I wanted to do something different this week for “The Monday Meme”. Usually I scour the interwebs for random Doctor Who images or anything that makes me chuckle. I feel like I’ve burnt myself out on the ones I’ve seen, because a lot of ones I find have been going around for months, if not years. Starting today, I want to do some for some more obscure shows – especially Quatermass! Let me know what you think in the comments, maybe, I can keep these AAVOBSF originals going and going!
I’ve looked at a few Nigel Kneale teleplays from the 1950’s this year, and I thought it would be a nice change of pace to find one of his later works to review for this very blog. I truly believe that Nigel Kneale is one of the often overlooked grandfathers of science fiction, as you can see his fingerprints on tons of modern genre TV (especially Doctor Who). That’s the main reason I’ve been slowly digging through all the Quatermass material I could get my hands on – to hopefully build some awareness if I can.
Today, I ultimately settled on The Stone Tape, mostly because I had never heard of it before this viewing. This was Kneale’s last accepted BBC script before he ultimately got fed up with them and jumped ship to ITV. After years of what he perceived to be meddling and broken promises by the BBC, Kneale took his rejected fourth Quatermass script, among others, and ran. Luckily The Stone Tape doesn’t shed any light on his professional troubles, and seamlessly blends sci-fi, horror, and drama into one cohesive film that was so well received that it helped establish a paranormal theory – the stone tape theory.
As Wikipedia states “The Stone Tape theory is a paranormal hypothesis that was proposed in the 1970s as a possible explanation for ghosts. It speculates that inanimate materials can absorb some form of energy from living beings; the hypothesis speculates that this “recording” happens especially during moments of high tension, such as murder, or during intense moments of someone’s life. This stored energy can be released, resulting in a display of the recorded activity. According to this hypothesis, ghosts are not spirits but simply non-interactive recordings similar to a movie. Paranormal investigators commonly consider such phenomena as residual hauntings.”
In an effort to gain market share on his Japanese competitors, the head of the R&D department of Ryan Electronics, Peter Brock, has been struggling to develop a new recording medium that can revolutionize the industry. His team have set up shop in a new facility within an old Victorian mansion called the Taskerlands, a property that seems to have some unwanted lab assistants. Jane Asher (See my review of A for Andromeda for more of her) stars as the weak-willed computer programmer Jill Greeley. Jill spends the first few minutes of the film paralyzed by fear for a handful of different reasons: first a near miss car accident, then a ghostly sighting within the mansion. To Jill’s horror, a young woman can be seen committing suicide within a room that workers refuse to renovate.
After asking around, the team learns that The Taskerlands is, in fact, notorious for the death of a maid some one hundred years prior. Brock puts two and two together and realizes that this “haunted room” has somehow recorded the death of this poor girl. This phenomena, dubbed “stone tape”, could be the very breakthrough that the team is looking for, just as long as they can somehow harness it. As you can imagine, there are setbacks and all manner of paranormal incidents going on at the Taskerlands, and not everyone makes it out in one piece.
The Stone Tape vaguely reminds me of a handful of serialized TV shows such as The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits for some reason. It’s not because it has a big moral at the end of the story or anything, unless that moral is science is bad, but the way it ends is one of those abrupt shock endings you get used to with that sort of show. The Stone Tape definitely has a better budget than those sorts of shows, but fans of that genre might be interested.
As with anything from the 1970’s, there is quite a bit of “culture shock” to get through when watching something almost 40 years after the fact. The entire plot hinges on the fact that everyone at Ryan Electronics fears that Japan will soon be taking over their entire country in just about every way, and finding a way to edge them out is the only way to stop it. This reeks of the general xenophobic mindset of the time, something that manifests itself with casual racism and “yellow peril” / Fu Manchu impressions from a few characters. These scenes made me cringe a bit, but luckily they weren’t glamorized, one man thankfully gets told to shut up. Seeing this, one has to wonder how poorly anything modern, full of the casual anti-Islamic sentiment we see in TV, will look forty years from now? I bet my grandchildren will be just as embarrassed as I am today.
My main quibble with this drama is something I brought up earlier, and another cultural relic from a long time ago. Jill is a laughably weak character, seemingly breaking down into fits of madness whenever anything bad happens. She’s like one of those stock “old-timey” female characters that has to be slapped whenever they go into fits for some reason. Granted, I’ve been in a few car accidents, so I know they can mess up your mental state. I can’t imagine someone being so indisposed afterwords that everyone around has to baby the person in question for weeks on end. Jill reminds me of the old stereotype that Doctor Who used to suffer in regards to it’s female companions, as she is seemingly only there to scream, fall down, and look weak. This does a great service of making most of the male cast look dashing and heroic in comparison, at the cost of making Jill unlikable.
As with many productions of the time, this movie has little in the way of special effects. In fact, the only sequences that really have these sorts of shots involve camera tricks to achieve ghostly images, pretty much on par with any other 1970’s BBC sci-fi or horror shows. The horror that builds in many scenes is usually achieved with lighting and sound in place of flashy visuals. These effects include, but are not limited to: Perhaps a blood-curdling scream, flickering lights, or a horrible noise. In many ways, this helps the production, as a cheesy guy in a suit could have ruined any tension that is achieved without it.
Personally I’m more of a fan of this sort of horror film than what most people like, that’s why I usually tell people “I don’t like horror movies”. I have grown tired of “gore porn” films that over-saturate the market today, as they are not scary to me whatsoever. What things such as The Stone Tape have over them is that they can build real tension without resorting to jump scares and blood to make the viewer squirm. I’m not saying it’s the best thing ever, or that I’m now super into horror, but it’s a step in the right direction for me.
The Stone Tape is pretty good despite the flaws it has. It’s by no means the best thing Nigel Kneale ever wrote, but it’s pretty good as a horror /sci-fi program. I will say that some cultural relics from the early 70’s including casual racism and borderline misogyny made me a bit uncomfortable, but neither ruined anything for me. If anything, they made me think of how we act today, and how that will look in the future. If you have a few hours to kill, and want to see an old-school horror movie with a sci-fi splash, you might like watching this, but finding it might not be easy. It was on DVD over a decade ago,but is out of print pretty much everywhere. I was able to find it in its entirety on YouTube, so that should be the place for you to look as well!
- The Stone Tape/Ghostwatch (DVD) (takingtheshortview.wordpress.com)
- Haunted Double Feature: Ghostwatch, The Stone Tape – box set review (theguardian.com)
- Stone Tape Duel (infocult.typepad.com)
- Kneale Before Satan: The Witches Reviewed (thequietus.com)
- BBC Sunday Night Theatre: George Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four (1954) (anamericanviewofbritishsciencefiction.com)
- Goodbye Blighty: The alternative reality of Quatermass II (go.theregister.com)
- TV Review: DOCTOR WHO 7.09 – “Hide” (badassdigest.com)
- Happy Devil’s Night, 2013: “Baby” (1976) and “The Signalman” (1976) (30daysofhorror.wordpress.com)
- Signing out of a broken Britain: The final Quatermass serial (go.theregister.com)
- Stone Tape Theory and haunted locations (kittyjanusz.wordpress.com)
After the immense success of the first Hammer Films Iteration of the Quatermass saga, The Quatermass Xperiment, it was nearly two years before another film was produced in the series. Hammer attempted to get another one off the ground, but Nigel Kneale (who got no money for the first film) vetoed the idea immediately. Kneale felt that his creation had been abused the first time around, and wanted more control over what the BBC did with his material. Hammer went on with a film in 1956 anyway called X the Unknown. The movie, starring Dean Jagger as a new character essentially the same as Quatermass, did decently well, but failed to reach the critical and monetary heights of its predecessor. Hammer dropped the whole “X” related X certificate gloating in their marketing, and worked with Kneale himself to produce a new screenplay that would see Brian Donlevy back in the saddle for another adventure. Enter Quatermass 2 or Enemy from Space as it was called overseas.
The plot of Quatermass 2 is largely the same as the previous television version Quatermass II, with a few changes made for a shorter runtime, and a much larger special effects budget. I would say that this TV-to-movie remake is actually far closer to the original TV version than the first Quatermass film and more of a science fiction piece, as Quatermass Xperiment was definitely altered to be horror. Professor Quatermass is once again trying to improve the human race through his scientific endeavors, this time by trying to gather support for Moon exploration and eventual colonization. He is sidetracked early on by budget setbacks as well as the discovery of a curiously large amount of meteorites falling recently in the area, a fact that really piques his interest. He goes to an area where the impacts have been the most numerous only to find that there is a destroyed city and an ominous government facility (which looks similar to his planned moon colony) in its place inhabited by people with “V” shaped marks on their skin.
I loved The Quatermass Xperiment with one quibble – Brian Donlevy wasn’t “cup of tea” when it came to potential actors playing Quatermass. He was a bit too harsh and unlikeable, a fact that led to me likening him to “[…] Hugh Laurie’s Doctor House M.D. fighting aliens […]”. My fears were tested in one of the very first scenes involving Quatermass and his “crew”; we see him throwing a suitcase down and belittling his associates like a bully. He insinuates that they are wasting his time, and they may lose their jobs. It was here that I feared the worst – not only was Donlevy back, but he was gruffer than ever. Then he softened, he apologized and explained the predicament they are in. From here on we have a “better” take on the character. Quatermass is still “no nonsense” as with the first film, but none of the borderline bipolar personality disorder is there. I think it may be up to Kneale’s writing here that Donlevy seems to be a bit more “level” as this script was essentially written with his TV character in mind, but whatever the reason – I’m happy.
As I mentioned earlier on, Quatermass 2 is not as much of a horror film as its predecessor, though it does keep some of the horror trappings in place. Much like the mutating astronaut in the first film, there are many shocking scenes that really put the viewer on the proverbial “edge of their seat”. I think one of the most shocking moments has to be a scene towards the middle of the film involving Quatermass leading a group of “inspectors” through the government-run domed city that lay on the ashes of a small town. A member of parliament named Vincent Broadhead, as played by Tom Chatto, wanders off during the investigation as he realizes that they are being shown things that the dome dwellers want them to see. Upon attempting to gain access to one of the domes, he is covered with a thick black tar-like substance that ultimately kills him. His prolonged death, complete with a tumble down a series of stairs and ladders and accompanied by stinging 1950’s horror music, is pretty gruesome and holds up here with other similar death scenes of modern films.
I commented that Hammer films was pretty good at making their science fiction and horror films look more realistic than other films of the time, and much of this can be chalked up to the production’s director and cinematographer being ahead of their time. The director, Val Guest, utilized many cinema verite’ (documentary style cinema) techniques such as hand-held cameras and location shooting in an oil refinery to great success. His cinematographer, Gerald Gibbs, picked great locations and framed shots worthy of far more expensive films. I’m not a huge fan of “day as night” scenes that populated these older films, but some of these are really well done. Others, as one might expect, looked like they film daytime through a pair of sunglasses rather than a convincing night shoot.
The main change in the plotline of this film against its source material happens at the end of the story. In the original TV serial, Quatermass and his assistant Pugh donned spacesuits and flew the Quatermass 2 rocket to an asteroid heading towards the earth. This final act was very silly and made the original piece fall apart in about every way. This has been replaced with the launch of the same rocket modified into a nuclear warhead in an unmanned state, and an escape from multiple 200 foot creatures. This finale resulted in something similar to a “kaiju film” from Japan – a man in a suit stomping over a model of a city. I actually preferred this ending, as it makes the alien threat a bit more…well… threatening.
Overall, I really enjoyed Quatermass 2. Unlike the first part, I can compare both the TV series and the movie to each other fairly well as the entire TV version survives. All of my problems with the first Quatermass film – mostly Brian Donlevy – have disappeared entirely in this production. I know that many regard Quatermass 2 inferior to the first in every way, but I disagree. Not only is it on a far larger scale, it has better acting, and more thrills. It will be quite a long time before another Quatermass film pops up, but if the hype is anything to gauge I’m in for a treat. Next up on “Quatermass Week” we have both versions of Quatermass and the Pit, a beloved favorite of many.
- Keep Me in the Loop, You Dead Mechanism (theparisreview.org)
- Going Underground (merovee.wordpress.com)
- Mind the werewolf: the London underground in film (guardian.co.uk)
- The Cutting Room Floor Presents: Top Ten Underrated Horror Sequels (geeksunleashed.me)
- Classic Monster Movies – Which is the Best? (costumesupercenter.com)
… or The Quatermass film that wasn’t…
After the successful release of The Quatermass Xperiment essentially re-launched Hammer Films, they attempted to get another slice of the proverbial pie, by doing a sequel the very next year. Hammer had a huge stumbling block in the way as Nigel Kneale, the man behind the original BBC dramas, wanted nothing to do with this. The BBC had sold the film rights to Quatermass out from under him for the first installment, a fact that soured him towards both companies completely. This coupled with the casting choices of the first film, changes to plot compared to the TV version, and his lack of monetary compensation meant that Hammer was not allowed to use his character for a sequel. Hammer decided to keep the silly “X-rated” promotional tactics going and created what essentially amounts to a “ripoff” of their own film franchise. X: The Unknown starred Dean Jagger as Dr. Adam Royston, a character that seems to essentially be a stand in for Quatermass had this been a true sequel.
Aside from the problems associated with Kneale, this film had another huge controversy that put this production into jeopardy. The film’s first director was An American film director by the name of Joseph Losey (credited as Joseph Walton at the time). Losey had basically fled Hollywood to make films in Europe as he was added to the infamous “Hollywood Blacklist” that denied work to communist sympathizers in the industry. Everything was running smooth until Jagger, an American actor himself, refused to work with Losey. This resulted in Losey’s departure from the film two days into production due to “illness”. Since Hammer had spent the majority of the budget acquiring such a renowned actor as Jagger, it seems that it was a situation of “either he goes or I go” with Jagger winning out. The job went to Leslie Norman soon after.
The plot of X: The Unknown follows Dr. Royston, a scientist from an Atomic Energy Laboratory at Lochmouth, as he investigates a troubling situation involving a threat to the human race. The British Army has been conducting radioactive material detection drills at a remote Scottish base in what appears to be a mud pit. These seemingly harmless training exercises (they involve a game of “hide and seek” with a Geiger counter) somehow attract a creature from a subterranean lair, leaving two severely radiation-burned soldiers in its wake. This creature can apparently vanish and feeds on radiation. It then goes on a rampage and grows larger and larger in a similar fashion to the creature in The Blob. In fact, this movie was so much like The Blob, that I assumed it was a direct copy, only to find out that X: the Unknown was actually made two years earlier! Sadly, due to production issues, a squandered budget, and other issues, this movie remains quite obscure, and The Blob became of classic of it’s time.
I mentioned that Royston was a stand-in for Quatermass, but that’s not completely true. Thankfully the production team came up with a slightly different take on the lead character – making him an atomic energy specialist rather than a rocket scientist. Jagger takes on this role in an entirely different manner than Brian Donlevy in Quatermass, acting a bit softer, even eccentric to a degree. When we first see Royston, he gets in trouble for wasting time on an amateur made experiment seemingly made from Meccano model sets. He allows his subordinates to do his real work, the work he’s getting paid for, while he tests radiation’s effect on radio waves, something dubbed an “anti-radiation device”. The fact that they show this scene for so long, makes you realize that this will be important later on, maybe this “frivolous” experiment won’t be so “frivolous” after all (wink wink!). I really liked the character of Dr. Royston, and almost wish they did more with the character.
Sadly, I was not a huge fan of this film for many reasons, but most notably the cast. Dean Jagger is easily one of the best actors in this film, and had he been surrounded by a great cast, things could have been different. There are a few people that simply made the whole production seem like a cheesy “monster of the week” flick. The acting in some places reminded me of just about every 1980’s “slasher film” – overacting in every scene and actors being a caricature of a real person. All the tired tropes you can imagine like the dumb soldier, the slutty nurse, and the jerky government official are in place, and none of these seemed like a fleshed out character – more like a prop of some sort. I commented how I liked the “realism” of the original Quatermass TV serial and the subsequent movie. There is really none of that here, as the writing, acting, and plot seems exactly like any other B-movie of the time. While I can’t really commend his acting here, this film is notable for the inclusion of a VERY young Frazer Hines playing a kid named Ian. Frazer later went on to play one of the most beloved “companions” in Doctor Who – Jamie McCrimmon!
One can immediately tell that this film has a small budget, but the effects, what little of them there are, are at least competently done. For around half the movie we barely see anything other than burn make-up on someone’s back. It’s pretty good makeup, but we’re comparing it to the mutating man in Quatermass, so there really is no contest. The majority of the movie has no real scenes that warrant the X-rating the movie got. That was until the aforementioned “slutty nurse” and “horndog doctor” come into play, making out with no cares in the world like they are in a Jason Vorhees movie. The monster attacks the doctor leading to a rather silly close-up shot of the doctor yelling:
Followed by a wax head melting to show a skull underneath – pretty grisly for a 1950’s movie!
But for every good effect like this one in place, there are ones not quite there. They aren’t bad, like dressing a dog up like a dinosaur, but they involve the monster so it’s really unfortunate. I honestly thought that there would never be a monster reveal and would find out that it was invisible all along. When the movie FINALLY reveals the creature one hour into the 72 minute film, it is a blobby stop motion creature. I’m not saying that it was the worst thing I’ve seen, but it’s underwhelming after all the hype. They do some decent shots of it placed into the background of scenes and oozing over fences, but small-scale model shots of it up close aren’t as good.
All in all, I felt that X: the Unknown was not as good as it could have been. After the numerous problems behind the scenes and a script that wasn’t really there, what is left is a film desperately trying to play “catch-up” with its predecessor. Much of the plot is largely the same, except with a larger body count this time around and a slightly different monster. We never find out what the monster is, and the whole movie ends with Dr. Royston using his “anti-radiation” experiment to kill the creature, something you see miles away. This really goes to show how special the right script and director can be in a film like this, and I can see why it was set right for the eventual return of Quatermass. Hammer wised up and got Kneale to work with them, hired the original director, and some of the actors from the first film. They basically pretend that X: The Unknown never existed.
I think we can sum the whole thing up with a bit of dialog from the end of the film:
Elliott: “what was that?!”
Royston: “I don’t know, but it shouldn’t have happened…”
- The Quatermass Xperiment (a.k.a The Creeping Unknown) (1955) (anamericanviewofbritishsciencefiction.com)
- Quatermass II (1955) (anamericanviewofbritishsciencefiction.com)
- The Quatermass Experiment (1953) Episodes 1 and 2 (anamericanviewofbritishsciencefiction.com)
- Keep Me in the Loop, You Dead Mechanism (theparisreview.org)
- Mind the werewolf: the London underground in film (guardian.co.uk)
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.
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!!
- Keep Me in the Loop, You Dead Mechanism (theparisreview.org)
- if you thought the “dead man’s deterrent” in quatermass was exaggerated, check this (niqnaq.wordpress.com)
- Going Underground (merovee.wordpress.com)
- 10 end-of-the-world classics for the Mayan apocalypse (betanews.com)
- Six Television Shows That Deserve Huge Cult Followings (glitternight.com)
- TV Production market report by Apex Insight reveals a £3bn UK market which has continued to grow despite pressure on television industry revenues. (prweb.com)
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.
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.
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.
- Going Underground (merovee.wordpress.com)
- ‘Doctor Who’ Docudrama ‘An Adventure in Space and Time’ Will Explore Show’s Origins (screenrant.com)
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- Suspend your Disbelief: Doctor Who (hellforleathermagazine.com)
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