Wednesday, July 11, 2007

hail the tripods

One of the joys of having children is introducing them to things that you enjoyed when you were their age.
When I was younger, Boys Life magazine carried a serial comic based on "The White Mountains" and the other Tripod books by John Christopher. The story didn't translate well, mostly because of the format they published it in. Each issue contained a single page of the comic, drawn on a grid of nine or twelve panels. A lot of the material that Christopher created to establish the characters, the setting, and even the nature of the alien rule over the earth, went right out the window. There just wasn't space.
In 1987, when I was an exchange student living in New Zealand, one of the channels showed "The Tripods," a BBC miniseries based on Christopher's books. I saw part of the first episode, and part of one that came nearer the end of the series. In that segment, Will the main character had just discovered that the alien masters were planning in a few years' time to eradicate all terrestrial life, I presume to make the planet more suitable for themselves.
I hadn't read the books yet, but I was pretty sure the Beeb had taken a few liberties with its adaptation. In the comic the only alien race on the planet was the Masters, a race that looked something like giant turds with faces and tentacles, but here in the series he was talking with some other alien that appeared as a green triangle and that also was appalled by the Masters' plans for the planet ... but which was unwilling to stop them, since he saw humanity's survival as humanity's business.
Fast forward to around 2000. I had bought the entire series from Amazon and was zipping through them with the speed of an arrow. Somewhere inside me a Cub Scout was in heaven.
The books are a nice, easy read; in fact, Evangeline just finished reading the entire series herself about a week ago, even though there are no girls worth mentioning in the books. They're set roughly a hundred years in the future, after an alien race has fully domesticated the human race through a mind-control technique that involves affixing a metal cap to the heads of children when they turn 13. The cap removes the aggression that humans have, purges their curiosity about the world around them, and makes them the happy, docile servants of the Tripods and the aliens behind them.
The main characters in the trilogy are three boys, named Will, Henry and Jean-Paul, who learn about feral humans -- free men who have never been capped, and who are learning all they can from their base in a mouintain hideaway about the alien conquerors so they can liberate the earth and the human race.
The books were published in 1970, I think, and some aspects of the writing definitely reflect that period. The people of the earth are docile, uninquisitive about the world around them, and really not all that bright -- the classic depiction of stoners. And yet the Tripods also are linked to God, through the juxtaposition of an image of a Tripod at the Dome of the Rock, and the great awe and generally religious reverence which humans hold the Tripods in.
My best guess, without having done any formal research into the matter, is that Christopher is urging people to think for themselves and try to save the world, without the limits imposed by religion or by the "tune out and drop out" culture of the sixties. A prequel to the series, published in the 1980s, shows the Tripods gaining control over more and more people by subverting television broadcasts, a more contemporary "think for yourself" sort of message.
I had told Evangeline about the BBC series, and I told her that if she were interested, we could try to watch it once she had finished the books. I was disappointed to find that the BBC show ran for two series -- the first following "The White Mountains" fairly faithfully, and the second taking tremendous liberties with "The City of Gold and Lead," not just with the glowy green pyramids, but also by making the masters a friendly and congenial sort of master race who even have given their slaves a nightclub of their very own so they can relax and feel at home. (Christopher had depicted life in the masters' cities as hellish, with ovenlike temperatures, leaden poisonous air, and abusive masters. The average lifespan of a slave was about three years, tops.)
Bad enough that the second series isn't available on DVD or video at all. Worse still is that the BBC never filmed a series based on "The Pool of Fire," with the result that the free humans discover they have only a few years to drive the masters off the planet or perish, and we never get to see them make an attempt.
We've been watching the show in eight- or nine-minute segments, courtesy of the high speed Internet access we have at the university and one or two other places we go with the laptop. So far we've watched the entire first episode, and not only has Evangeline enjoyed it, so has my inner Cub Scout, and so has my 4-year-old.

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