John Wyndham’s classic 1951 science fiction novel The Day Of The Triffids has had a number of film, TV and radio outings. The two most people recall are the crushingly upbeat 1962 movie with musical leading man Howard Keel, and the 1981 TV series starring John Duttine as Triffid expert Bill Masen.
The new two part BBC mini series was written by Patrick Harbinson, who has previously penned ER and Law & Order, and stars Dougray Scott as the botanist with the potential knowledge to save mankind. The tale has this time been split into two 90 minute episodes, which provides sufficient running time to cover the story in some detail.
So how much fun is Day of the Triffids? It has weaknesses that’s I’ll mention later, but overall it’s pretty good in terms of what it promises and then delivers.
But first off I’d like to say that it was with some relief that what’s contained in the first half of this story isn’t massively divergent from what’s in the Wyndham original work. That includes the characters of Bill Masen and Jo Playton (Joely Richardson), and their chance meeting under the most extreme of circumstances.
The only significant difference from the source material that I noticed, and there may be others, is that instead of the Cold War undertone of the 1951 book, the modern focus on climate change is centre stage. The Triffids are grown for an oil substitute they make, which has saved the planet from global warming but with unforeseen circumstances. Mutated by genetic engineering to produce the oil, the Triffids become increasingly mobile and aggressive, which isn’t exactly normal for a plant.
The only problem with this new twist is the lack of logic that’s applied to them being ‘green’, because they don’t use photosynthesis – they’re carnivorous! So presumably animals had to be reared to feed them? How green is that? Not very, but perhaps I wasn’t meant to think too deeply about this. On the same basis the Triffids are also self defeating. Because once they’ve eaten everything then they’ll die, presumably?
Masen is cast as the man of science that nobody will listen to, even after an unrelated solar event makes 99% of the population of the planet blind. Soon, with the help of an environmental loon, the Triffids are out of their secure farm and free to feed on a now helpless population. Oddly we see no blind animals or Triffids feeding on them, so humanity has been moved to the top table in this particular buffet.
Masen avoids this fate because he’s in hospital recovering from a Triffid sting to the eyes. So he and a few other people – like Jo Playton reporting in the underground – are lucky enough to retain their sight. They then get to witness the fall of mankind, in a very War of the Worlds type way where society disintegrates around them.
But every cloud has a distinctly silver lining, and for some like Torrence – played brilliantly by Eddie Izzard – it’s the opportunity for power they always wanted. This piece of casting is quite brilliant, as Izzard cultivates the man-with-a-plan with much the same ruthless efficiency as the character he plays. It’s like the director Nick Copus (The Summit, EastEnders) sent Izzard into a corner for an hour before each take with the instruction to think ruthless thoughts.
When the solar flare hits he’s sleeping on an international flight. His imaginative if entirely unrealistic scheme for surviving the subsequent crash tells us all we need to know about him, and the name he subsequently provides to people is actually the location the aircraft strikes, not his own. Izzard is infinitely watchable in this, as he starts by stealing a decent suit and then moves to secure the rest of London.
BBC publicity released a large number of pictures of the production beforehand, but these omitted the Triffids, which was deeply worrying to me. Early on we see almost nothing of them, though as the story develops we get to see more and greater detail. What clearly concerned the production people was them looking distinctly unreal and silly, in a 70s-Doctor Who-budget sort of fashion. CGI roots scurry across the floor, whipping stings launch out of the darkness and creepy tick-tock sounds accompany each usually lethal encounter. Generally it’s not massively better than the previous TV version, but it at least succeeds in avoiding any unintentional hilarity.
Amidst this subtle work they also throw in a few ‘money shots’ of London being destroyed, which adds to the atmosphere superbly. For what I could see on our preview DVD, these seem technically good, but I’m looking forward to seeing them again on the HD broadcast.
So what are the bigger problems of this version? Well, they decided at some point in the production that the answer to the Triffid problem would come from an event in Masen’s childhood where his mother dies of a Triffid sting. So we keep returning to that and the Kenyan tribesman who put the wooden mask on the young boy Masen. They return to this so many times I felt like I was being clubbed with it mercilessly. Why not put subtitles up saying ‘this is the important bit’ for those too dim to follow?
But this flagging also worried me in other respects, because of the moronic ending of the 1962 movie version where we’re all saved by sea-water. It’s a long time since I read it, so forgive me if I’m wrong, but as I recall the book doesn’t have a resolution, only the hope that they’ll find a way to take back the planet from the Triffids. So which path has the BBC decided it will be?
The trailer they provide at the end of this episode doesn’t really give that away, though it does show Brian Cox as Masen Senior, and Vanessa Redgrave as Durrant, a nun with attitude.
We also get more of Jason Priestly (yes, he of Beverly Hills, 90210 fame among many other things), as the Torrence-manipulated Major Coker.
While the story and the characters got distinctly better as it went on, I’m not convinced to the point that I’d actually say this was a ‘classic’ interpretation until I’ve seen the second half. There is potential here, but it could so easily be squandered.
I’ve liked what Dougray Scott has contributed so far, although he’s not been called on to do much more than look pained and get Joely Richardson’s character out of scrapes she should be smart enough to avoid. But maybe the women-in-peril content to the story could be blamed on Wyndham to some degree. The dialogue has actually been very good. Whatever Patrick Harbinson got recompensed for his involvement paid off.
What I want from the conclusion is more Machiavellian scheming by Torrence and less coy appearances from the Triffids. Here’s hoping that part two builds on the strengths of the first part and avoids an ending where the BBC’s quota for social commentary is the only winner.