Revisiting The Tribe: Mad Max for kids

Long-running dystopian children's TV drama The Tribe was Lord Of The Flies meets The Warriors meets Mad Max, with face paint...

Over the years, Channel 5 hasn’t been well known for its creative output (at least not for the right reasons) and its children’s branch, Milkshake, was always a bit of an odd mix when it came to programming. Granted, it was responsible for airing the mystery-solving, talking dog programme Wishbone, but it wasn’t until The Tribe that Channel 5 really had a hit for kids on their hands.

Created by Raymond Thompson and Harry Duffin, the show was a collaboration between New Zealand’s Cloud 9 Entertainment Group and Channel 5 itself. At the time, it was broadcast across the world and fast became an underground hit. It was the kind of show that inspired a huge devotion from its fanbase, spawning tie-in novels, a follow-up series and two albums, performed by the cast including the show’s theme song, The Dream Must Stay Alive (they’re not for the faint-hearted but if you like cheesy late 90s pop, you might get a kick out of them).

First broadcast in 1999, The Tribe followed a group of children and teens attempting to survive in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. A mysterious virus has ravaged society, killing the adults and leaving their children to fend for themselves with mixed results. In a surprisingly effective blend of The Warriors-style tribal uniforms, Mad Max sequels’ make-up and Lord Of The Flies’ social observations, the city turns tribal, a place where police car sirens signal danger rather than safety, food is scarce and violence is a constant threat.

The visual identity of the show was its biggest selling point, though no one ever explained why tinned food was so scarce but face paint never ran out. It gave the show a unique look, one that was instantly recognisable amidst the world of teen programming. As the cast grew, so did the importance of hair dye in order to remember who was who amongst the minor characters. It also provided an exaggerated visual metaphor for the kind of cliques that teenagers often gravitate into, where representing yourself visually is probably the most important thing of all. The tribes like the Demon Dogs in earlier series and the Technos of the later years all had their uniforms.

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Our heroes, the Mallrats, were always more of an eclectic bunch, more keen on expressing their individuality first before the wider membership of the group. Part of the reason why The Tribe worked so well is that its characters, chiefly in the Mallrats, weren’t one of the successful, powerful tribe, but the underdogs, the misfits and those who couldn’t find acceptance anywhere else. They are forced together more out of necessity than anything else, but soon realise that there is more that ties them together than mere survival. Their diversity also allowed everyone to adopt a favourite character, each one offering something different for audiences to latch onto.

Although the plotlines got increasingly weirder as the show went on, including a very ill-advised virtual reality development, the first three series of The Tribe dealt with some pretty hefty topics for what was ostensibly a show about kids running round in odd make-up. It treated its audience, mostly children and young people, with a great deal of respect, never talking down to them or preaching via these characters. Instead, they used the characters and their swiftly-learned co-dependence to explore issues that could at some point affect their audience. In the first series alone, the show dealt with teen pregnancy, eating disorders and sexual assault.

It didn’t just focus on the personal issues either, but wider social problems, mainly how these kids without guidance could begin to rebuild a world that is all but finished. Re-establishing a market economy and bringing back democracy are the big concerns as the tribes start to realise that violence and in-fighting is getting them nowhere. As the teens get older, they also realise that they might still be susceptible to the virus that killed their parents and the quest for the cure becomes the Mallrats’ chief goal. Once they have it, it becomes the city’s most valuable commodity, a resource that is constantly fought over.

The blending of social and political issues with its genre setting made it one of the more intelligent shows out there for a young audience. That didn’t stop it veering off occasionally into soap opera territory and writing for a hormonally charged audience. In today’s world of fandoms, shippers and couples’ names portmanteaued ad nauseum, The Tribe’s constant relationship dramas would have fuelled Tumblr for years, particularly in the Lex (resident bad boy) and Brae (brooding hero) years. At times, the romantic entanglements threaten to derail some of the more interesting storylines and it’s at these moments the show is at its most cheesy.

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For a young cast, they all carry themselves remarkably well though the performances could vary wildly depending upon what the script was asking of them. This could also change dramatically and a character who seemed fairly stoic and emotionally calm could be ranting and raving the very next episode. Beth Allen’s Amber was a victim of this kind of wavering characterisation. Pitched as the honourable hero who was intelligent enough to be able to lead the Mallrats into stability, Amber was an incredible female character to have onscreen as a young female viewer, even if the script decided to make her have a temper tantrum any time boys got involved. But hey, that’s not exactly outside of the realms of teenage experience.

Rumours have abounded for years that The Tribe is set for the motion picture treatment with Raymond Thompson stating back in 2013 that plans were definitely afoot. Nothing much has been heard since, but given that most of the cast are still active (an alarming amount of them went on to appear in various Power Rangers spin-offs) and there are still clusters of fans around the world who remember The Tribe with great affection, we could yet see the Mallrats back on our screens. The dream must stay alive, after all.