Recently, one would have a hard time making it through the day without hearing about government corruption and conspiracies by officials on every news outlet, social media site, and from people you know. Whether it be the gun control debate in America or the media regulation debate in the U.K. it seems we live in a time with just as much paranoia and uncertainty as the 1950’s that Nigel Kneale was writing all these great science fiction stories in. Quatermass II comes directly from this mindset, as Kneale was dealing with these issues himself. Rather than using a blatant allegory for the cold war or the red scare, as many American productions were doing, Kneale went for an allegory on the overstepping of Bureaucracy in government, government cover-ups, and government secrecy. According to Wikipedia, a lot of this came from his own problems with having to sign a binding document called The Official Secrets Act, due to being a BBC employee, and longstanding paranoia with “secret” military bases in the media.
“I didn’t mess my hair up, did I?”
The story in Quatermass II follows the titular character trying to figure out why a small town in the countryside was wiped off the earth to make way for a super-secret government facility. Not to mention that said facility looks suspiciously like a model of a moon base he has on his desk. Of course the story isn’t that simple, as the whole thing revolves around an alien invasion, a conspiracy to the uppermost seats of government, and a rag-tag group of scientists and civil servants trying to stop it.
By this time Bernard Quatermass is a bit more abrasive, even hardened from what he had to deal with years before. This is compounded by the failure of a nuclear rocket test he oversaw that killed hundreds, possibly wiping all his funding and putting him directly responsible for the disaster. I like to think Kneale changed the character on purpose to show character growth, but one could chalk this up to the fact that the character had to be recast right before production. This happened because Reginald Tate sadly died suddenly right before location shooting was to commence, and John Robinson was cast on very short notice. I actually really like Robinson in this role; he seems moody at times, but has a heroic tendency that makes him very likeable. You can tell that since he had to deal with an extra-terrestrial threat that could have eliminated life on Earth; he feels that he has special knowledge and duty to deal with these sorts of problems. A special nod should also go to the supporting cast, especially Hugh Griffith as Quatermass’s right hand man Dr. Leo Pugh. Pugh is a great addition to the cast simply because he seems to be everything that Quatermass isn’t. He’s likeable, has a welsh accent, and comes across as something of an absent minded mathematician.
Quatermass II is far more enjoyable for me than its predecessor for many reasons. First of all, the budget has been ramped up pretty drastically considering the production has quite a bit of location shooting inter-spliced with the live footage. This not only makes the plot move faster, as the cast isn’t confined to one or two rooms for an entire episode, but it gives the production less of a “stage play” vibe. The cinematography also seems to be stepped up a lot with a lot of artistic shots making this play look a lot more “epic” than it is. This means no more static ten minute scenes of two people talking by a prop; we might get a panning shot or two! One of the first shots of Quatermass happens right after a soldier states that “he knows a guy named Quatermass”, to which his fellow soldier asks “The rocket man?” seconds later, we are treated to a nice zoomed in shot of a person scanning the front of a rocket with some device wearing a clean suit and gas mask. He steps down, removes the mask, and reveals the hero of the play. Improvements aside, the main reason I really like this production is that it is ALL intact; in fact this is the oldest complete BBC science fiction production on record!
The only downside in these episodes is that the final act of the drama suffers from the same fate that many BBC science fiction productions would later be known for: a plot that is far too ambitious for its own good. When it seems the bleakest, Quatermass and Pugh decide to rig up the only remaining nuclear rocket and fly to the impending alien threat. This entire segment got away from the production crew a bit and comes off a lot sillier than it really should have been due to budgetary considerations and technical limitations. All in all the whole production is STILL really good, despite this.
I actually enjoyed Quatermass II more than the first serial and the first Hammer Films production. The plot was not only more ambitious, but was a feast for the eyes in comparison to part one. John Robinson is a great choice for Quatermass despite his quick casting, and I’m sad to see that this was the only serial he did under the umbrella – he was unavailable for future incarnations. All in all, I would almost recommend this serial to anyone wanting to get into the character over the other material I’ve seen, as it really captures the essence of everything, granted I’m watching these in order and Quatermass and the Pit might blow me away. Next up here on Quatermass Week, I’ll be taking a look at the Hammer Films version of this very drama. Will I like it as much? Check back to find out!!
When we last saw Bernard Quatermass, he was fighting an alien threat in a dingy low-budget studio, but imagine what would happen if money was sunk into the project! I usually have reservations for these TV to movie conversions, as the production companies had a tendency in those days to “mess up” the original plot and characters. I recall watching the Peter Cushing Doctor Who and the Daleks movies, and not really liking them too much for this very reason. They were bright and colorful, but somehow were also soulless and bland. In the case of Quatermass, however, only two episodes of the serial exist today, so watching a film based on the original script is amazing, as I can now see what happens after the slow and talkative first few episodes. So here we have The Quatermass Xperiment, from Hammer films – can it live up to the original?
Before any Grammar Nazis try to correct me, dropping the “E” in the title isn’t a typo on my part! Hammer Films deliberately went for an “X-Certificate” rating (nobody permitted under the age of sixteen) with the release of this film. This included branding all the posters with a huge red “X” to make them stand out. This audacious plan was met with reservations within the BBC and Hammer Films, but ultimately was a success. The Quatermass Xperiment was one of the first films from the ailing production company to be sold overseas (as The Creeping Unknown) and basically kicked off their “Hammer Horror” line, which became synonymous with the company.
One will immediately notice that the character of Bernard Quatermass isn’t the same reserved thinking man that he was in the TV serial. Now played by Irish-American actor Brian Donlevy, the character was reinvented to be gruff and more action oriented. According to Wikipedia: “’Donlevy, in his own words, specialized in “he-men roles–rough, tough and realistic’”; a far cry from the way the late Reginald Tate carried the role. Basically think of Hugh Laurie’s Doctor House M.D. fighting aliens, that is Donlevy’s Quatermass to a tee. At first I wasn’t too thrilled with this take on the character, but when viewing the movie as a whole – Donlevy’s take works best with the movie. The entire serial’s tone has also shifted to go along with the new Quatermass; it’s darker, dingier, and more grotesque. This honestly reminds me of the evolution of Doctor Who; specifically in that once the show changed to a 45 minute format, the character became more of an action hero.
The plot has been changed around a bit as well, mostly for time constraints. This condensed time means that things that took an entire episode to explain before had to be cut down. An example of this is: in the serial, episode one was mostly dialog between Quatermass and his assistant about how distraught they all were because of the disappearance of the rocket. This segment was completely removed meaning that the movie kicks right into gear when the rocket crashes to Earth (in an awesome special effect scene). Better special effects and more money also mean that scenes involving dialog to explain a situation can be replaced with an effect shot, a scene change, or an action scene. Since I don’t have anything to compare it to, I will state that the rest of the film is definitely more of a horror film than a science fiction film, thus explaining most of the aforementioned differences. The plot centers on the transformation of the creature and it wreaking havoc, not Quatermass and his team.
I mentioned the special effect shots being pretty cool earlier, and for an older film they do not disappoint. Most 1950’s era science fiction films had terrible costuming and set design in my opinion; Quatermass stands heads and tails above a lot of them. Granted, most of my knowledge of films in this genre of this era are the kind of movies that would end up on Mystery Science Theater 3000. I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that most 1950’s science fiction is sort of camp. There is one effects shot in particular towards the middle of the film that got my attention. Quatermass and his crew are studying a grainy film that was taken onboard the rocket during the ill-fated flight. At one point, one of the astronauts walks up onto the wall – suggesting a low-gravity environment of some sort. It couldn’t have been a huge special effect, but a remarkable one in its simplicity. I’ll even excuse that the crew seems to be piloting the craft by turning a series of steering wheels mounted on the far wall.
There are some truly grotesque horror shots in the film, ones that definitely lead the movie being branded X-rated at the time. While there isn’t any gushing blood or gore, there are things like shots of dead bodies with their skulls caved-in and an entire zoo of dead animals left in the wake of the monsters rampage. I was actually pretty surprised at a few of these considering the puritanical nature of most film violence at the time, and now can see how Hammer got its shocking reputation early on. The creature make-up is also pretty impressive at times. When we finally get a good look at the transformation Victor Carroon has undergone (as played by Richard Wordsworth ), he has his arm bandaged up, and the now swollen mass of cactus like spikes and putrid flesh in its place is a bit unnerving.
It was also during this scene that I truly saw the influence that this movie has had on later pop culture. Doctor Who has used a similar “man turning into a monster” plot most notably in The Lazarus Experiment, and much earlier in The Ark in Space. Other shows and films such as The Fly (the newer one) and even an anime film I love called Akira all seem to have been somewhat influenced as well, directly or not is up to speculation. This really shows that Nigel Kneale really had the pulse of televised science fiction and horror under his belt, as he seems to have basically influenced most of it for the last sixty years!
So there we have it, it wasn’t the first piece of film cast into the Quatermass catalog, but it was definitely the one that got the property noticed. Not only has the plot from this movie been used over and over countless times, but I haven’t seen anything more influential to other science fiction and horror for a while. As I stated, I’m not sure I like Donlevy as much as Tate in the role of Bernard Quatermass, but the two characters couldn’t be any more different. Aside from the plot, it’s honestly better to think of the film and the TV show as separate entities; a fact that is hard for me to do, but the quality of this movie makes it easier. I’m not a huge horror fan, much less older horror movies, so any film of the genre that keeps my attention must be good. Hammer Films went on to make two more Quatermass films, both of which I will be looking at on here! Come back again tomorrow as I take a look at the TV version of Quatermass II, continuing “Quatermass Week!”
Lately I’ve been mostly concentrating on extremely recent science fiction to talk about and write reviews for, but not this week. This week, we will be looking at the Grand Daddy of ALL British science fiction on Television, the program that started it all a DECADE before Doctor Who. Of course I am speaking of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass Experiment. It’s a while before we really kick into the Doctor Who 50th anniversary celebrations, but the seemingly forgotten SIXTIETH ANNIVERSARY of Quatermass is even closer, July to be precise. So, in order to kick off “Quatermass Week” on this blog, let’s talk about parts 1 and two of the 1953 serial The Quatermass Experiment.
Originally shown in six parts, The Quatermass Experiment is a miracle of pure luck. I won’t write about any of the BBC’s pre-1980’s archival practices as I could do an entire article solely on that subject; many have written books on it to be precise. But I will point out that Quatermass is a victim of the worst idea the BBC ever had just like Doctor Who. We are truly lucky to have any of the episodes remaining at all, much less two of them. This was the infancy of TV, and things like home video were laughable to BBC executives at the time; in fact the show itself was broadcast live, making things like preservation a lot harder. There was an effort to record the footage directly from a monitor showing the live broadcast, but the results were quite poor, even a fly on the lens can famously be seen throughout a large portion of episode two!
I have been unable to obtain the DVD collection that the Doctor Who restoration team worked on; a set that seems awesome based on stills I’ve come across. I, sadly, had to find this on a popular video streaming site, and deal with visuals that I assume came from a VHS tape. While perfectly watchable, the version I watched was noticeably blurry in places and suffered from all the maladies that one would imagine having come from a camera recording off of a TV screen.
“you massage the rocket like this…”
From the initial marvelous seconds of The Quatermass Experiment, I knew I was in for a treat as the pumping brass of Gustav Holt’s The Planets– Mars, The Bringer of War filled my ears. What an awesome choice for the theme of a show like this. Smoke rolls past a title card that says “The Quatermass Experiment” – simple but effective. The plot follows the ground crew of the first manned flight into space. Headed by Bernard Quatermass, The British Experimental Rocket group is on pins and needles, as communications with the first astronauts has been severed for over two days. It seems that the vessel drifted out of its planned orbit, and began soaring out into space. The ship does eventually crash back to earth near Wimbledon, but not all is okay. One of the three crew members remains, and he is acting weird.It seems “something else” may have also come back with the ship:
One thing that really sticks out to me with this storyline is its realism. Many science fiction stories of this time were largely of the space opera variety. By that I don’t mean the modern sense of that genre, but the sort that lead to the genre being almost a pejorative term until the 1970’s. Keep in mind that this was done a few years before Sputnik ever launched, and there honestly isn’t much futurist shenanigans to see. No Ray-guns, no winged helmets, no dashing hero on Mars, just realistic hard-science fiction. Aside from the shape of the rocket being rather silly, one would assume that this show was made during the “space race”.
Quatermass is another of those great “smart heroes” that persist in UK genre fiction. Rather than being a dashing hulking action hero, Quatermass is a no-nonsense man that seems to know more than everyone around him. Reginald Tate does a fine job of portraying Bernard, and it’s sad that he only did one serial as him. He sadly passed away before Quatermass II was set to film. People today aren’t really used to seeing the heroic scientist archetype in action outside of video games (Half-life for instance) which is a shame. It was a trope that persisted in much of early science fiction, but was pushed to the side by the John Carter character model. The closest thing I can relate to Quatermass is older iterations of “The Doctor” from Doctor Who. In fact, Nigel Kneale was not a fan of the show because he felt it ripped off Quatermass. While the ending doesn’t exist on this serial, I do plan to watch the other versions of this drama (the 1955 Hammer film and the 2005 remake) to see the final conflict between Quatermass and the creature. I know they duke it out, but I’m not sure how everything leads up to that.
I’m glad real space suits didn’t look like this
So there we have it, the original British science fiction hero! Not only did The Quatermass Experiment show that adults could enjoy science fiction stories just as much as kids, but it laid the way for sixty years of British science fiction afterwards. If you watch any serious science fiction drama such as A for Andromeda or Day of the Triffids, you can see little hints of Kneale’s masterpiece. Whether it be the dark nature of the play, or the completely realistic way in which it is told, I think this drama holds up to today’s standards (much like most old TV, as opposed to old movies) and everyone should check it out. In America, we sadly can only get the Hammer films of the series and the later 1970’s serial, but one can import the Quatermass Collection set from England, just consult my handy guide on region-free DVD players on tips to do that. As I stated, I found this serial “by other means”. Some of these older serials, Like Quatermass II, are in the public domain, so they can easily be found on video sharing sites, so us Yankees aren’t completely in the dark.