Putting a face to the name: the Quatermass serials

quatermassFor genre TV fans of my generation, Quatermass is a primal word. Even for those who have never seen it, the name has a grandeur and importance independent of the work itself. Its earthy sound reinforces that Quatermass was the foundation for science fiction, fantasy, and horror on British television, on which Doctor Who, Blake’s 7, Gerry Anderson shows, and so many more were built.

But Quatermass is one of those pioneering shows that has become ephemeral, still in circulation but better known as an influence than as a text. Even its exact nature is unclear: multiple serials, film adaptations of those serials, and other texts in a variety of media bear the Quatermass name. So what is Quatermass and does it stand up to modern scrutiny?

In 1953, the BBC broadcast a six-part television serial called The Quatermass Experiment. Written by Nigel Kneale, it was created in the earliest days of British television. The story, about the first manned spaceflight crash-landing in London with an alien terror on board, is treated with utmost sincerity. While grappling with producing for this new medium, the BBC could understandably have stuck to straight drama. The live nature of television at the time lent itself to being a forum for filmed theatre. Instead, they took a chance on a genre mostly considered fodder for B-movies. Sadly only two episodes survive.

Two years later, another six-part serial was produced, Quatermass II, followed by Quatermass and the Pit in 1958. Hammer subsequently remade each serial as a theatrical feature film. The films had separate casts including two of their own Bernard Quatermasses, which is especially confusing given a different actor plays the part in each serial too. There are a lot of Quatermasses.

In 1979, the final serial was produced, simply titled Quatermass, this time with John Mills in the lead. It was also re-edited for theatrical exhibition. In 2005, a TV movie remake of The Quatermass Experiment was broadcast live on BBC4, as the original was. Starring Jason Flemyng as Quatermass and David Tennant, it’s surprisingly little-known, much like the rest of the saga.

I’ve been watching the three 1950s serials on the BBC’s excellent DVD box set, for which they were painstaking restored by the Doctor Who Restoration Team. A documentary on Kneale and the scripts for the missing Experiment episodes are also included, along with a lengthy booklet that goes into the history of the series in great detail.

The Quatermass Experiment doesn’t have much of a chance to make an impression in the two surviving episodes other than its focus on professional, highly competent scientists and the slow, measured pacing. By going back to television’s birth, you realise how propulsive it’s become. Scenes last a long, long time and even the most perfunctory of connective actions are depicted in all their tedium. The plot doesn’t progress much in these episodes, which still amount to an hour of screen time.

What’s enticing is the sinister atmosphere, achieved with few overt SF visuals. As characters deal with the crash and gradually notice what’s going wrong, you acutely sense with little visible proof that they’re not alone. Like The Twilight Zone, The Quatermass Experiment conjures its otherworldly aura with the simplest tools of television drama, not by attempting credible setpieces or special effects on a shoestring budget. Even 60 years later, it’s hard to be sure what the story is building towards. Surely an early production like this would have been emulated by countless successors and its tricks strip-mined, but most of the Quatermass stories remain elusive and unpredictable.

Quatermass II is the weakest of the three, and may derail anyone making their way through the series. That would be a shame, given what’s to come. The first two episodes are impressively ominous, setting up a story of bodily takeover and insidious conspiracy, but two elements derail it. The first is Hugh Bonneville-doppelganger John Robinson as Quatermass. Too fraught and stern to take seriously, he too readily resorts to ‘now, see here’ pomposity to heighten the tension. Both his predecessor and successor in the role are more reserved and thoughtful, giving their passionate outbursts more weight. Robinson is so highly strung that he smothers the rising unease.

The second element is the terrible decision to set the climax on a rocket mission to an asteroid, complete with astronauts floating through space. The effects are spectacularly ineffective, turning the production into the joke many would assume Quatermass to be. It has more in common with the perilous ambition of classic Doctor Who than other Quatermass productions, which avoided imagery and scenarios they couldn’t credibly portray at the dawn of TV.

After that disappointment, I only intended to watch the first episode of Quatermass and the Pit for the sake of due diligence. Instead, it was such a step up and so genuinely compelling that I had to continue. The acting is improved across the board. Andre Morell emerges as, for me at least, the definitive Quatermass, authoritative but composed with a rebellious streak more wry than Robinson’s indignant bluster. As Quatermass’s old Canadian friend who discovers the strange and ancient bones that kick off the story, Cec Linder has easygoing charm but captures the effortless drive of a devoted scholar. Watching an ongoing series of the two of them investigating paranormal activity around England would be a pleasure.

Whereas Quatermass II’s premise has become familiar, Pit’s is more distinctive. Linking the discovery of an ancient spacecraft under London with mysterious phantoms and inexplicable supernatural abilities, the story is harder to predict and respectably complex. The languorous pace remains in some scenes but it’s forgivable when the ominous mood is so palpable. The snatches of eerie musical score, the darkened corridors and streets, and the terrified denial of those in charge combine to induce a rising dread.

While we’re now too experienced as viewers to be truly scared by Quatermass, it still has the enticing ambience of a horror mystery. The world is going slowly, inexorably wrong in these serials, foreshadowing a defining trait of British science fiction television: the enemy is clandestine and manipulative, seeking to disrupt the status quo from within. The political and existential ramifications of such threats give British SF its socially conscious identity, and Quatermass’s contribution is undeniable.

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