Tripods - The Complete Series 1 & 2 (BBC, 2009)

In the 1960's, the author John Carpenter wrote a trilogy of books (The White Mountains, The City of Gold and Lead, and The Pool of Fire) telling the story of young Will Parker and his struggles to first save himself, and then humanity in general, from the control of a race of aliens who pilot massive land-roving vessels called Tripods for their three legs. In 1984 and 1985, the BBC adapted the first two books into a series. Dissatisfied with the results, they declined to pick up the third season, leaving the series on a cliffhanger -- much to the chagrin of the cult following the show had developed. It took until 2009 for the complete series of The Tripods, consisting of 25 half-hour episodes covering two seasons, to get released on DVD.

The first season begins in a village in rural England. The setting appears to be several centuries in the past, but we are informed that the year is in fact 2089, and there is the matter of the giant three-legged spaceship hanging out in the field. It turns out that the Tripods have quenched humanity's lust for violence and technology by placing a mind-control device called a cap on each person as they approach adulthood. Will Parker (John Shackley) is a year away from capping and doesn't like the idea, as the cap takes away all imagination and creativity. He discovers that his cousin Henry (Jim Baker) feels the same way, and together they make their escape. They find out from a vagrant named Ozymandias that there is a refuge in the White Mountains, in a country called France to their south, where a small band of uncapped people are plotting the overthrow of the Tripods. Will and Henry reach France, where a like-minded youth named Jean Paul (Ceri Seel), nicknamed Beanpole, helps them escape the clutches of the Black Guards and joins them on their journey. The bulk of the season consists of a series of mini-adventures, in which the trio meet many interesting characters and make all sorts of narrow escapes, as they complete their journey.

Season two begins underground in the White Mountains. The leaders of the "Freemen," as they are called, need people to infiltrate the Tripods' city. The easiest way to do this is to compete in and win an athletic event in the games which the Tripods hold annually. (The games enable the Tripods to select the strongest and fittest humans for their service.) Will, Beanpole, and a German youth named Fritz (Robin Hayter) travel to the games, wearing fake caps to conceal their identity. Will and Fritz win their events and get taken inside, while Beanpole clandestinely monitors the city from the outside. Inside, Will becomes the slave of an alien who's intrigued by his curiosity, while Fritz maneuvers his way out of hard labor and into the control station of the city's power plant. Both obtain much information, but Will discovers that the Tripods aren't nearly as benevolent as they make themselves out to be. Worse, his master begins to suspect that there's something not right with Will's cap. Will needs to escape, and fast -- and even then, he and Beanpole are not assured of a safe trip back to The White Mountains, or even that the rest of the Freemen will be waiting for them when they arrive...

Like most BBC sci-fi productions -- fans of the original Doctor Who series will know exactly what I mean -- the special effects budget for The Tripods was painfully limited, and the visuals have to be taken with several grains of salt. That being said, the series was very entertaining and suspenseful. The acting, done as it was by people whose names you wouldn't recognize from any other project, was strong throughout. The individual episodes were well-written, and the underlying story arc develops in a steady fashion that's easy to follow. There were some differences with the books, particularly regarding the age of the protagonists; the TV series has Will in his late teens rather than his early teens like the books. The story as depicted on television did not seem in any way compromised as a result, though. Unfortunately, the series is one season short. People who get into the series will need to accept an unresolved conclusion, or get their hands on the books so they can finish the story.

All in all, The Tripods was a very engaging program. Sci-fi fans will get hooked quickly if they start watching. They may wind up screaming over getting left hanging at the end, but they'll find the journey up to that point to be well worth their while.

Overall grade: A-

reviewed by Scott

While the series itself wasn't narrated, John Shackley did narrate this summary for the original Season 1 DVD.

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