A two-part adaptation of the John Wyndham novel, made a generation on from the BBC’s excellent, faithful 1981 serial, this does its best to wrestle the book into 21st Century shape by providing a more defined arc and increased presence for its human villain and making the hero more intimately involved in the history of triff cultivation and thus qualified to think up counter-measures (though a scientific solution to the problem is a dead end that swallows a swathe of Part Two before being summarily dropped). Wyndham has a great opening chapter, which even the poor 1962 film (not to mention 28 days later …) knew to do straight – but the knack of tipping in complex backstory has been lost. So, before the waking-up-sighted-in-a-hospital-full-of-blind-folks-after-sleeping-through-the-apocalypse bit, we start with a primal childhood experience for Bill Masen (Dougray Scott) on a triffid plantation in Zaire (there’s a rumble in the jungle there, of course) which makes him as hung up on his dead mother and absent father (Brian Cox) as if he were an American movie character with ‘issues’.
Then, the show goes through Bill’s temporary blinding after a plant-rights activist loon (Ewen Bremner) has broken into a triffid farm to free the suffering veg, a sunspot celestial lightshow which blinds most folk (a surprisingly minor theme in this version, perhaps because Blindness did it all recently) and vignettes to introduce a nameless man (Eddie Izzard) who survives a plane crash by stealing everyone’s life-raft and inflating them in the toilet then takes a name (Torrence) from the street where he is dumped and radio broadcaster Jo Playton (Joely Richardson) who gets to be the heroine and stays sighted because she’s in the tube doing vox pops with miserable gits who don’t want to look at the skies when the burst blinds the topsiders (said gits are not seen and don’t figure in the story – though they ought to).
After the events (it’s an oddity of Wyndham’s plot that it needs two unrelated fantastical premises in the plants and the blindness to work) everyone rushes around doing the wrong thing to hasten the fall of civilisation. As in the recent Survivors retread, a last fragment of the government is run by a female bureaucrat (Genevieve O’Reilly) who also disappears between scenes; adaptor Patrick Harbinson doesn’t mind adding or changing bits, but keeps getting back on Wyndham’s track so the interpolations seem half-hearted. Torrence’s bully-boy regime rides the back of US Air Force idealist Coker (Jason fucking Priestley!) and his wrong-headed attempt to shackle the sighted to hard-up blind folks who are quickly dispensed with, and Jo gets to be the heroic if manipulated voice of Radio Britain as Torrence schemes to feed his inconvenient allies to the plants. The triffids are well-done, and effectively horrid monsters – Wyndham sensibly assumed farmers would dock the triffids’ deadly stings and it’d take a while for them to grow back, but the requirements of modern drama mean they have to be deadly from the outset to keep things moving. Even UK TV effects work is now good enough to show ruined cities overrun with evil plants without too much obvious fakery.
Part Two is wilder and weirder, with Vanessa Redgrave as a mad nun sacrificing the weak of her community to the triffids in the woods, that attempt to further mutate the plants into harmlessness which goes nowhere but allows Bill and his Dad to reconcile (before Dad is inevitably killed), a bit with recorded triffid chirrups that tentatively enables the nice people to send out a don’t-sting-me-message when they need to, and Torrence’s decision to react to the collapse of his iron rule by tracking down and persecuting the good guys (he’s upset that Jo prefers Bill to him, but since he’s Eddie Izzard and Bill is Dougray Scott what does he bloody expect?) for the climax. It’s worth remembering that the 1981 serial got by simply by having a yob character glimpsed doing bad things in early episodes show up at the end in army uniform spouting platitudes about the new order, but Izzard is sort of entertaining as a megalomaniac. What’s missing – as in almost all recent British TV genre material (did anyone get to the end of Paradox?) – are the quieter, melancholy, ordinary moments that build atmosphere, poignance, suspense or affect: it’s as if the medium is now so terrified of boring the audience that it feels a need to shout all the time, and thus fails to provide the depth or eccentricity (not that Vanessa’s barmy nun act isn’t eccentric) that used to be part of our national approach to science fiction. NB: Harbinson and director Nick Copus have as many US credits (Millennium, The 4400, 24, Law and Order: SVU) as British.