Don't Watch the Skies
And I really got hot/ When I saw Jeanette Scott/ Fight a triffid that spits poison and kills.
—The Rocky Horror Picture Show
In 1984 the BBC released The Day of the Triffids, a six episode mini-series that was far closer to the original novel by John Wyndham than the 1962 b-movie classic of the same name. A triffid is a walking, poisonous and very carnivorous plant. It looks something like an eight-foot tall walking amaryllis with a big appetite and a bad attitude. In the 1962 version, the triffids come to Earth on meteorites. In the novel and the BBC adaptation, they were genetically bred by the Soviets and farmed worldwide to make an oil additive.
In all of the versions, The Day of the Triffids begins with a meteor shower. The light show produced by the meteors is so spectacular that everyone on the planet who can, watches it. The next day, everyone is blind, the triffids are on the loose, and it’s just bad news all around. Our hero, Bill Masen (played by John Duttine), doesn’t see the comet because his eyes are bandaged while he’s recuperating in a London hospital. In the BBC version he had an accident on the triffid farm where he works and was temporarily blinded.
On the day that Bill Masen gets his sight back, almost everyone else is blinded. The first thing poor Bill sees is his doctor, maddened by the loss of his sight, jumping out of the window. Bill doesn’t have any family and is a bit of a loner, so he wanders through a rapidly disintegrating London trying to figure out what to do. Eventually he runs across Jo Pleyton (Emma Relph) who’s being kept on a leash by a blind ruffian. She’s no Janette Scott, but Bill rescues her anyway, and finds a new purpose in life.
In most end-of-the-world movies the plot would basically be over at this point. Our almost sole survivor finds a hot babe (funny that) and the rest of the movie is shots of apocalyptic disaster and manly men slugging it out with evil critters. The hot babes are docile and pretty useless, but always manage to find eyeliner and blow dryers. Then a deux ex machina comes out of nowhere and solves the problem. This leaves our happy hero free to repopulate the planet with his hot babe. The end.
Now all of this is pretty enjoyable and it’s exactly how the 1962 version goes. It’s a quick romp of macho apocalyptic fantasy that I thoroughly enjoyed. Planes go down, trains crash, and Jeanette Scott is suddenly available. Tough French convicts with sub machineguns fight carnivorous plants to a jazz soundtrack. Everything zooms around and it all comes out right in the end. It was a party to remember.
But the folks at the BBC won’t stand for any of that. They have to stay true to the book and even worse, they try to put some thought into it. The mini-series is The Day of the Triffids stuck in first gear. For all six episodes the viewers pulse will remain absolutely steady. The soundtrack is mostly someone playing monumentally bad piano. They do a very good job on the triffids themselves but the “triffid gun” is the most laughable piece of science fiction gadgetry ever devised. The viewer is reduced to laughter by the third opening credit, when that poor lady keeps getting whopped upside the head by a triffid stamen. This is a very long Day of the Triffids upon which the sun never sets.
But slow isn’t stupid. Even when my wife and I were groaning at the pace of the story, we would always agree to watch the next episode. We watched the DVD in one sitting. No matter what the obvious flaws were, we wanted to see how it all came out. The series was strangely compelling.
The genius of the mini-series is in the normalcy of the characters. These aren’t superstars playing hero. These are regular actors playing regular people. They don’t have a steady purpose; most of the time Bill and Jo have no idea what to do other than stay together. Mercifully, they don’t engage in Hollywood histrionics, they just try to cope and do the right thing. Bill, Jo and the rest of the cast are just real people caught up in disaster, making mistakes and sometimes learning from them.
This is what makes The Day of the Triffids so compelling. For the first time in years I actually had some empathy with the characters in a sci-fi movie. (The last guy I really liked was Private Hudson from Aliens) Their dilemmas are more real and the viewer can’t help but have sympathy for the characters. You really don’t know whether they’ll make it or not so you root for them. They even develop! Jo is pretty useless at first, but by the end of the series she gets pretty handy with a flamethrower, which puts her above Janette Scott in my book. The amazingly pompous Coker (played by Maurice Colbourne) becomes more human and Bill gets more decisive.
The other interesting thing about the mini-series is that nobody figures out what the proper course of action is. Do you try to start a new society and let the old one go? Do you do everything you can to save everyone that you can reach? Do you take care of your buddies and prey on the rest? Do you find a nice farmhouse in Sussex and sit by the Aga? All of these options are explored and it’s hard to say what the best choice is. I kept wondering what I would do and whether it would work.
So all in all, this version of
is a different but enjoyable piece of science fiction. It doesn’t wow, but it haunts. You won’t yell, but you will think. And though you certainly wouldn’t watch it at the theater, but it does make for a nice evening at home.