Saturday, January 09, 2010


John Wyndham's end-of-the-world sci-fi novel, The Day of the Triffids, was one of my favorite reads as a teenager.

Set in Britain, it was the story of how civilization came crashing down under a confluence of events triggered by human ignorance.

The triffids were giant walking plants, armed with a venomous whip, leaked out of the Soviet Union under much secrecy. Their oil extended pretroleum resources, making them a commecial hot biofuel property as long as civilization existed -- power, fences and and the pruning tools of modern society.

A spectacular global atmospheric display of flashing light -- by a comet or meteor shower, much later theorized in the book as morely likely man-made, secret orbiting satellite weapons gone awry -- blinds most of humanity. All except those blacked-out the same night from serious hangover, sickness, random circumstance or injury.

As civilization collapses, the triffids break loose. Carnivorous plants, they head for the best food sources -- people in cities. The blind have no defense.

Wyndham's novel -- and its new BBC remake -- has as central character triffid scientist Bill Masen. Masen is sighted, paradoxically from being hospitalized with bandages covering his eyes from a triffid sting that was not quite fatal but just in time to save him from the blinding.

The book and the BBC adaptation revolve around Masen's struggle to survive in London, besieged by triffid swarms and predatory groups of the still sighted, looting what's left in a struggle to carve out territories ruled by a warlord.

The BBC remake, very computer-graphic rich and resource heavy, follows a much older BBC serialization from the early Eighties. Where the first Beeb crack at "Triffids" was homespun and old videotape warm, much like Tom Baker-era Dr. Who, the recently shown version has a significant injection of jet fuel and nitro. Think Torchwood and Tennant-era Who on BBC America.

However, unlike Torchwood and Who, Triffids remains very Gothic and bleak, true to Wyndham's novel on total collapse. The sky over dead London is smokey, the countryside cold and dark, rendered menacing as characters -- even the sighted -- stumble through woods and underbrush, or careen down roads in cars and trucks, trying to find refuge from attack by the triffids which now hold all the cards.

Dougray Scott, who plays Masen, always looks gripped by resignation and despair -- or wracked with pain. It's a fairly one-note performance but in the context of the movie, entirely substantial. Warmth would be hard to come by in any TV adaptation of Triffids although the Eighties serial, now available on YouTube, fares much better in this regard. The latter's only failing is in its effects and small soundstage feel.

However, in comparison to both, the 'Hollywood' version of the movie -- from 1962 -- is utter crap.

Stick around for the party scene.

Updated for 2009-2010 concerns, 'triffid oil' has fancifully solved the problem of global warming, harvested from vast farms of genetically modified triffids. It is a quaint fantasy.

Naturally, the public is largely in the dark about how dangerous triffids are and big business has no intention of messing with success.

Then everyone is blinded by a solar flare display and an environmental protester/saboteur turns off the power at London's nearest triffid farm. Male triffids, kept separate from the electrically neutralized females, storm to freedom. If the two breed, there will be so many triffids mankind will be rendered extinct. The clock is ticking.

Scientist Masen tries to warn the few sighted left. But they have other things on their minds, not something they can't yet see coming down the motorways into the city.

Tantalizingly, Masen -- and his scientist parents who were the first to work on triffids -- realize the rumbling, trilling and tick-tocking noises made by the plants constitute some type of speech. But they can never decipher it and only at the end can the man formulate one desperate application of his knowledge.

Other characters include Eddie Izzard as designated villain and Jason Priestley as the single American -- an oafish bleeding heart who later becomes Masen/Scott's ally.

Vanessa Redgrave has a short bit as a Mother Superior nun in a convent refuge, a fanatic with a special plan for dealing with triffids. It's not hard to guess what it is.

If you're a stickler for science in your science fiction, you'll be troubled by the great size of the triffids, their energy and sheer numbers. Even in a crowded western country, as carnivores there simply isn't enough meat -- blind or sighted -- to sustain them or the level of activity they bring to the movie special.

Perhaps because of budget limitations, there were very many less of them making the story more solid in the Eighties production.

Nevertheless, it is always a thrill to hear the triffids approaching from the dark. The tension mounts repeatedly and then the triffid lash, always the end for someone and in the worst possible way -- right in the eyes.

The finale of Triffids is faithful to Wyndham. It is not happy but neither is it unremittingly bleak. Melancholy over a new life would probably be the best way to describe it.

If you liked thumping classic Fifties/Sixties science-fiction you will enjoy the Beeb's remake.

Note: DD was able to watch Triffids on-line, even though the Beeb had set up barriers to on-line streaming to the States.

Be advised, however, that Google searches do return poisoned results first and that these come from 'free on-line' watching places which are not free, but a variety of frauds run off video-streaming sites.

Typically, these sites will ask you to take a 'free survey' to unlock the 'free content.' What they aim to get is your cellular phone number to which they then attach a renewing monthly charge. Under no circumstances should you give them any such information.


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