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The story of The Tripods is a variation on post-apocalyptic literature, wherein humanity has been enslaved by "Tripods" — gigantic three-legged walking machines, piloted by unseen alien entities (later identified as "Masters"). Human society is largely pastoral, with few habitations larger than villages, and what little industry exists is conducted under the watchful presence of the Tripods. Lifestyle is reminiscent of the Middle Ages, but small artefacts from the Modern Age are still used, such as watches.
Humans are controlled from the age of 14 by implants called "Caps", which suppress curiosity and creativity. Some people, whose minds are broken by the Caps, become vagrants. According to The City of Gold and Lead, Masters begin to believe that humans should be capped at an earlier age "because some humans, in the year or two before they are Capped, become rebellious and act against the masters", but this cannot be done, because Capping must wait until the braincase has stopped growing.
The White Mountains (1967)
Life goes on largely as it had in the pre-industrial era, except that all adult humans are subject to Tripod control. Protagonist Will, a thirteen-year-old boy living in the (fictional) English village of Wherton, is looking forward to the next "Capping Day", until a chance meeting with a mysterious fake-capped man named Ozymandias prompts him to discover a world beyond the Tripods' control. He is accompanied by his cousin Henry and a French teenager named Jean-Paul Deliet, nicknamed "Beanpole". The novel climaxes with Henry and Beanpole discovering that earlier, when Will was captured by a Tripod, he was unknowingly implanted with a tracking device. When Henry and Beanpole remove the device, a nearby Tripod attacks them, but the boys defeat the Tripod and eventually join the resistance, located in the eponymous White Mountains.
The City of Gold and Lead (1967)
After a year in the White Mountains, the resistance charges Will, Beanpole, and a German boy, Fritz, to infiltrate a Tripod city by competing in a regional sporting exhibition. Will, a boxer, and Fritz, a runner, win their respective contests, while Beanpole fails to win in the jumping events.
The winners are taken to the Tripod city in a pressurised dome astride a river. Inside the city, the boys discover the Tripods' operators, whom they refer to as the "Masters". Human males are slaves inside the cities, while beautiful females are killed and preserved for the Masters to admire. Slaves are furnished with breathing masks to survive the aliens' atmosphere, but are rapidly exhausted by the stronger artificial gravity and must therefore be periodically replaced. Although Fritz is abused by his Master, Will is treated as a privileged pet by his. Eventually, Will's Master reveals a plan to replace the Earth's atmosphere with the Masters' toxic air to enable full control of the Earth. When the Master finds Will's diary, Will kills him to maintain the secret. With the assistance of Beanpole and Fritz, who stays behind to maintain Will’s alibi, he escapes and returns to the White Mountains with Beanpole. The story's title refers to the gold colour prevalent in the Masters' cities, as well as the leaden weight of the increased gravity on the human slaves.
The Pool of Fire (1968)
Will and Fritz travel to Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and the Middle East to organize resistance against the Tripods. The resistance, having ambushed a Tripod and captured a Master, discover that alcohol has a strong soporific effect on them, and use this knowledge to simultaneously attack their cities. Having introduced alcohol into the aliens' city water systems, two raiding groups kill the Masters by forcing open airlocks and exposing the unconscious aliens to Earth's atmosphere; but the attack on the last city (located in Central America) fails. A secondary plan is undertaken using hot air balloons and newly developed bombs. The attack is initially unsuccessful as the timers on the bombs cause them to detonate either before making contact with the dome of the city, or after the bomb has fallen clear. Henry jumps from his balloon onto the city's domed roof and holds the bomb in place, sacrificing himself but shattering the dome. Earth's atmosphere kills the Masters, and Henry is remembered as a hero.
Several years later, the Masters' atmosphere-seeding spaceship arrives and destroys the remains of their cities, presumably to prevent the humans from reverse engineering their technology — although Beanpole notes that they have already learned much from the cities — then leaves. Modern human technology, which was halted during the Masters' rule is rediscovered rapidly, including the theory of space travel. The saga ends with the Resistance leader Julius being deposed, and as a result the alliance built during the resistance falls apart, with nationalistic hostilities appearing, each country going their separate ways in contrast to Julius' efforts to unite the world. As a tribute to Julius, Will, Beanpole and Fritz reunite to work towards establishing a better world.
When the Tripods Came (1988)
When the Tripods Came is a prequel written twenty years after the publication of the original trilogy. The plot follows the description of the conquest given in the second book of the main trilogy. Fearing the technological potential of humanity, the so-called "Masters", unable to defeat humanity in a conventional war, hypnotise people through a television show called The Trippy Show, later using Caps to control them permanently. As in the original trilogy, the narrator of When the Tripods Came is a young English boy. As society slowly falls under the control of the Masters, he and his family escape to Switzerland, which has mounted the longest-lasting resistance. When the Swiss are eventually enslaved, the narrator and his family establish the "White Mountains" resistance movement of the original trilogy.
Editions have been published by
- Hamish Hamilton (UK First Edition)
- Simon & Schuster (USA First Edition)
- Collier Books
- E. P. Dutton
- Thorndike Press
- Knight Books
- Turtleback Books
- Beaver Books
- Audible Studios (audiobook)
The series has been translated into Arabic, Dutch, Danish, Finnish, French, German, Hebrew, Persian, Spanish, Greek, and Mandarin Chinese (Taiwan).
Multiple graphic adaptations have been produced, notably including:
- Boys' Life, the monthly magazine of the Boy Scouts of America, serialised all three books in the trilogy from May 1981 to August 1986. Artist Frank Bolle drew the single page black and white proofs, which were then inked by another person.
- In 1985, the BBC initiated BEEB, the BBC Junior Television Magazine, and started to present in picture strip form additional adventures of Will, Henry, and Beanpole on their way to the White Mountains, starting at some unspecified point during the fourth episode of the first BBC serial as the trio pass through ruined Paris, and then heading off at a tangent to the television version. From Issue 6, the boys were accompanied on their journey by a young woman named Fizzio, a character original to the strip. The strips were drawn by John M. Burns and in each issue, they consisted of three pages; the first two in colour and the third in black and white. The storyline was never concluded as BEEB ceased publication after only 20 issues.
- Masters were one of the species detailed in Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials.
The television version of The Tripods was jointly produced by the BBC in the United Kingdom and the Seven Network in Australia. The music soundtrack was written by Ken Freeman. The series was noted for being one of the first to feature computer generated graphics and special effects.
Series one of The Tripods, broadcast in 1984, which had 13 half-hour episodes written by the well-known author of many radio plays Alick Rowe, covers the first book, The White Mountains; the 12-episode second series (1985) covers The City of Gold and Lead. Although a television script had been written for the third series, it never went into production.
The first series was released on both VHS and DVD. The BBC released Tripods — The Complete Series 1 & 2 on DVD in March 2009.
Comparison with the novels
When the BBC made the television series of The Tripods in the 1980s, they departed from Christopher's description of the Masters. In the television series, the Masters somewhat resemble the Tripods they drive. This makes the Tripods seem much more like mecha, similar to those described in The War of the Worlds, than purely eccentric vehicles. In the BBC serial, the Masters did not need to eat, sleep or drink. Additionally, they were not the rulers of the city, but were, in turn, under the rule of beings made of pure energy, known as Cognoscs. The Masters came from a planet named Trion that was in the center of a triple star system.
The method by which the Masters name themselves is also different. Rather than having names, they are simply called by their address. Will's Master is called West Avenue 4, Sector 6, Level 8, or West 468.
The Masters in the BBC production did not breathe green air and did not prefer the high gravity and high temperature of those in the book, since these would have been extremely difficult or expensive to recreate onscreen at the time. Their treatment of the slaves, rather than being harsh and thoughtless, was reasonable to the point of being friendly, with luxuries provided for them.
To avoid an overuse of the mechanical Tripods, the producers invented a new faction, the "Black Guards", as a human police force with the task to enforce the will of the Masters. They served as a more immediate threat for Will, his friends and the resistance.