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The Day of the Triffids
1981 BBC Miniseries

The Day of the Triffids
BBC / Warners
1981 / Color / 1:33 flat full frame / 157 min. (six chapters) / Street Date November 6, 2007 / 24.98
Starring John Duttine, Emma Relph, Maurice Colbourne, Jonathan Newth, Gary Olsen, Perlita Neilson, Emily Dean, Lorna Charles
Production Design Victor Meredith
Visual Effects Steve Drevett
Film Editor Dick Allen, Stan Pow
Original Music Christopher Gunning
Written by Douglas Livingstone from the novel by John Wyndham
Produced by David Maloney
Directed by Ken Hannam

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The first attempt to film The Day of the Triffids was 1962's commercially successful but awkward and deeply flawed CinemaScope spectacular. That movie steered a legion of monster fans to John Wyndham's book, where they found a much richer experience that didn't involve nonsense like having the triffids be susceptible to ordinary sea water. Wyndham is now considered to be a classic science fiction writer on the level of H.G. Wells, and his Triffids saga has been credited as the seed for a new generation of post-apocalyptic adventures. Society breaks down and the few intact survivors must fight to stay alive under hazardous conditions. Survival means dealing with extraordinary hazards in a world without civilized values. Day to day living becomes a scary -- but liberating -- high adventure.

The BBC adapted the book in 1981 for a miniseries of six half-hour chapters. Ex- Dr. Who director David Maloney produced and Douglas Livingstone reorganized the novel into a filmable script. Their literary approach is the opposite of the 1962 film and retains most of novel's incident, albeit in a greatly condensed form.

Synopsis (full story with spoilers):

A triffid is a deadly walking plant that kills with a whip-like stinger. Growing by the millions, they're a strange and unique menace, limited mostly to farms where they're harvested for their fine oil. Triffid specialist Bill Masen (John Duttine) is recovering from an eye injury and must miss a spectacular meteor shower. His disappointment turns out to have be stroke of good luck when the vast majority of the Earth's population turns up blind the next morning. The streets are crowded with disoriented blind people begging for help. Bill hooks up with Josella Payton (Emma Relph), who slept through the shower after a heavy party. They join an emergency group headed by Michael Beadley (David Swift), a realist who thinks that the sighted and a few blind dependents should flee the city before disease sets in. After a few days collecting supplies (including anti-Triffid gear, which nobody but Bill takes seriously), Beadley's group is raided by a mob run by Jack Coker (Maurice Colbourne). Enraged that Beadley intends to abandon London's helpless blind, Coker assigns each sighted person he can capture to fend for a group of sightless survivors. Handcuffed to his captors, Masen helps the group he's assigned to until they're dissolved by pestilence, roving bands of outlaws and the deadly triffids.

Searching for Josella, Masen instead finds Coker, who admits that his idea was ill conceived. Together they look for the Beadley group and eventually find an offshoot run by the traditionalist Miss Durrant (Perlita Neilson). Beadley proposed that survival would require a new moral order necessitating the adoption of a polygamous society. Masen and Coker try to convince Durrant that her religiously oriented group has too many blind people and isn't making realistic plans for the future. When she rejects their ideas, the men move on separately. Bill picks up young orphan Susan (Emily Dean) and together they locate the rural farm where Josella said she would go. United as a makeshift family, Bill, Josella and Susan help the farm couple, who are to have a baby. Masen plans to re-link with Durrant's group, as Beadley advised that only a large community has a chance. But Durrant and her charges have died of disease as well.

Six years later Bill's little farm group is still intact. He and Josella have had a son, and the only difficulty is dealing with the massive number of marauding triffids that clog his electrified fence. Then Jack Coker returns in a helicopter to invite Bill and his friends to join his community on the Isle of Wight, which has been rendered triffid-free. Bill is finalizing plans to relocate when an armored vehicle arrives. It brings the representatives of a warlord state, who insist at gunpoint that Bill accept and take care of twenty more blind people. Susan will have to move elsewhere, but Bill can be the leader of his own feudal domain.

As is readily apparent, this Triffids miniseries covers a lot of ground in less than three hours, and is by and large successful. The show moves swiftly once it clears an exposition-filled first half-hour. The relationships between its key characters are firmly established, but no room is left over for scenes that don't advance the plot. In the book, Josella was well known as the scandalous author of something called Sex is My Adventure. But enough detail is retained to make The Day of the Triffids into a fascinating show.

The distillation process reveals the author's pointed social agenda: Bill Masen experiences five separate options for civilization's new foundation. Beadley's ruthless but practical communal-polygamous system seems reasonable enough, but it isn't given a chance. The decent but misguided Coker rebels against it, only to discover that his 'humanitarian dictatorship' concept is a dead end. Forcing sighted people to help the blind sounds like a good idea, but any plan to remain in the city will be destroyed by disease. Miss Durant's determination to trust in God is no plan at all, and falls the same way Coker's did. Masen's tiny independent unit is a survival success, but he knows that its future is bleak; it's only a matter of time before the triffids overwhelm his farm. Finally, a military feudal system threatens violence to convince Masen to do the same thing that wiped out Durrant and Coker's outfits. Only Coker's island colony seems a constructive option. Coker is now learning new things -- like flying a helicopter.

Triffids is a success despite its BBC-level budget. Interiors are sourced on videotape and exteriors on 16mm. The scope of the film is on the narrow side, with no large-scale scenes of destruction or triffid menace. The plants look like tall flowers that drag themselves slowly on the ground. We never see more than six or seven at one time, so good acting must sell the idea that thousands are on the loose. Maloney and Hannam salt the film with a dozen or so vignettes of triffid menace. In one brief scene, a blind man crawls out to the garden to get some vegetables, while his equally blind wife holds a tether so he won't get lost. Unfortunately, a triffid is waiting for him, giving credence to Bill Masen's belief that the monsters have a rudimentary intelligence.

The miniseries retains the book's original back-stories for the triffids and the blinding meteor shower, both of which were poorly explained in the 1962 film. A corporate spy attempted to smuggle triffid seeds from behind the Iron Curtain so that the west could farm them for their exotic oil, a terrific gasoline additive. The shipment was shot down in the stratosphere, spreading the seeds around the world. As for the meteor shower, Bill thinks that it was not a natural occurrence but instead a malfunction of offensive orbital satellite weapons. Reckless bioengineering and weapons research have brought the world to its knees.

The cast presents the characters in a low-key style. John Duttine's Bill Masen does well expressing a man coping with impossible, highly stressful situations, as when one of Coker's blind girls offers to 'be friendly' so he'll want to stay and help them. Masen is a bit like the protagonist of The War of the Worlds, who wants to find his way back to his wife, if she's still alive. The other characters are skillful sketches, with Emma Relph and Maurice Colbourne making a strong impression as equally confused survivors.

Audiences expecting horror thrills and explicit mayhem will be disappointed to find that the BBC Triffids favors talk over action. It's not quite a radio show but it's not visually distinguished either, and few individual shots linger in the memory. The brief views of the meteor shower are blurry and unimpressive, and the one time that Bill Masen shoots a triffid gun, its projectile is a crudely animated green triangle. Whether a truly satisfactory Triffids is possible remains to be seen. Modern digital effects can certainly overcome the obstacle of making convincing triffids, but the book-accurate monsters of the miniseries are even less frightening than the old movie's clumsy horrors. And subsequent hit movies like 28 Days Later have made audiences overly familiar with Wyndham's basic concept. The best thing about BBC's miniseries is that it demonstrates that a monster is an inessential component in a post-apocalyptic fantasy. 99% of the world being blinded is a weighty concept in and of itself. Are walking plants really necessary?

The BBC and Warners' Region 1 DVD of The Day of the Triffids is a solid encoding of this flat TV production. The image is stable but not particularly attractive, what with indifferent video and 16mm mixed together and combined with an occasional video-enhanced effect. The disc has no extras but its 12-page insert booklet contains thorough viewing notes by Andrew Pixley. His essay covers the gestation of the book as well as the making of this notable spiritual follow-up to the BBC's 1950s adventures. Serious-minded Sci-Fi fans are going to want this one.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Day of the Triffids rates:
Miniseries: Very Good / Excellent
Video: Very Good
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Essay insert notes by Andrew Pixley
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 21, 2007

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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