The Day of the Triffids
1981 was a banner year for BBC science fiction. Doctor Who had taken delivery of a new burgundy coat – and hat, scarf, troos, and, er, shirts adorned with question marks on the collars – and then a cricket blazer. On top of which, a rare season of vintage repeats was shown. Blake’s 7 went out in a blaze of glory. The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy latest incarnation was on television. Robert Holmes’ The Nightmare Man haunted a Scottish island. And the BBC gave John Wyndham’s novel the adaptation it deserved, twenty years after the last one and thirty after initial publication. The book and its ilk were rather dismissively characterised by Brian Aldiss as “cosy catastrophes”, not entirely fair and even less so of the TV version, although it’s easy also to see why the description has stuck. Douglas Livingston’s serial, directed by Ken Hannam, is better than anyone probably could have hoped for, and ought to be the first port of call to anyone who might be erroneously poised to reach for the 1961 film, or even more erroneously for the rotten 2009 version.
Bill: Just give us a sting, wait a few days, and they’ve got everything they need to live. That doesn’t take very much intelligence
As a kid, I recall only ever seeing the first episode (and seeing it twice at that, with the repeat screening too). I found it quite disturbing – probably why I may not have seen the entire thing – and what with that and Michael Strogoff, there seemed to be an awful lot of blind protagonists stumbling around on TV. When I first revisited the serial on DVD, it struck me that my reaction wasn’t simply down to child’s eyes; it very much is stark and unforgiving in its approach. Yes, you might argue there’s a degree of cosiness in Episode Five, once Bill Masen (John Duttine) eventually reunites with Jo (Emma Relph). But there’s an awful lot of unremitting bleakness to get there. And the respite is short lived, since it’s via an ellipsis to place them in trouble’s way once again. I rather think Margaret Attwood’s rebuke of Aldiss’ swipe was appropriate, referencing Wyndham’s military service: “one might as well call World War II… a ‘cosy’ war because not everyone died in it”.
Indeed, as The Day of the Triffids unfolds, you could only really label it cosy or comforting to the extent that any survivor has it good, relatively speaking. Wyndham and Livingstone don’t shirk dealing with the rude facts of the survivalist’s dilemma, even if he loads the balance in favour of tough choices being the right ones. To run with Aldiss’ take, you’d be required to include I am Legend (any iteration), or any zombie movie sanctuary (before it gets overrun): any place where a group of humans enjoys the remnants of a fallen civilisation (such as the department store in Dawn of the Dead). Wyndham is actually commendably upfront in tackling the challenges of this stricken society, pitting utilitarian ideals against survival-of-the-fittest and every-man-for-himself before concluding that, well, there’s no easy – or cosy – answer.
John: There’ll be people you thought butter wouldn’t melt killing each other for a scrap of food.
Coker (Maurice Colbourne) is righteously indignant at the refusal of remnants of the armed forces and a coterie of the sighted to help as many as they can. He proceeds to sabotage their plans to escape the city, forcing various of their number into service aiding the urban blind. But his labours too come undone when they succumb to an unidentified plague (notably, no sighted appear to fall ill). We’ve already seen that, in their desperation, the blind are more than willing to brutalise the sighted few (as Stephen Yardley’s John forewarns). And that there are any number of bastards – in some respects including Coker, whose Isle of Wight colony amalgamates something of the motives of Beadley (David Swift) from the second episode – who will self-appoint themselves to lead this ruined world and make very bad decisions.
Bill: He’s right. And he’s wrong. I don’t think there is anyone who’s going to come over the horizon and clear this mess up.
Later, Coker sets out how it will be to Christian splinter leader Miss Durant at her Wiltshire retreat. That a failure to draw the line and make tough choices about who they can effectively aid will be the death of them. And so it comes to pass. In the final episode, we also reencounter psychopath Torrance (Gary Olsen), intent on establishing a militarised feudal society. Whatever the nature of the group that arises from the ashes, Wyndham and Livingstone seem to be saying, there will inevitably be those who prioritise dictating the rules, which will inevitably mean the rest are required to submit to them (while also implicitly suggesting the self-sufficient familial unit is doomed to failure).
Undoubtedly, Wyndham and Livingstone arrange the narrative so that we completely sympathise with Bill taking off and opting for that self-sufficient family unit, rather than trying to reform the world. But at the same time, they have made it clear that The Day of the Triffids’ premise presents an impossible conundrum for anyone trying to do the right, or most moral, thing in every situation. And the open ending suggests, per Aldiss, there won’t really be much that’s cosy about even a “lightly” martial future on the Isle of Wight – or failing that, the less strict Channel Islands – since you’re still stuck with the rules, fair and foul, of a budding society.
The early episodes (1-4) of the serial are the strongest, mostly due to the verisimilitude that accompanies a city environment hanging on a knife edge; once sanitation and supply lines collapse, it’s only a matter of time before health also takes a tumble. And the overwhelming, immediate chaos is especially unnerving, from blind grasping for the sighted (like zombies: the Episode Two climax with Bill and Jo trapped in a car), to armed would-be despots taking pot shots (then there’s the gang of football chanters, led by a sighted man, embracing the new lawlessness and all set to rape a girl). This is a grim, remorseless vision (a small consolation that John Hollis is cast as nice guy Alf, though: Alf ROCKS).
The Day of the Triffids counts as probably Wyndham’s most influential work, certainly with regard to apocalypse fiction. It precedes the zombie cycle, and despite that subgenre’s conspicuous absence of venomous vegetables, it undoubtedly influences it. Not least in the lead character’s malaise. There’s 28 Days Later – protagonist awakes from a coma to a devastated world – and The Walking Dead – protagonist awakes from a coma to a devastated world – and also the relentless misery of Blindness nursing the vulnerability/predatory implications of sudden mass-scale blindness. And then there’s Bird Box.
Jo: We didn’t create the comet.
Bill: Was it a comet? Do you know how many satellites were going round up there? How many weapons? Or what was in the weapons? They never told us. They never asked us. I suppose one of these weapons had been specially constructed to emit a radiation that our eyes couldn’t stand. Something that would burn out the optic nerve.
Jo: Something like that couldn’t blind the whole world.
Bill: Suppose there was an accident. This weapon would be meant to operate at very low levels, so that it only blinded the people they wanted to blind. But after the accident, it went off so far up that anyone on Earth could receive direct radiation from it. What about the mysterious disease? Where did that come from? We were walking on a tightrope for a hell of a long time. Sooner or later, a foot had to slip.
One might cynically suggest the really cosiness inherent in The Day of the Triffids is the idea that something could actually go wrong, something that might play out beyond the grasp of the prescribing control structure – one Wyndham hints is there, or was, however loosely – devoted as it is to rolling out staged disasters and planned resets. While The Day of the Triffids offers two apparently unconnected events – the carnivorous Triffids and the meteor shower – that hasten the downfall of society, the implication is that neither is remotely random. The Triffids, it is alluded, are the product of genetic modification, and as we should know, GMOs are entirely inimical to a thriving society and economy. They will consume it, given a chance (Bill relates to us that vegetable oil boasting extraordinary properties appeared on the market in 1961, whereby, when added to petroleum, it produced energy saving results of more than thirty percent; it turns out this oil derives from Triffids, thought to be the results of strange Russian experiments. We might be encouraged to infer from this the disruptive action of a superpower, an insidious Cold War tactic).
So on the one hand, there is a scientific advance that proves deadly to mankind, and on the other, a meteor shower that may not have been a meteor shower, but rather EMFs leaving anyone who watched it blind. Not a million miles from the rays now invited into our homes, rays that have documented warfare applications (Wyndham proposed military satellites seven years before Russia – if you believe the official accounts – sent one up. This came off the back of a literary history of the satellite beginning with Edward Everett Hale’s The Brick Moon in 1869, followed by Jules Verne’s 1879 The Begum’s Fortune. Of course, Arthur C Clarke “predicted” them for the current age in 1945). In Wyndham’s account, then, the source of the apocalypse is mooted to be out-of-control technology. And whether they were intended as harmful or otherwise, both serve explicitly to aid a depopulation agenda.
With a view to such conspiratorial musing, I wondered in passing if Wyndham had any connection to other predictive-programming science-fiction luminaries via the Fabian Society or the Tavistock Institute. Tor comments of Wyndham’s sudden late bloom (after serveral unsuccessful pre-war works) “It’s as if, although he was so reclusive, in the 1950s he was plugged in to the world’s subconscious fears and articulated them one by one in short, amazingly readable novels, which became huge worldwide bestsellers”. That reclusive side suggests he had no great affiliations. but it’s notable that, like George Orwell, he worked for the Ministry of Information during WWII (prior to joining the army). More distinctly, in terms of doorstepping, Wyndham also lived at the Quaker Penn Club in Tavistock Square for almost forty years. And you know where the Tavistock Institute gets its name.
Jo: Do we tell them that the world was wonderfully clever but so wicked t had to be destroyed? Or do we tell them it destroyed itself by accident?
Whether or not that’s indication of anything beyond the circumstantial, it’s notable that many of the author’s works could loosely be seen to fall into that sphere, even if merely by dint of positioning minds towards an apocalyptic scenario within their lifetimes. And arguably, one might more coherently single out Wyndham’s wartime experiences as the predominate influence on his dystopian apocalypse fiction. His canvas also featured environmental disaster (caused by aliens, though: The Kraken Wakes) and themes of eugenics (The Chrysalids). Is Chocky a transhumanist AI avatar (genderless, advanced, apparently benign, brainwashing the young)? We also meet an advanced elite who see fellow humans as lesser vassals in The Midwich Cuckoos.
Bill: I’ve never seen a Triffid climb the side of a building.
The Day of the Triffids holds up remarkably well. The Triffid designs are superb – they look remarkably convincing, and it was a wise decision not to attempt too much dexterity. The only occasion, besides use of miniatures, where they’re a little fake is the lack of splattering juices when they’re shotgunned. Bill’s zap gun is also a bit naff. And while I’m finding fault, I don’t really care for the theme music or title design; the former is rather sub-Children of the Stones. Duttine is very good in the lead. Colbourne always is. Relph is fine, if a bit Joanna Lumley-ish and unable to make all her dialogue sound convincing. I should probably emphasise that I haven’t gone near the recent Blu-ray release as I don’t fancy all that filmised video (luckily, I didn’t even realise it was available until I’d begun rewatching the DVD).
On reflection, perhaps Aldiss was right after all. As grim as it is, just now The Day of the Triffids manages to look fairly cosy as catastrophes go. At least it allows for the possibility of rebuilding afresh. Technocratic nightmares only get worse and worse.