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Tripods (1984-85)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Tripods (1984-85)
BBC/Seven Network Australia for BBC1, tx. 15/9/1984-23/11/1985
25 x 25 min episodes in 2 series, colour
DirectorsChristopher Barry
 Graham Theakston
 Bob Blagden
ProducerRichard Bates
Adapted by Alick Rowe
 Christopher Penfold
From the novels by John Christopher

Cast: John Shackley (Will Parker), Jim Baker (Henry Parker), Ceri Seel (Jean-Paul Deliet ('Beanpole')), Robin Hayter (Fritz Eger)

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Young freedom fighters resist the domination of a future Earth by three-legged metal monsters

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This mid-80s would-be SF epic is probably remembered more for its hype than anything delivered on-screen. Promotional Blue Peter items and a Radio Times front cover promised towering three-legged metal menaces from outer space, but the prosaic reality largely disappointed. The starting concept seemed SF enough - in 2090 the world is ruled by tyrannical robots the 'Tripods'; these invaders keep the populace subservient by 'capping', a process that involves implanting metal control circuits into the skull of everyone at the age of 16.

As John Christopher, author of the trilogy of source novels, conceded, beyond the initial set-up (which he confessed to having stolen, largely unconsciously, from a childhood reading of War of the Worlds) his adventure treks were inspired by classics like Coral Island. 1980s audiences expected post-Star Wars (US, 1977) hardware, but instead got something reminiscent of a wartime chase epic like The Silver Sword (BBC, 1957; 1971). With humanity, now deprived of technology, having regressed into a rustic dark ages, Christopher thought the stories almost mediaeval in style.

Infamously, the Tripods were largely conspicuous by their absence, with few fleeting appearances in the first 13-week series. Tripod attacks happening in the dark of night was one obvious workaround, but for a mid-80s television series to fail so spectacularly to deliver on expectations seemed a betrayal of its audience. This despite a decent co-production budget - there was picturesque location work in Switzerland and the retro-futurist dressings were inventive if drab.

Crucially, rambling events were stretched out to breaking point at 13 weeks. Attempting (but failing) to compensate for the lack of Tripods, adapter Alick Rowe invented the more immediate threat of an enslaved human army, 'the Black Guard', to threaten young heroes Will, Henry and 'Beanpole' as they trekked across Europe in search of the fabled Free Men resistance movement hiding in the Alps.

It wasn't until episode five of the second series that events stepped up a gear, with Will and German boy Fritz infiltrating the Trion City of Gold, where young slaves tended to the three-legged reptiles the Masters. Viewers finally got the SF hardware, gadgets, monstrous aliens and bizarre science-fiction concepts they craved, but it was too little, too late, and BBC bosses cancelled a concluding third series before the second had finished airing, making it that rarest of beasts - a trilogy in two parts.

Alistair McGown

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