Three is a recurring number in science fiction. We’re familiar with animals with four legs, and humans with two, and many various creatures with even numbers of legs, so in seeking to conjure up images of the alien it is seductive to go odd. Three-legged aliens, such as the Idirans in Iain Banks’s Culture novels, or the alien masters in John Christopher’s The Tripods:
They stood much taller than a man, nearly twice as tall, and broad in proportion. Their bodies were wider at the bottom than the top, four or five feet around I thought, but tapered up to something like a foot in circumference at the head. If it was the head, for there was no break in the continuity, no sign of a neck. The next thing I noticed was that their bodies were supported not on two legs, but three, these being thick but short. They had matching them three arms, or rather tentacles, issuing from a point halfway up their bodies. And their eyes — I saw that there were three of those, too.
Not just the aliens, but also their machines. The tripods are great three-legged machines that stride the invaded Earth, some twenty metres high and equipped with long tentacles (another common alien theme). In the prequel to the trilogy, When the Tripods Came, these are quite comical machines, easily destroyed by the Earth military, but in the BBC TV series they are rather imposing.
I can’t remember if I ever read the final book in the trilogy, but I certainly recommend the first two books (it’s worth watching the TV series first, if you can), and the prequel’s quite interesting as an Earth invasion concept.
I watched The Tripods as a child, probably before I was exposed to H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, although it’s possible I saw the 1953 film with the flying machines before it.
The 1953 film has echoes of the book, but it lacks that iconic image of the great Martian tripods with their articulated legs and tentacles – perhaps because there’s something a little absurd about it to our modern sensibilities. Why have walking machines when you can just fly and hover? (Although Star Wars has its various Imperial Walkers.) I mean, how exactly would a three-legged machine walk? In The Tripods they do walk, but it’s with a lot of sleight-of-hand defiance of physics and engineering principle. (It’s Sci-Fi; who cares?)
I never saw the 1978 musical, although I remember our music teacher at school playing the record and have never forgotten that Martian cry – Ulla! Ulla! And isn’t the artwork fantastic?
I think there’s a temptation to read H.G. Wells’s novel with a certain smug superiority, dismissing the machines as Victorian fancy, archaic relative to our modern world of high-tech lasers and nuclear weaponry – how absurd that their ‘spaceships’ are fired out of cannons from Mars and crash-land on Earth, either of which would surely have splatted the occupants.
It’s no wonder, therefore, that Spielberg updated both the aliens’ arrival and the design of the tripods in the 2005 film. Okay, so the arrival is pure hand-wavery (something something lightning something buried something), but those long sinuous legs have a nice air of superior alien technology about them. (Although, if you ask me, the tripod in the musical’s artwork is a lot creepier). It’s a good film and largely faithful to the novel.
Still, I’ve often thought it would good to make a film that faithfully recreated the original vision, tripods with articulated limbs striding across early twentieth century England. Maybe even a stop-motion film by Tim Burton, in black and white – and red…
Better still, how about a sequel to the original novel, by an author who treats the source material with due reverence, and who uses modern scientific knowledge to give credibility to the Martians’ technology? Stephen Baxter’s The Massacre of Mankind is a true masterpiece, weaving characters and themes from the original novel together with real people and events of the time to create an alternative history.
The Martians are back, and they’ve learned from their mistakes. The technology’s the same, but there’s less vulnerability – and this time there are more of them, initially in England, but later all around the world.
We get to see more of the Martians themselves, and perhaps the most chilling aspect is the bioengineering. The Martians see humans as food, as animals to be engineered and eventually domesticated.
The Martians have superior technology, superior intelligence, and their planet is dying. Would we really stand a chance against them?