Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Day Of The Triffids: BBC Drama

Following on from last year’s remake of SURVIVORS this year’s dip into the BBC’s post-apocalyptic remake hat reveals an adaptation of John Wyndham’s The Day Of The Triffids (aka When Plants Attack!)

As a child I was a big fan of John Wyndham’s sci-fi books. My runaway favourite was The Midwich Cuckoos, but the Triffids still had the desired effect and scared the bejesus out of little me, and even once became an excuse for me leveling a patch of daffodils with a tennis racket. “Sorry mum,” I said, as I handed over my trusty yellow-stained Excalibur, “but you can’t be too careful these days.”

One obvious problem with adapting a book with such a fantastic premise is imagination over spectacle. Books leave the work of visualization to the reader - literature’s great storytellers excel at stimulating mental imagery with their words - but cinema spares the spectator such effort and instead packages up and spoon-feeds us someone else’s vision. They do the work for us, but at their own peril with adaptations, as what we imagine as fantastic or terrifying in a book can turn out to be, either by design or bad luck, ludicrous on screen. Especially if it’s a film about walking plants. The Ents worked in the Lord of the Rings because they belonged in a fantastic world populated by fantastic creatures with a fantastic budget, but DOTT presents itself the enormous challenge of being set in our normal world and because of this needs careful preparation if it hopes to suspend disbelief. In my opinion it failed from the off.

It opens with several staggering moments of whoosh bumping. The first being when the plant expert dude is stung by a plant (in a very contrived and highly implausible incident involving Spud from Trainspotting) at a factory that has been specifically designed and built to cultivate lots of dangerous plants that sting - yet for some reason they have no facility for dealing with, er, plant stings and so he has to be raced all the way to London to get the required medical attention from the plant sting experts who work, er, nowhere near the plants that sting. Right. Well, at least that gets the plant expert dude to London where he’ll soon be needed to do stuff, right after --

-- the much-anticipated solar flare! Which we are shown being watched in London, Paris, Sydney… er... eh? Sydney? Yes. Sydney! In fact all over the world in a variety of faraway places that surely wouldn’t be able to simultaneously see the sun rising on account of the small issue of the planet Earth blocking their view during that ancient phenomenon Galileo identified as bedtime. And even assuming the solar flare did flare all day, I’m thinking by the time it hit sunrise in London we would already know enough to put the shades on before breakfast.


Meanwhile, 50,000 feet up in the clouds and unfazed by waking up in a plummeting plane surrounded by blind passengers, Eddie Izzard’s panto villain proceeds to calmly lock himself into the only plane toilet in existence that’s ever been vacant when needed and surround himself with half a dozen inflated lifejackets. The plane then falls out of the sky, crashes into London, explodes on impact, and when the smoke clears Eddie strolls out of the burning wreckage with a smug smile on his soot-stained face and the remains of a burst lifejacket clinging to his torn and smoking trousers. That scene inspired the kind of laughter commonly heard at Eddie’s stand-up shows and that was just from my cat. Maybe Arnie as The Terminator and an extra $100 million can carry off that kind of conceit, but a popular comedian in a TV drama about humans running away from plants?


Our plant expert hero wakes in a hospital bed to discover a world where practically everyone has been struck down with Solar Stupidity Syndrome, a terrible affliction that would appear to inspire normal everyday folk, who have recently been suddenly blinded by a solar flash, to want to try and walk absolutely everywhere all the time in the hope that they can find a sighted person to kidnap. Right. Cue everyone bumping and crashing into each other and tripping over everything in sight (or not as the case may be). Would that really happen? Do people suddenly struck blind immediately try and walk everywhere? Constantly. All the time. Wouldn't you at least crawl, y'know, just for a bit, maybe see how that goes?

And why is everyone blind anyway? I accept that all those people staring at the sky at the time of the solar flash would have been struck blind, but what about all the other people who weren’t looking at the sky at the time, who were either asleep, otherwise engaged or simply not interested? As someone who has been a shift worker, I know full well there’s a whole other city out there that sleeps through the day ready to work through the night (which in itself would make a much more interesting premise: if the city’s lowly unseen workforce became the eyes of the city’s blinded leaders), which makes a mockery out of the mass blindness. Terminator Eddie wakes up on the doomed plane with his eyesight saved by a simple sleeping mask. If that’s all it takes then there would be millions of people also unaffected who were either asleep or just not near windows, huddled over computers glued to Twitter, not to mention the thousands of Londoners who would have been underground en route to work on the tube. How come the plant expert’s love interest, Jo, finds herself all alone in a deserted subway? Has anyone had the joy of traveling on London’s tubes lately?

All this painful whoosh bumping before we even get to the pièce de résistance, the stars of the show, the BBC’s very own shuffling pantomime trees, the triffids! Stumbling around like Steve Bell inspired purple-headed geriatric bishops making noises like cows eating apples. They looked ridiculous. I couldn’t help thinking the mass blindness simply saved everyone from pissing themselves laughing when they saw swathes of mildly psychotic rhubarb wobbling towards them.

“Ooooo, look, angry plants, coming this way. Quick, run!"

"Wait. Hang on. Are they coming this way?"

"Yes! Over there! Look! Run!"

"They've kind of been there for a while, though, haven't they."

"Have they?"

"Sort of just standing around."


"Are they even moving?"

"They’re swaying a bit. I think."

"Could be the wind."

"Yes, it has picked up a bit. Should have brought my cardigan."

"We can always grab a coffee and sit inside."

"That would be nice."

In a recent interview, the writer, Patrick Harbinson, explained how he tackled the problem of plants being plants and not being perceived as all that threatening. “Do the Jaws thing,” he said. “Hide them as long as you can.” Right. I get what you mean, Patrick, but here’s the thing. Sharks, whether you can see them or not, are already… prettyfuckingscary. We know what we’re getting with a shark, no matter how well hidden it is. A hungry plant somewhere in your back yard versus a hungry shark somewhere beneath your surfboard? I think the shark just shades that one. Mind you, I suppose I can understand the triffids being a tad coy and wanting to stay hidden for as long as possible. Being constantly mistaken for a giant turkey on roller-skates can’t be easy.

Why are the triffids attacking anyway? (I use the word attacking in its loosest sense). Are there no animals on this island to eat? Shouldn’t there be thousands, millions even, of blinded animals stumbling around bumping into each other practically begging to be eaten by these starving pansies? Or were they all on the tube with Jo? Or wearing welders’ masks? And on the flipside, why are the few remaining sighted humans desperately seeking out food supplies in stupid places immediately after this crisis has happened? They’re suddenly reduced to searching small London pubs for bar snacks when there must be thousands of supermarkets stocked with food that the majority of people have been unable to find because they’re too busy being blind and bumping into each other in the outside world.

It was just all too painful to take in. From little girls in quaint English villages carrying machine guns, to the plant expert dude killing a triffid with a candle (yes, he killed a triffid with a candle - just how dangerous can these things really be?), to people building walls to keep the triffids out even though they’re already surrounded by massive concrete walls on account of them being in London, to the constant flashbacks to Africa and the mask… the mask… the mask… okay we get it, the mask! Something about the mask! That ludicrous ending was risible. If we all wear eyeliner the triffids will leave us alone! No wonder Terminator Eddie threw in the towel. Mr. Guyliner himself discovers to his horror that he’s slap bang in the middle of a BBC production where everyone is suddenly wearing eyeliner except him. That’s gotta hurt.

The BBC’s 2009 production of The Day Of The Triffids was a real disappointment. It had so many problems with plot, continuity, reality and characterisation, many of which reeked of its previous post-apocalyptic effort and the purple pineapple-headed villains of the title were just not at all scary and gave off the unfortunate impression that an enthusiastic child with a tennis racket could lay waste to the lot of them in no time at all. 

There was a moment towards the end when the plant expert dude opens the front door to what looks like a billowing snow storm, except he's not looking at snow flakes raining down, they’re spores, triffid spores, millions of them spreading over the countryside. He stands there open-mouthed as the shock registers, then looks to the sky and cries in horror, “The triffids are sporing!”

I couldn’t agree more. The triffids really are sboring.

Blinded By The Light

PS. I got stung by a triffid the other day. He wanted £20 for a jar of honey.

PPS. I apologise to the bees for stealing their joke.