BBC Video // 1981 // 156 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge James A. Stewart // November 28th, 2007
"They couldn't only walk. They could kill. Triffids began to appear all over the world. Something else was learned about them that sickened everyone. Triffids were also carnivorous. They stung their victims, then stood over them, waiting for their flesh to decompose, because not until then could they use them for food."
"The trees and hedgerows were blowing across the road and I thought, 'by gosh, those'd be nasty things if they could sting you'," British writer John Wyndham said in 1968, as quoted in the booklet accompanying this DVD.
For Wyndham (short for John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris), that was the seed of an idea that would germinate into a science-fiction legend. The concept first bore fruit as "Revolt of the Triffids," a 1951 serial in Colliers Weekly, and then grew into the book-length The Day of the Triffids.
The triffids marched to the big screen in 1962's The Day of the Triffids, with Howard Keel as Bill Masen, one of the few who can see to fight back. It also has been adapted as a drama for BBC radio in 1957 and 1968.
Wyndham's career blossomed as well. He'd written under another name before World War II, but hadn't reached the level of fame that Triffids brought him. Even if you don't recall his name, you probably remember the Triffids movie and one or the other version of Village of the Damned, based on his The Midwich Cuckoos.
The 1962 Triffids movie was fun, but it took a lot of liberties with Wyndham's book, chucking a lot of backstory and ending on a more upbeat note than the author intended. Thus, there was room for improvement.
The BBC tried to do just that with 1981's The Day of the Triffids, a six-part TV version of the classic story. While it aimed for faithfulness to the book, it took a few liberties -- starting with the firm 1981 setting. The average audience was eight million viewers, according to the booklet.
Does The Day of the Triffids do Wyndham's work justice, and does it make a ripping yarn?
Bill Masen (John Duttine, Jesus of Nazareth) wakes up in the hospital, bandages covering his eyes. It's Wednesday, May 12. "Or is it still Tuesday, May 11?" he asks into a tape recorder.
Masen was temporarily blinded by a triffid sting while working on a triffid farm. The huge walking carnivorous plants would have been eradicated long ago -- if they weren't a fuel source. Masen's one of the few people who has built up any resistance to a triffid sting; as a boy, he was the first British person ever stung by one of the plants.
Masen can't hear the sounds of traffic, so he at first thinks it's still the middle of the night -- although the digital clock by his bed says otherwise. When he hears the eight o'clock bells, Masen becomes alarmed.
Masen takes off his bandages and goes exploring. He finds his doctor -- now blind -- in a stairwell and learns that a comet has left a lot of people sightless.
Before long, Masen will learn about two competing visions of the future -- the "compassionate" vision of Coker, which includes taking the sighted prisoner so they'll help the blind, and the new society planned by Beadley, who wants to flee London. Masen, along with new love Josella, will have to make a choice.
Neither vision takes into account the fact that the triffids are on the march...
The Day of the Triffids looks much like you'd expect for a BBC sci-fi serial from 1981. It's got puppet and miniature triffids that look menacing if you just see a glimpse, but aren't that frightening in a full view. It's got cheap sets. It's got wooden actors in supporting roles. It has a videotaped look; a candlelight dinner shows off the flaring in the picture. The opening and closing sequences have a leftover 1960s psychedelic look.
There are action scenes and cliffhangers, but the emphasis in Triffids is on the moral and practical questions the survivors face: How do you decide who to help? Do you stay in London or flee? How should a society govern itself in a crisis? When rebuilding society, do you keep your own standards or adapt to the situation?
While triffids are always present and always dangerous, Wyndham's concern was with the humans and how quickly chaos takes over. In the cliffhanger at the end of Part Two, for example, it's not triffids that have Masen and Josella surrounded in their car but a mob of frightened blind people.
Scripter Douglas Livingstone makes a few changes from the novel -- Josella no longer is the author of Sex is My Adventure, for example -- but his script follows John Wyndham's work closely. It even keeps Wyndham's indefinite but hopeful ending.
John Duttine does an excellent job as Bill Masen. The first episode leaves him alone most of the way through as he tries to puzzle out what has happened. His reasoning and emotions are the main thing that carries viewers into the drama, since there's a lot of exposition. Duttine's Masen ultimately comes across as a good guy who's troubled by the moral choices he must make.
Maurice Colbourne (The Onedin Line) as Jack Coker provides a worthy adversary, of a sort, for Masen. Throughout the story, Coker struggles between altruism and practicality. He's got a strong moral outlook, but will his actions ultimately prove right?
Emma Relph (From a Far Country) is more than a screamer as Josella. Relph portrays Josella as a party girl at the start, but manages to show a core of determination and endurance underneath by story's end.
Also notable is Gary Olsen (Outland) as Torrence, a military man who combines bureaucracy with coldheartedness late in the story.
The sound comes across well, but I found the ominous music overused at times. Triffid attack music doesn't have quite the same impact if you're focusing on a digital clock. Much more ominous, as the movie progressed, was the click-click-click noise the triffids themselves made.
There's no commentary, but a booklet provides a lot of background information on Wyndham, his Triffids, and the TV series -- including a point-by-point guide to the changes from the novel. I liked it, but I'll note that the writing seems aimed toward those already familiar with Wyndham.
If you haven't read the book, you might not be impressed with the first episode. Bill Masen spends most of the opener in a hospital room, recalling the backstory.
You might also be wondering how communications were shut off so completely. So was I. They might not have had cell phones and WiFi in 1981, but they must have had some 24-hour radio station in London that could stay on the air, at least.
As a fan of John Wyndham's novel, I've been itching to see this version of Day of the Triffids for years -- and I wasn't disappointed. The adaptation was thoughtful and respectful of Wyndham's work. I had some quibbles -- perhaps the first chapter should have ended with only a partial view of the triffids -- but Triffids is an impressive science-fiction drama that blends action and ideas effectively. It also gave me an excuse to re-read the novel, one that got me started tracking down Wyndham's works.
Like H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds, John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids is a science-fiction classic. The BBC's take on Triffids is a good way to get acquainted with it.
As I was putting the finishing touches on this review, I saw a news story on my Yahoo! screen (from Live Science) about sea anemones that "swim and walk across the sea floor." Who knows? Give them a comet and they may one day rule the planet. Incidentally, Wyndham followed up on Triffids with an undersea menace in The Kraken Wakes.
Not guilty. You are, however, cautioned not to stare at any surprise comets in the night sky, just in case those sea anemones are waiting...
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 156 Minutes
Release Year: 1981
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Viewing Notes Booklet