This year marked the 50th anniversary of John Christopher’s young adult trilogy The Tripods. The author, who passed away in 2012 at 89, was a long-time writer of science fiction who published books and stories under various pseudonyms over his long career. But it was these three books –and a fourth title, a prequel released some 20 years after the last book, that he is mainly known for.
Two of the three books were adapted by the BBC and Australia's Network Seven into a series, one with 13 episodes and the other with 12. The third series was axed due to low ratings and (then) BBC head Michael Grade’s all out war on science fiction. Grade, of course, was the man who cancelled long running Doctor Who back then, only to revive when there was such an uproar and who eventually cancelled it again in 1989.
Back in 1985 when my local PBS station in Chicago WTTW began airing this series on Sundays (pairing it with Doctor Who reruns), I remember enjoying the series. I have no reason as to why it’s taken me this long to read the books, but I do know that the series, despite its many issues it had, never left me. The acting, like most BBC dramas, was better than you would expect. Of course the BBC was aware that its many shows relied on strong acting and characterization to make up for the less than stellar production values. And science fiction, despite the long running Doctor Who TV series, were not that highly budgeted shows. But for The Tripods, the visual effects became the marketing ploy designed to interest outside bidders just as effects driven shows and movies were becoming popular.
And I think that’s what stuck with me, the visual aspects, the fact that the show never really delved into how the alien Tripods over took the planet, and performances from the young cast.
“Life goes on largely as it had in the pre-industrial era, excepting that all adult humans are subject to Tripod control. Will, a thirteen-year-old boy living in the English village of Wherton, is looking forward to the next "Capping Day", until a chance meeting with a mysterious uncapped man named Ozymandias who prompts him to discover a world beyond the Tripods' control. He is accompanied by his cousin Henry and latter a French teenager named Jean-Paul Deliet, nicknamed "Beanpole". The novel climaxes with Henry and Beanpole discovering that earlier, when Will had been captured by a Tripod, he had been unknowingly implanted with a tracking device. When Henry and Beanpole remove the device, a nearby Tripod attacks them; but the boys defeat the Tripod and eventually join the resistance, located in the titular White Mountains.”
Having re-watched most of the first series on Youtube, it’s amazing how much padding was added to the book. At a slim 195 pages, The White Mountains is much tighter tale than what amounts to six-plus hours of the first season of the TV series. I found I enjoyed the book much more than the show because Christopher did not need to go off on so many tangents.
The book does have some weakness, but I believe that has something to do with the era in which it was written. While the themes of dystopian world have been around much longer than Hollywood’s current obsession with it, this series was clearly designed to appeal to white boys –who was the demographic that publishers only seemed to care about back them. Girls are rarely talked about or even mentioned, and when they’re seen and heard, they’re idealized versions -and usually end up being Capped as well. This may have worked in the late 1960s, but by the time the series was produced in 1984/85, the producers and writers saw subtle subtext of too many half-naked boys hanging (especially in series two) about and added some of the opposite sex. However, while the girls were a little more present in the later episodes of season one and more in season two, they were still seen as subservient to men, doing the cooking and being concerned with looks and whispering about boy. None could be considered individualistic and hero like.
But after fifty years, The White Mountains is still a vibrant analogy about growing up and boys becoming men. Childhood is about freedom here, while being an adult is about being a sheep (the Capped could be seen as men donning ties and suits and heading off in trains to be controlled by bosses). Unintentionally or not by the author, Will can be a bit of jerk though, and carries typical teenage boy bravado of letting his hubris get in the way of most things, along with a bad temper. And I did find the impulsiveness of Will and Henry to abandon their families a bit odd. While Henry may have had a better reason –his Mom had died and barley had a relationship with his distant father- Will’s hastiness to walk out on his parents and his village seems an obvious plot device.