Friday, 26 September 2014

‘QUATERMASS’ – AN EXPERIMENT IN SCIENCE FICTION

Attention please! This first installment in a series looking at the classic 'Quatermass' series of British TV SF is notably being posted on the very day when, seven years ago, our first ever post looked at the Hammer movie version. We don't just throw this show together, you know.

Further attention required! Please note that this review is considered unsuitable for children and those of an anti-plot-spoiler disposition.


”They are to reach a height of fifteen hundred miles above the Earth and there learn what is to be learnt. For an experiment is an operation designed to discover some unknown truth.”
- Opening narration

If British small-screen science fiction has never exactly been big-budget, with ’The Quatermass Experiment’ (1953) we can see how it’s Fifties origins were truly made from sticky tape and glue. Whenever anyone answers the phone to say (in clipped Fifties tones) “Experimental Rocket Group”, you can’t help but be reminded of Wallace and Gromit bashing together moonships in their basement. Indeed, its gang of high-minded well-meaning boffins are often reminiscent of the BBC in themselves, stumbling along between crises, extemporising history. In a way the title to the first series gives the whole thing away - it was an experiment, a prototype, built in such back-shed conditions you’re amazed they ever got it to fly.

The first series not only lacked for special effects, it was broadcast entirely live with neither space nor budget for location shoots. (We can only watch the first two episodes now, but not because the others were lost. They were just not recorded in the first place.) The ‘monster’ which appears in the finale was created by writer Nigel Kneale and his wife at home, by modifying a rubber glove from their kitchen, when the BBC effects department despaired of his requests and threw in the towel.

Nevertheless, Kneale and his producer/director Rudolph Cartier created something of more than mere historical importance. The Wright brothers may have pioneered flight, but today you wouldn’t want to ride in one of their planes - whatever the deal on air miles. Conversely, 'Quatermass' and its sequels are must-see items for anyone with an interest in science fiction. Kneale and Cartier took their limitations as challenges, as if writing a haiku, and brought to the screen a science fiction marked by intelligence and even social comment.

Dialogue, for example, tends to the smartly understated rather than the melodramatic. The rocket ship is simply described as having travelled “far”. Phrases uttered casually often come back to haunt, such as the pre-flight quip “bring something back”. (Made into the second episode title.) Which indeed they do


The most obvious and major difference between this and the later film version is that, instead of Brian Donlevey, Quatermass is played by an actor. To be specific, Reginald Tate (above), but perhaps any actor would have been change enough. While the film Quatermass is one-dimensionally remorseless, here he’s presented as much more troubled - and with it much more sympathetic. His main antagonist is Paterson, a member of his own rocket crew who takes on and amplifies his own feelings of guilt. In a live television broadcast, the big Q even asks for the world’s forgiveness. The Donlevy Quatermass would have seized the opportunity to tell everyone to stop bugging him.

The second big difference lies in the ending. If the film was 'inverted Frankenstein', this culminates in a more Prince Charles fashion. But let’s lead up to that gradually. As mentioned in the film review, the Thing represents the self reduced to a “pre-human state”. I also casually called it a “walking corpse,” and indeed it has many of the lumbering human-non-human features of the zombie. The name 'Carroon' may have been chosen to echo 'carrion'. With the novel 'The Day of the Triffids' released only two years earlier, it may be that vegetation was in those more refined times used as a stand-in for the undead. (Notably, the opening of 'Day of the Triffids' has since been recycled by '28 Days Later', 'The Walking Dead' and counting...)

In the film the Thing absorbs life, starting with the two other astronauts in the rocket, reducing them literally to powder. This original adds an extra fillip, the men’s bodies are devoured but their personalities are somehow retained inside the surviving Carroon.

Which doesn’t make for much in the way of logical sense. (There’s some explaining away that this doesn’t happen to the Thing’s other victims due to the ‘longer time’ it had to absorb the astronauts aboard the rocket). But it allows for much narrative tension as their personalities briefly burst to the surface of the stricken survivor, and the three-into-one-schema vies with our assumptions about the integrity of the self - and so underlines the theme of loss of individuation.

All of which works to underline just what sort of show this is. The rocket ship at first resembles a 'locked room' murder mystery, two men dead with no conceivable way it could have happened. Notably, its scientists and policemen who mull over this conundrum. But of course the rug is soon and quite deliberately pulled from under this, and the 'deaths' given a supernatural cause. The “something back” 'Quatermass' brings to SF is horror, rather than Westerns with ray guns or adventure stories. Just as Superman is now forever associated with the intro line "faster than a speeding bullet", 'Quatermass' comes complete in the popular imagination with the BBC voiceover warning to "those of a nervous disposition". Notably, its a story that starts with a rocket ship and ends with Westminster Abbey.


And yet for all that its not a Gothic story; even if Kneale's initial premise was “science going bad” it's never anti-science. Our protagonist is not only a scientist, he works with Police Inspector Lomax and journalist Fullalove – a microcosm of the enquiring minds within the British establishment. Here and later, horror is associated with a form of ignorance, knowledge with empowerment. Monsters (if that's even the term) are not part of the fabric of things, to be shied from, but more like Bunyanesque giants – to be toppled and overcome.

Which throws an entirely different light on the whole business of setting the finale in Westminster Abbey. However much Quatermass himself changes between TV set and screen, the Abbey may well change more. In the film the Thing appears by the end all-powerful, so you assume either it chose to go there or it stumbled upon the place by accident. But here Quatermass insists “it wasn’t chance” that took it there, and explains the Thing’s existence is parasitically contingent upon the existence of Carroon and the others. (Perhaps it's three-into-one absorption could be regarded as some perversion of the holy trinity.)

Addressing them he explains “it can only know by means of your knowledge… understand through your understanding. It can only exist through your submission”. His comments even take on the tone of an exorcism (“you will overcome this evil”), with the implication the Abbey was chosen not by the Thing but the three astronauts, as a symbol of human values from where to stage their final battle. (Albeit with the corollary that London has been reduced to a hysterical, fleeing mob – “like the beasts and the plants”.)

While in the film the Thing is destroyed by electrocution, here the astronauts are able to regain control enough to destroy it from within – by willing themselves to suicide they destroy their parasite with them. As Paterson, paralysed through guilt and blame, is ’Quatermass’s shadow self (who also sacrifices himself), so the Thing is the baser nature of the three astronauts – and by implication of us all. It is our attempt to leave the Earth that has brought it upon us, exposed our ties, like rattling the bar brings the jailer. But human values win out. Though initially juxtaposed, rocket ship and Abbey ultimately combine – standing for something like brain and heart, uniting against the mere brute body.

Kneale disliked the changes the film made to his vision, changes he had no part in. And he was right… about all of them except for this one. For one thing, this sudden change of heart makes scant sense. It’s what they’ve been trying to do all along, to little effect even before the Thing’s growth had been so advanced. Apart from the rarified atmosphere of the Abbey (presumably intended symbolically rather than as literally powerful), there seems little reason why the same trick should work now except for the fact we’ve come to the end of the sixth episode.

And while a fisticuffs ending might have felt equally hackneyed, there is always something stagily unsatisfying about ending a story with a rousing speech. It feels arbitrary and unresolving, almost a deus ex machina. More widely, this invoking of the basic decency inside us all now seems (to put it mildly) a touch naïve – the point where ’Quatermass’ stops seeming pioneering and becomes merely quaint. It suggests problems can be resolved not by action or change but merely by discussion and debate.

This unconvincing ending first felt to me like a product of its time, resting on notions of ‘chaps’ always ‘coming though’ when things looked at their rummest. Perhaps, had 'Night of the Living Dead' been made fifteen years earlier, they'd have given that the same ending – someone sticking on some Elgar and the zombies rediscovering their inner humanity. But interestingly Andrew Pixley’s notes to the BBC DVD edition reveal this was a widespread complaint even among contemporary audiences. (One commenting “the first five built up a terrific excitement but Episode Six went off like a wet firework”.) With recent memories of Nazism, perhaps such Sunday School notions of basic decency were already antiquated.

It's possible that Kneale took these criticisms to heart. If he had no involvement in the film version, he went on to adapt ’1984’ - where Orwell quite deliberately set out to scupper such sweet notions of some unbreakable core inside us. (More of which anon.) And the idea that alien life can be engaged in conversation, let's see how that fared in the sequels...


Coming soon! As you may have already guessed, more 'Quatermass'...

Grateful thanks to ‘Redsock’

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