Monday, January 04, 2010

The Blind Leading The Blind

Surely it’s long past the time where we should admit there are stories in speculative or science fiction that simply don’t work anymore. Or, to put it more succinctly, what still appears entertaining on the page after all the years since its initial publication can turn into absolute tomfoolery when adapted and updated for another medium.

Once back in London I started catching up with a few of the Christmas schedule programmes I had missed. After watching BBC4’s wonderful documentary Oliver Postgate: A life in Small Films that really should have been the end of it. Foolishly I carried on, just recently taking in the BBC’s two–part of adaptation of John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids that had been dropped into the scheduling hinterland between Christmas and New Year’s Day. It really didn’t work for me.

It’s been a long while since I’ve read any Wyndham. Though The Day of the Triffids is perhaps his most well–known title, the story never really did it for me. As post–apocalyptic science fiction – later described in Brian Aldiss’ Billion Year Spree as a “cosy catastrophe” – I could understand if Wyndham intended to explore how the populace would react to a sudden breakdown in society, but the homicidal vegetation always seemed the weakest part of the narrative. A foe that could be defeated relatively easily, the story therefore included the added dimension of the majority of the population inconveniently blinded by the unexpected green meteor shower to make them a far more credible threat.

Having previously seen both the film starring Howard Keel, which strayed wildly from the original novel, and the BBC’s earlier adaptation, back when it was first broadcast in 1981, I started watching this latest interpretation to see whether it would find a clever way to address the failings. Instead what the BBC served up was a reheated version of Survivors with a side order of vegetables. The two significant changes were making the triffid extracts a replacement for fossil fuels rather than a superior vegetable oil and replacing the meteor shower that blinds Earth’s population with an exaggerated solar storm. The first alteration was quite intelligent. The second was absolute bollocks.

I’m beginning to think there must be a special Room of Stupid Science deep in the bowels of Television Centre where the writers of Doctor Who, the remake of Survivors, and this version of The Day of the Triffids, if they can’t be arsed to do any sensible research for their story, are given a day pass to pick out any old lazy bullshit to string their story together with. Wyndham’s original meteor shower blinding almost everyone on Earth was pushing it a bit, but at least the meteors could theoretically pass around the planet and be seen from every landmass. But having a massive pulse from the sun blinding everyone? Really?

I would have thought the news reports in the drama wouldn’t be about the solar storm but how the different continents around the globe could all be bathed in sunlight at the same time. That’s quite an achievement for a start. However much of an utter boob the writer of this version is, you would think they would have a basic understanding of night and day and how they come about. It’s not that difficult a concept to understand. Even before this event took place, I was beginning to have my doubts about the drama.

If memory serves, the novel opens with Bill Masen already in hospital with his eyes bandaged after his unfortunate exposure to triffid venom. The 1981 version, with John Duttine in the role, might have started the same way for all I know, but this time around obviously the audience had to be treated to the special effects–laden light show, simply because we’re in a time where viewers cannot be denied the shiny–shiny. The time shift means that Masen’s introduction is brought forward so, the flashback to his mother’s death at the hands of a triffid aside, we get to see him get a slapping from the juvenile plant. In doing so it presented, for me, two big concerns that would nag at me throughout the three–hour running time.

Back in late November I mentioned that one reason The Waters of Mars didn’t work for me was because, aside from the useless story the gormless munters running the Mars base didn’t seem to have any clue of what to do in an emergency. Here Triffoil, which exploited the animated vegetables for their juice, and its staffers were just as badly (if not utterly illogically) defined. Unless the drama was meant to be a veiled attack on the irresponsibility of big businesses, no thought had been put into the script about how the company operated.

Triffoil obviously prided itself with a one hundred per cent safety record because there were no medical personnel on site to deal with the slightest violent exposure to the triffids. After Masen is stung he has to be bundled into a car and driven to London for urgent medical attention. Luckily for him the roads were clear. But it struck me that given the violent nature of the triffids, something that Triffoil has kept secret from the public, wouldn’t the company have protocols for worse case scenarios, like the power grid at the farms going down thereby allowing the triffids to get free?

Even without the solar storm inconveniently blinding the populace, if a couple plants snuck past security and started snacking on innocent passersby it would be a PR shitstorm for the company. Wouldn’t they have worked out the best course of action to effectively destroy the triffids in one fell swoop if the worst came to the worst? It doesn’t mean that their safety measures have to work and stop the drama in its track before it has begun, but I was surprised that Masen, having apparently studied triffids all his working life, didn’t have one clue how to deal with them.

Involving himself in the security action when the Triffoil farm is broken into at the beginning of the drama, Masen tries to impress upon the eco–mentalist, there to film the treatment of the plants for whatever inane reason, the need to wear the protective glasses because the triffids habitually go for the eyes when they lash out. But after that, apart from the brief radio address in which he warns anyone listening that the plants are dangerous he doesn’t go out of his way to impart any of this tenuous wisdom to anyone else. For most of the time he doesn’t even bother wearing any protective goggles himself so that the triffids are treated like an inconvenience rather than a real menace.

What that left the viewer with is a retread of Survivors with the occasional homicidal plant attack. Just like the remake of Survivors, these buffoons made all the same rudimentary mistakes. There’s a wonderful scene in Shaun of the Dead where Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and their group of survivors sneak down a back alley behind the suburban gardens and encounter Jessica Stevenson and an almost identical gang that includes Martin Freeman, Tamsin Greig and Julia Deakin coming the other way. It’s like The Bizarro Jerry episode of Seinfeld in which Elaine, sick of their childish antics, makes friends with the exact opposites of Jerry, George and Kramer.

Because Stevenson’s character comes to the rescue at the end it’s obvious that her troop had the smarts to defend themselves against the zombie hordes whereas most of Pegg’s party of family, friends and fuckups get themselves chomped up. In a comedy you want to stick with the idiots who are going to screw things up completely, but since The Day of the Triffids was meant to be a drama couldn’t there at least have been some people with enough common sense to properly fight the plants? They don’t have to solve the problems instantly but instead have some idea of what to do in a crisis.

My old chemistry teacher had a touch–sensitive plant until one day a classmate put it next to an open gas tap and lit a match to see how sensitive it was to fire. At one point Masen uses a lighter and aerosol to beat back a triffid when they are raiding the provisions warehouse so why weren’t the survivors lobbing Molotov cocktails at the triffids or making a run to the nearest garden centre for some heavy–duty weed killer? I don’t quite understand this need to make the vegetable aggressors more terrifying by making the oppressed survivors complete idiots.

When vegetables weren’t attacking, the adaptation concentrated on how, when society goes to hell, a nobody can become a somebody. I liked the visual shorthand to show what a complete bastard Eddie Izzard’s Torrence was, nicking all the inflatable life vests from the front row of frightened passengers on his flight, but having him survive the plane crash by going into the toilet and piling the inflated vests on top of himself? It was almost as daft as his admission at the end that the London enclave had collapsed because the triffids had found a way into the sewers. Then what? The triffid tendrils worked their way around the U–bend and stung the survivors on the arse when they went to the can?

With its ill thought out and sloppy writing, this update of Wydham’s novel failed as a drama and simply continued to show the contempt programme makers have for science fiction. Just because Russell T Davies has bolstered his career slapping any old nonsense on the screen that the audience willingly laps up, does everyone think they’ll be able to get away with it as well?

When the treatment for this version of The Day of the Triffids turned up, someone at the BBC should have figured out that even with the introduction of the daddy issues that made Marsen a relentlessly miserable git it still wasn’t going to work. It’s a shame they didn’t decide to adapt The Midwich Cuckoos or even The Kraken Wakes instead.


At 11:41 am, Blogger Stephen Gallagher said...

I had a comment, but it grew and grew... so I nicked it for my own blog. Sorry. You get a credit and a link, if that's any compensation...

At 1:37 pm, Blogger Clive said...

The triffid oil thing didn't work for me, either. If this was to replace fossil fuels, surely there would need to be *billions* of triffids.


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