In some respects, John Wyndham's 1951 sci-fi classic, The Day of the Triffids, now reads to many people like a horribly dated relic of its era. The author's muted, small-scale approach to what is, in the end, a fairly home counties version of the apocalypse, and his emphasis on a rather sensible 1950s middle-class rationality as shown in the novel's attitude to the rebuilding of society in the aftermath of total destruction, has long been the subject of denigration among subsequent generations of genre writers. It is the fiction — in Brian Aldiss' memorably dismissive phrase — of 'cosy catastrophe'.
Yet, the story has periodically returned in various new guises since its first publication, usually in a form that tweaks it just enough to fit the tale to the contemporary concerns of the period in which the new version is being produced. These days, the end of the world couldn't be more in vogue with filmmakers, the flesh eating zombie having been made, for some time now, the preferred vehicle of choice for bringing the civilised world to its knees. Yet we live in an age where the ideas and themes of Wyndham's original novel are arguably more prescient than ever before; and writer Patrick Harbinson 's script for this spanking new adaptation for the BBC (which was a high profile lynch-pin in its Christmas TV schedule, last year) is quick to draw attention to the modern elements that constitute yet another rejigging of this tale for a new decade — this time bringing the global warming menace and genetic engineering even more into the foreground.
But the primary focus of this two-part, three hour epic (probably the most sustained treatment the story has ever received on the screen) soon makes itself known in the production's concerted attempt to bring a credible, action-packed crowd-pleaser in on a BBC budget. Director Nick Copus goes all out in the first half-hour to fool the casual viewer that he/she is watching a major Hollywood blockbuster: with an all-star cast, huge expensive-looking special effects (a passenger plane crashing in a London street!) and CGI enhanced Triffids! No longer are the carnivorous plants merely slow-moving opportunist predators who gradually learn to herd their prey (the human population made blind and vulnerable by a freak solar event and a plague). These CGI primed killers have super strong, coiling roots that shoot out and grasp their quarry, and which would give even a sighted adversary a run for their money!
This version begins promisingly enough with a bit of prescient back story. Sometime before the solar flair that marks the beginning of the end for world-wide human society (which is where the book originally starts), we learn that humanity has solved the Global Warming problem with a new industrially produced, genetically engineered fuel - Triffoil - obtained from a lab-engineered carnivorous plant called a Triffid. The only small drawback here is that the genetic tinkering that was necessary to create the revolutionary clean fuel also happens to make the plants very aggressive, meaning that they have to be kept permanently penned up in giant, securely guarded greenhouse-like complexes that are dotted all over the world. These are made to look rather like nuclear power stations, thus subconsciously hammering home the environmental message.
This scenario has also generated its fair share of protesters, and after one of the more persistent ones breaks into a giant Triffoil harvesting complex in London, intending to free them all (having learned nothing from similar actions in "28 days Later", presumably) -- Professor Bill Mason (Dougray Scott) ends up paying the price and gets caught in the eye with a Triffid sting while attempting to save one of his co-workers being held hostage by the intruder. However, it's not a serious injury and while he's recovering in hospital, his head swathed in bandages after an operation to save his sight, an unprecedented solar phenomena takes place which results in the permanent blinding of the majority of the human race! Only small groups of people, for one reason or another, manage to escape the catastrophe. One of them is TV anchor woman Joe Playton (Joely Richardson) who is interviewing people in an underground bunker at the time the flair hits the atmosphere.
Another survivor is a mysterious nameless figure (Eddie Izzard) who manages to survive a plane crash via the unlikely scenario of stealing everyone else's inflatable head cushions and locking himself in a toilet cubicle full of them in order to soften his fall! He walks away from the fiery conflagration unscathed, taking with him the name 'Torrence' — pinched from the street sign of the road in which the passenger plane crashes.
The city is then shown descending into chaos and panic as the blind population start to become angry, confused and increasingly aggressive. Joe and Mason meet up after they get caught in a crowd of blind rioters desperate for help from the small numbers of sighted folk still in the city, and who are prepared to fight to force their co-operation. Torrence steals a suit from a store window and inveigles himself into a military unit led by Captain Coker (Jason Priestley), thus subtly beginning his intended exploitation of the situation in order to claw his way, Napoleon-like, to power.
Unfortunately, the proverbial really hits the fan when that 'Triffid rights' protester (still sighted and being held at the Triffid farm) breaks out — and finally gets his chance to free the creatures as well. The escaped plants still kill him though — along with everyone else at the farm!
It's about halfway through the first episode before these strands come together and the main trajectory of the rest of this adaptation becomes apparent. Coker and Torrent begin rounding up the rest of the sighted population, eventually separating Mason and Joe by forcing them to go along with their policy of having each sighted person acting as the eyes of a blind one, handcuffing them together in pairs. Of course, no one is prepared to listen to Mason when he tells them that the escaped Triffids pose the biggest threat to humanity's future so he wants to get back to his father's home lab where he intends to try and find a solution to the Triffid menace. Mason's father was the scientist who reared the genetically manipulated killers in the first place.
Meanwhile, Torrent is manipulating Commander Coker, using him merely as a means of grabbing more and more power for himself. He develops something of a crush on Joe as well, and manages to con her into providing reassuring 'voice of Britain' radio broadcasts designed to persuade sighted survivors to come to the city and surrender themselves to the protection of the military. Thus the Eddie Izzard character becomes foregrounded as the villain of the piece — a sociopath and previously a nobody who now re-creates himself in the guise of a powerful and autocratic leader as a result of the tragedy having destroyed all previous avenues of authority.
This adaptation adds a lot of unnecessary hokum about Mason witnessing his mother's death by a Triffid sting in Zaire when he was but a boy, where his mother was a scientific researcher looking into Triffid behaviour, and this turns out to provide a deus ex machina near the end that enables Mason, Joe, and the makeshift family they've acquired in the meantime (during the journey that sees them eventually finding Mason's father and attempting to develop an antidote to the Triffid sting at his home lab), to escape Torrent and his military council and set out for the Isle of Wight (as in the novel) where they plan to join a community of survivors who have forged an agrarian society in this refuge from the non-sea-going Triffids -- the creatures by now having taken full possession of most of the rest of the Planet.
This adaptation achieves exactly what, I suspect, it was intended to achieve but little more. It's a fairly diverting piece of entertainment designed to keep a general audience from switching over during their post-Christmas dinner comedown, and in that it succeeds well enough. It looks fairly good, although the CGI wouldn't compete with a proper Hollywood treatment. Its approach to the source material seems intent on replicating that of Steven Spielberg's to H.G. Wells' "War of the Worlds" (action-packed and family oriented but with a cold, digitally colour graded look for added "grittiness") rather than providing the ultimate translation of the novel to the screen, but it works in a small-scale TV kind of way, looking much more convincing than most attempts at sci-fi by a currently ruinously cash-strapped television industry. Ultimately this feels like a slightly bigger scale version of "Survivors", the BBC's current re-imaging of Terry Nation's 1970s series. Eddie Izzard is in fine scenery-chewing mode throughout (although purists might find the elevation of Torrence to arch villain a trifle off-putting), Dougray Scott is a curiously bland hero, Joely Richardson a slightly more convincing independent female protagonist; and Vanessa Redgrave and Brian Cox fulfil their brief of providing the production with a spot of veteran thespian class despite their thinly written roles. All in all, this is adequate crash-bang-whallop spectacle television, though not so satisfying for anyone hoping for a more considered treatment of the tale. The smaller budget-priced 1982 BBC production probably still fulfils that function.
This 2-disc DVD edition (also available as a single disc Blu-ray) features both ninety-minute episodes on one disc, along with a plentiful supply of deleted scenes; while disc 2 features rather a perfunctory 35 minute 'making of' documentary as well as an extensive selection of 18 interviews which cover almost all the cast and all the major crew members, snippets from which have been used to compile the much shorter documentary. A pleasing Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track comes with the DVD while Blu-ray purchasers will be treated to a full HD MA 5.1 audio experience!
This is a perfectly respectable attempt to bring this classic tale to a modern audience, retaining the main structure of the original novel while working to make it play as a much more action orientated spectacle. Somewhere along the way, it seems to have sacrificed too much of the original quaint charm of the story, and many will still find they prefer the rather primitive '80s version rather than what now seems like a fairly generic post-apocalyptic action fest.