as a whole worth visiting.


Overall: 


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Nanobots aren’t just for Christmas.

No Time to Die (2021) (SPOILERS) You know a Bond movie is in trouble when it resorts to wholesale appropriation of lines and even the theme song from another in order to “boost” its emotional heft. That No Time to Die – which previewed its own title song a year and a half before its release to resoundingly underwhelmed response, Grammys aside – goes there is a damning indictment of its ability to eke out such audience investment in Daniel Craig’s final outing as James (less so as 007). As with Spectre , the first half of No Time to Die is, on the whole, more than decent Bond fare, before it once again gets bogged down in the quest for substance and depth from a character who, regardless of how dapper his gear is, resolutely resists such outfitting.

Maybe the dingo ate your baby.

Seinfeld 2.9: The Stranded The Premise George and Elaine are stranded at a party in Long Island, with a disgruntled hostess.

Big things have small beginnings.

Prometheus (2012) Post- Gladiator , Ridley Scott opted for an “All work and no pondering” approach to film making. The result has been the completion of as many movies since the turn of the Millennium as he directed in the previous twenty years. Now well into his seventies, he has experienced the most sustained period of success of his career.  For me, it’s also been easily the least-interesting period. All of them entirely competently made, but all displaying the machine-tooled approach that was previously more associated with his brother.

I’m giving you a choice. Either put on these glasses or start eating that trash can.

They Live * (1988) (SPOILERS) Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of They Live – I was a big fan of most things Carpenter at the time of its release – but the manner in which its reputation as a prophecy of (or insight into) “the way things are” has grown is a touch out of proportion with the picture’s relatively modest merits. Indeed, its feting rests almost entirely on the admittedly bravura sequence in which WWF-star-turned-movie-actor Roddy Piper, under the influence of a pair of sunglasses, first witnesses the pervasive influence of aliens among us who are sucking mankind dry. That, and the ludicrously genius sequence in which Roddy, full of transformative fervour, attempts to convince Keith David to don said sunglasses, for his own good. They Live should definitely be viewed by all, for their own good, but it’s only fair to point out that it doesn’t have the consistency of John Carpenter at his very, very best. Nada : I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick a

Ladies and gentlemen, this could be a cultural misunderstanding.

Mars Attacks! (1996) (SPOILERS) Ak. Akk-akk! Tim Burton’s gleefully ghoulish sci-fi was his first real taste of failure. Sure, there was Ed Wood , but that was cheap, critics loved it, and it won Oscars. Mars Attacks! was BIG, though, expected to do boffo business, and like more than a few other idiosyncratic spectaculars of the 1990s ( Last Action Hero , Hudson Hawk ) it bombed BIG. The effect on Burton was noticeable. He retreated into bankable propositions (the creative and critical nadir perhaps being Planet of the Apes , although I’d rate it much higher than the likes of Alice in Wonderland and Dumbo ) and put the brakes on his undisciplined goth energy. Something was lost. Mars Attacks! is far from entirely successful, but it finds the director let loose with his own playset and sensibility intact, apparently given the licence to do what he will.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) (SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek , but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan . That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

It's something trying to get out.

The Owl Service (1969-70) I may have caught a glimpse of Channel 4’s repeat of  The Owl Service  in 1987, but not enough to stick in the mind. My formative experience was Alan Garner’s novel, which was read several years earlier during English lessons. Garner’s tapestry of magical-mythical storytelling had an impact, with its possession theme and blending of legend with the here and now. Garner depicts a Britain where past and present are mutable, and where there is no safety net of objective reality; life becomes a strange waking dream. His fantasy landscapes are both attractive and disturbing; the uncanny reaching out from the corners of the attic.  But I have to admit that the themes of class and discrimination went virtually unnoticed in the wake of such high weirdness. The other Garner books I read saw young protagonists transported to fantasy realms. The resonance of  The Owl Service  came from the fragmenting of the rural normal. When the author notes that he neve

Isn’t sugar better than vinegar?

Femme Fatale (2002) (SPOILERS) Some have attempted to rescue Femme Fatale from the dumpster of critical rejection and audience indifference with the claim that it’s De Palma’s last great movie. It isn’t that by a long shot, but it might rank as the last truly unfettered display of his obsessions and sensibilities, complete with a ludicrous twist – so ludicrous, it’s either a stroke of genius or mile-long pile up.

Beer is for breakfast around here. Drink or begone.

Cocktail (1988) (SPOILERS) When Tarantino claims the 1980s (and 1950s) as the worst movie decade, I’m inclined to invite him to shut his butt down. But should he then flourish Cocktail as Exhibit A, I’d be forced to admit he has a point. Cocktail is a horrifying, malignant piece of dreck, a testament to the efficacy of persuasive star power on a blithely rapt and undiscerning audience. Not only is it morally vacuous, it’s dramatically inert. And it relies on Tom’s toothy charms to a degree that would have any sensitive soul rushed to the A&E suffering from toxic shock (Tom’s most recently displayed toothy charms will likely have even his staunchest devotees less than sure of themselves, however, as he metamorphoses into your favourite grandma). And it was a huge box office hit.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.