Some notes first: the U.K. population is 59 million. An audience of 20 million will be achieved only by a sensational occasion or one of the two big soap operas. 10 million is a solid figure for expensive, mainstream drama shown at peak time on the two main channels (BBC1 and ITV); whereas on the alternatives (BBC2 and Channel 4), or out of peak-time, 5 million would be considered a definite success. The time slot, and the popularity of the opposition, arguably influence the rating as much as the quality of the programme itself. Finally, note that ratings have slightly deflated since the 1970s, when there was substantially less choice in viewing.
The Tripods was scheduled in the Saturday afternoon slot recently vacated by Doctor Who after almost twenty years' occupation, at 6.30. The hope was to "take back" this slot from ITV, the rival channel: without a solid drama, the BBC were left with shows like The Krankies' Elektronik Komik and Roland Rat, which were justly panned. ITV was at least equally committed to this early-evening slot, and ran major drama serials in it: their own Robin of Sherwood (1984-6), for instance, and -- very unfortunately for The Tripods -- the imported show The A-Team. The 1984 run of this remains the only U.S. import ever shown on British television to break the 15-million audience barrier.
[Peak ratings for BBC1 sci-fi throughout the 1980s. "Star Cops" is excluded since it was broadcast on BBC2, and in summer not autumn]
In the event The Tripods reached a peak audience of 9.5 million (more than the total population of children in Britain, another indication that it wasn't a children's show). As the above graph demonstrates, the show therefore did no worse, and perhaps slightly better, than typical BBC shows of its genre in the 1980s; contrary to what is sometimes said in "cult TV" books today. A reasonably fair comparison can be made with the 1986 return of Doctor Who to the traditional Saturday in autumn slot, because this occupied exactly the slot left vacant when series three of The Tripods was cancelled. Despite being to some extent a relaunch, this run peaked at 5 million viewers.
Peak figures are not the whole story, however, and with typical ratings being more like 6 million the BBC management were reportedly disappointed -- what might have impressed them would have been a return to the 10 to 15 million range, which had sometimes been achieved by its flagship sci-fi show Doctor Who, at the height of its popularity in the late 70s (albeit usually only when helped by strike action closing down rival channels).
The second series, edited down to 12 episodes rather than 13, did not reverse the trend but there was no immediate move to cancel and work continued towards the third and final series. During studio floor filming of the City scenes, a rumour reached Richard Bates:
As usual I was the last person to learn that the series was to be axed after the second book. A member of the studio crew told me but I declined to believe him. When I was formally informed I was hurt and angry in equal proportions...
The truth was that the below-the-line budget, which bore most of the cost of the effects in terms of crew hours, was much heavier than we had expected. At the same time the above-the-line was in good shape... By this time we had of course commissioned the next set of scripts and looked for suitable locations [including a reservoir in Spain which would double as the Panama Canal]; a lot of other work had been done and of course the cost of building the City was to have been spread over two series...
The now-famous concluding scene to series 2 was re-edited by Bates himself in post-production, altering the order of lines to place the now-famous final words last. This did not exactly distort the script's original intention, because something like this had always been intended (responding to a brief mention in the books, and also making a cliff-hanger for the final part of the trilogy, rather as the movie The Empire Strikes Back had recently done in the Star Wars trilogy). But, heightened and overlaid by the feelings of a production team which had come to identify with its creation, it made for a unique moment of television.
It must have been even more bitter for the producers to watch the broadcast of the final show on BBC1, because the cancellation was still not public. A show which had been consciously re-edited in the knowledge that it would be the last was followed by the continuity announcer saying, as usual on these occasions, that the Tripods would return for a new series in the autumn. The principal cast members appeared on Blue Peter (a children's magazine programme) to reassure the public that despite the cliff-hanger ending of series 2, a happy ending was on the way. Bates did try to persuade the BBC to make a one-off film special to be shown at Christmas, completing the narrative, but this too was ruled out. He even lobbied ITV companies to take on the ending themselves, all to no avail. Eventually there were no options left. John Shackley, the actor playing Will:
The first I knew was when Richard Bates phoned me and said there was a possibility they wouldn't be doing the third series, or if they did it might be a shorter run in a different format. Then a couple of weeks later he phoned and said they're not doing it at all. And that was it.
In early 1986 Michael Grade, then controller of BBC1, formally announced that the third series was to be abandoned.
Grade was a relatively new figure and had instigated none of the shows he took an axe to, which astonishingly included Blackadder (after its first, rather expensive, season) and the American imported soap Dallas: he made no bones about weighing ratings against production cost, and his mind was changed only when a drastic cut in budget (to studio sets) was promised. His decision to take Doctor Who off the air, after an unbroken run since 1963, brought him brief notoriety. (The memoirs of John Nathan-Turner, then the show's producer, tell a tale very like Richard Bates's: a rumour, with him the last to know.) The tabloid newspapers, shrewdly primed by the Doctor Who office, kicked up a storm, and in the end it was settled that the show would only be "rested" for a year, though the hiatus did it great damage. Other long-term shows (the hospital sit-com Angels, for instance) simply died.
Ironically, although the launch of the second series of Tripods hadn't made much splash in Radio Times, the protest kicked up by the show's cancellation led the letters pages, under the headline:
'Marvellous' Tripods deserve a third series
with a cartoon of a viewer driven mad by the appearance of the words "The End" on his TV screen, while someone looking on says "Note the special effects". Four letters are printed, three of protest and one gloating (but with an ulterior motive: "How can the BBC justify the wasting of licence-payers' money on this when a first-class series like Doctor Who... is under threat"). Michael Grade tersely replied:
Response to the first series of The Tripods was very disappointing both in terms of popularity and appreciation. The second series has shown no improvement.
Christopher Barry says that Grade, and his new head of serials, Jonathan Powell -- who would probably not have commissioned the series in the first place -- had always "loathed the show and were only too happy to ditch it"; Christopher Penfold says that Grade and Powell were bewildered by what audiences could see in science fiction at all. Nevertheless, the cancellation announcement hoped to mollify viewers with the prospect of a detectives-in-space show. Several of the Tripods team, notably the assistant producer (Ian Wallace) and the visual effects designers, moved over to what eventually became Chris Boucher's excellent but even more short-lived Star Cops (1987). Richard Bates left the BBC to return to ITV and soon afterwards made one of the highest-rated drama series in recent television history, The Darling Buds of May, scripted from his father's book. Its spectacular viewing figures led to some embarrassment at the BBC after the press discovered that it had been offered the show but had refused to take a gamble on what was, after all, an oddball mixed-genre dramatisation.
Asked that most cruel of questions, Richard Bates said in 1993 that:
I'd love to go back and finish The Tripods... I have to say, though, that the chances are nil. It's a case of once bitten, twice shy. I don't think either the BBC or an ITV company would be willing to risk investing in something that had "failed" once.
After the wreck it might have seemed that The Tripods had come to nothing, but the bottom line is that even if unfinished it still produced twenty-five episodes which told two coherent and complete story-lines. While BBC Video was reportedly unsure about releasing the second series (though it did seek the legal permissions to keep its options open), other broadcasters have had no such inhibitions.
In common with many BBC drama series, The Tripods has never been repeated on terrestrial British television: once three years have elapsed from initial broadcast, the payment of repeat fees to actors makes such a repeat prohibitively expensive. It continues to be shown on satellite and abroad, where such conditions do not apply.
The German station ZDF broadcast a German translation, Die dreibeinigen Herrscher (literally "The three-legged rulers") from April 4, 1986, using the first series only -- the cancellation having already been announced before the first broadcast -- and then both series right through, from January 7, 1988.
Israeli television broadcast the series in 1995; Canada's YTV network broadcast it between 1988 and 1990, partly making good the ending with a scrolling summary of the plot of the unfilmed book. There has apparently also been a Francophone, rather than subtitled, version.
A revival of interest in the show took place on the tenth anniversary in 1994-5, as it was repeated on UK Gold (an archival satellite channel) and released on BBC Video tapes -- it was a little unfortunate that these coincided, from the point of view of sales; an extensive soundtrack album was also released on CD, and more recently (in 1997-8) two CD singles of remixes have also been released. In March 2001 the Tripods made their first appearance on DVD with another release of series 1, and there was almost a release of series 2 as well: but rights problems halted it. This isn't the luckiest of television programmes.
Some of John Christopher's own responses to the show can be found, in ironic form, in his 1987 "prequel" to the original books, When The Tripods Came. The alien invasion begins with a largely successful attempt to brainwash the population through an animated programme called The Trippy Show, intended for children but also popular with adults. As a result, Christopher works in some biting double-entendres:
Talk got round to the Trippy Show, and I noticed the difference in reactions, some saying it was lousy and others raving about it.
Critics of genre television, looking back on the show from the 1990s and 2000s, have mixed views. It remains a show which a few people think is wonderful and a few others awful, while the majority line seems to be that it could have been an epic triumph but for one reason or another wasn't, quite. The models and production values are universally approved of. The mixture of genres, and the pace set by the drama, are not. It should be remembered that most genre-TV critics are predominantly science fiction fans.
Ness Bishop, in her entertainingly damning review of the DVD release (2001), takes the standard line in saying that a three-legged race between sci-fi, classic serial and children's drama just doesn't work. For sci-fi, there's too little spacey kit; for classic serial, the actors are too inexperienced ("As leading men, the porky cousins make excellent extras"); for children's drama the themes are too adult. But she does like the thumpy music.
Justin Richards and Peter Anghelides (1991) make the same point in arguing that since the books were more medievalist than sci-fi, the BBC was rash to present the series as science fiction. Moreover, they suggest that it was "unsuitable for children":
Will's loss of his lover to the Tripods was potentially too harrowing to ask children to associate with... in the second season, the alien culture and the exploration of Will's ambiguous relationship with his alien master -- whom he first betrays, then kills -- was probably beyond most of the target audience who tuned in (less and less frequently) in the hope of seeing a Tripod blasting hell out of the countryside with its death ray...
Had the BBC realised that... it had a choice between making a children's adventure story or a Science Fiction series... they might have been better focused. But as it was, they tried to produce both.
But the books have long been acknowledged as a children's classic, and if they don't talk down to children, why should the television version? And the Tripods do, after all, blast hell out of the countryside given the least excuse. Still, this is really an argument about whether and how the show should ever have been commissioned, not whether it achieved its own aims. Richards and Anghelides are on surer ground in accusing the plot of grinding to a halt from time to time, and pointing out that episodes 1.11 and 2.3 contain next to no action of overall relevance.
Here is Roger Fulton, from his Encyclopaedia of TV Science Fiction, judging it purely as an SF show:
The series was generally well-acted and its special-effects scenes with the Tripods well-realised. Extensive location filming made appealing use of the settings (including Portmeirion). Its downfall lay in the relative brevity of the original work and an overall lack of incident, especially in the crucial first season, when the metal monsters themselves were seen all too infrequently, their presence felt more off-stage than on.
Which is true: science fiction is a strong motif in only four episodes of the first series (1, 8, 12 and 13), although eleven out of twelve in the second. Once again this is a matter of keeping faith with the original trilogy of books, which until the half-way point are not hard science fiction.
Jon E. Lewis and Penny Stempel, authors of Cult TV: An Essential Critical Guide, also judge it in the category of "space opera":
[The cancellation] was unfortunate because Tripods was actually superior kiddie-vid space opera... If the serial had a fatal flaw, it was a handful of duff scripts (notably a tedious sojourn for the teenage heroes in a French chateau) in season one. Otherwise, Tripods was intelligent, commendably acted with well above average BBC special effects.
The case for the prosecution is put by Cornell, Day and Topping in their Guinness Book of Classic British TV (which, unlike Lewis and Stempel, actually is an essential critical guide). Their adoption of the term "telefantasy", rather than "SF", shows their generosity toward mixed-genre shows: note that they don't attack it for what it is, only for how it does it.
The Tripods could have been one of the most impressive of all telefantasy productions. Sadly, due to a mixture of lacklustre scripts, the inexperience of several of the young cast, and a plodding snail's pace, it fell flat on its face. On a brighter note, the performances of John Shackley [Will], Roderick Horn [Ozymandias], John Woodvine [the voice of Will's Master] and Pamela Salem [the Countess] were at least watchable.
Snails do not plod, or for that matter fall on their faces, and John Woodvine is at most audible. But this is to quibble: Cornell, Day and Topping are acute if occasionally quirky and merciless critics. There's something in what they say, but I hope they won't have the last word.