A government vehicle weaves through suburban streets, broadcasting a public safety announcement through loudspeakers. A voice echoes a message of isolation rules now in effect. Citizens are asked to stay indoors, to avoid the risk of spreading the global virus. Inside one of the houses, a young woman stands worriedly with her parents, who she knows are far more vulnerable to the disease than she is. You might be forgiven for thinking this is a contemporary scene, taking place in a home somewhere nearby. But this is the opening scene of The Tribe, a sci-fi TV classic released over 20 years ago.
For series creator Raymond Thompson, the world right now has become a bizarre reflection of his imagination. “I keep having to pinch myself,” he says. “I feel like I’m living in an episode I’ve written.” The TV industry veteran is currently in self-isolation on the Gold Coast where, for the past few days, he’s been recording conversations with some of The Tribe cast members. As New Zealanders, many of them, too, are now in lockdown. The sudden relevance of their locally grown enterprise to world events has been, to say the least, unexpected.
Originally broadcast in 1999, The Tribe follows a group of young teenagers who are left to navigate a world without adults. A virus, which had spread to every corner of the globe, has wiped out all semblance of civilisation. Viewers are whisked into a volatile world of power and chaos. But despite this apocalyptic foundation, the show’s central focus is on humanity and hope. “The thing that intrigued me, fundamentally, was young people building a better world,” Raymond says. “As young people you rebel against society and certainly the previous generation and so I was really intrigued with those themes.”
He describes the virus as a conduit through which characters could explore themselves without the rules of parents. “In many ways I would say it’s like Mad Max meets Neighbours, or Home and Away meets The Hunger Games,” he says. “Fundamentally it was about human drama.”
It’s this focus on real-world issues and a truthful representation of the world youth inhabit, that Raymond believes sets the show apart. A commitment to diversity in a time where it was less commonplace is also a unique feature. Topics of gender roles, rape culture, death, sexuality, eating disorders, identity and teen pregnancy all take a turn on centre stage. Raymond speaks of the typical square-jawed male leader stereotype so prevalent in media, and how he knew he wanted to avoid that. “We really tried to mix and match and write from the heart, and really make it as truthful as we could,” he says. “It was very hard, not all broadcasters felt comfortable, but we had to push the envelope and push the boundaries and just say ‘look our audience needs to see the truth’.”
Certainly, this approach resonated the world over. At its height The Tribe won a cult following across Europe, America, and the UK. The series was translated into German and French and eventually released on DVD. Cast members toured the globe and attended some of the earliest multi-fandom conventions. Raymond remembers the time fondly and describes how graciously the young actors met that responsibility. “There wasn’t really a big profile in New Zealand, so when they arrived at airports and heard screaming fans, and people who’d waited for hours and hours they were incredulous,” he says. “They’d look behind them and not realise that line of fans was for them.”
Conventions were the first place Tribe fans could show their love of the futuristic and outlandish costuming of the show. Raymond remembers the cosplays and tribal parties fans would have to show off their recreations or reimaginings of character outfits. And it’s no wonder, as the costuming and makeup is unlike anything seen in kids TV. Inspiration, Raymond says, came from indigenous cultures across the world. “You’ll see a lot of feathers, and the natural world, and markings,” he says. “As indigenous tribes do, you use whatever you can to express yourself.” He describes some of the characters’ costumes as “really weird” or “like something out of a catwalk”. “The look was very important for me in this palette, as well as the right cast and the right storylines, I wanted the aesthetic to be quite different to what you’d normally see.”
Different, too, is the contemporary marketing of the series. The entire library of episodes is accessible for free on YouTube, uploaded by the creators themselves. The show can also be accessed through Amazon Prime and Vimeo for a fee. When asked about the reason behind this unusual free access Raymond laughs. “My lawyers and accountants and investors get really uptight about it,” he says, “but I like to have access, not all people can afford it.” “The intention was that if they can afford to buy it or download it on Vimeo, I choose to believe they would do that.” Raymond describes the inevitable pirated copies as “heartbreaking” but knows that for those out there watching for free who couldn’t afford it otherwise, it makes a world of difference.
For many Tribe fans, even those who are now adults, the series holds a unique place in their heart. Raymond describes letters from parents who are now watching it with their own children. Twenty years on, it still resonates. “I look at The Tribe within my body of work as a title with special needs,” Raymond says.
He describes how it was something “nobody thought would work”, but that he always hoped and believed it would find its audience. “I’m actually autistic, so I maybe look at things a bit differently,” he says. “It’s a little dysfunctional, it’s a little quirky, a little eccentric, it struggles, but it shines – its spirit shines.”