Friday 31 October 2014


This concluding installment of our overview of the influential BBC SF series 'Quatermass' is considered slightly less unsuitable for children and those of an anti-plot-spoiler disposition

It can't really be doubted that British TV science fiction started with a Q. In fact it’s almost a cliché to talk about 'Quatermass’s founding influence. A recent BBC series on the subject telegraphed this by calling itself 'The Martians And Us', borrowing a line from ’Quatermass and the Pit.’ (In much the same way as a documentary on music and fashion felt obliged to take its name from David Bowie.) Well ’Blake’s Seven’ fans may want to cover their ears now, but such a statement really means we’re talking about a baton being handed to ’Doctor Who’.

Kneale, who could be irascible, was defensive about the shows which took his prototype into production – and ’Who’ in particular he regarded as stealing his thunder. (Despite offers, he steadfastedly refused to write for it.) Indeed Derrick Shewin, Pertwee-era ’Who’ producer, has openly acknowledged the influence of ’Pit’ in particular upon the 'The Daemons' (1971). Not to mention 'Image of the Fendahl' (1977) or even the more recent 'The Satan Pit' (2006), also almost direct copies. And you know what they say about once being happenstance, twice co-incidence and three times enemy action. The Third Doctor and the Brigadier's relationship, a current of the Pertwee era, made them less feuding cousins to Quatermass and Colonel Breen.

But let’s look at the slightly wider picture...

In both, our protagonist represents the open mind - set against the closed mind of military or government types. Quatermass is always trustingly talking to journalists, while bureaucrats try to hush him up. Science fiction becomes an arena where we may battle not just against bug-eyed extras but between the best and the worst in our nature.

When Quatermass insists in ’Pit’ that we must “outgrow the ancient destructive urges in us” or “this will be their [the Martians’] second dead planet” he hit upon not just the concept but the very title of the Daleks’ first appearance. Consequently, adversaries are seldom defeated by might alone, if at all. Both shows contain a huge emphasis on sacrifice – victories are rarely full and never bloodless.

However, it’s also true to say that ’Quatermass’ set a bar that ’Doctor Who’ often struggled to step up to. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare three series by the same author to a production-line brand, particularly when one was aimed squarely at adults while the other had to stretch to appease a general family audience. But this is nevertheless the case. From the opening image of a space rocket crashing into an East End street, Kneale understood that the extraordinary was contingent upon the ordinary. With it's police boxes materialising on alien landscapes ’Doctor Who’ would seem to have picked up this lesson.

Or did it? Time and again ’Who’ reverted to familiar stand-in Nazi storylines, even in its better storylines such as the already-mentioned ’The Dead Planet’ (aka ’The Daleks’). Though closer to wartime and continually referring to its bomb-site residue, ’Quatermass’ never took anti-Nazism for a theme. In a historically authentic detail, ’Experiment’ makes one of the rocket group a German - Dr. Ludwig Reichenheim. But while the script might make some play of his ‘sinister’ German accent, Reichenheim is not just one of the good guys - the whole ending comes to be predicated upon his goodness!

The black-clad policemen in ’QII’ are continually referred to as “zombies”, but never once as Nazis - despite their robotic manners and autocratic killing sprees. (In fact the Camp Committee is full of ‘careless talk costs lives’ posters, more reminiscent of the Allied side of the War.) But perhaps most telling is Colonel Breen in ’Pit’, who hopelessly clings to the insistence the alien object is some left-over Nazi plot, a falsehood he clearly finds more comfortable than the truth.

And this detail leads us to an important distinction, perhaps most neatly summed up as monsters versus aliens. The ‘monsters’ in ’Doctor Who’, though theoretically alien, are always reducible to human foibles and hence are always explicable in human terms. The Daleks represent megalomania and paranoia, the Cybermen conformity and so on. There is an almost compulsory scene where the Doctor confronts them by counterposing human values to the error of their ways. Clanking pepperpots aside, they tend to be humanoid. Of course they have our shape – they're our shadows! Think of the first New Who story, 'Rose', when the character most needed re-establishing - and how the Doctor demanded to “seek audience with” the week's enemy.

Indeed the figure of the Doctor, essentially both human and alien, acts as a necessary bridge and familiarising force. He's always able to explain to his companions that the guys who have just showed up painted green are in fact Kleptons who are there to try and shoplift the Earth in order to get it through Galactic Duty Free, thereby representing the human sin of avarice, or whichever. The fact that he theoretically isn't human is just used to emphasise the supposed universality of human values.

But a rule of ’Quatermass’, which got entrenched more and more deeply as it went on, is that there can be no direct communication between human and alien – the alien always stays alien. However ceaselessly the ordinary and extraordinary are juxtaposed they never mix, they are inherently held apart – like oil and water.

The motif of an alien not as humanoid or pepperpot-shaped but as shapeless recurs throughout the series. It starts with the growing transformation of man into vegetable, finally losing all semblance of humanoid form, then continues through the churning things in the domes in ’QII’ and the pre-Mysteron swirling lights in ’Pit’.

‘Pit’ is perhaps central - the aliens induce something ‘buried’ within us, but themselves are not only inexplicable - their very presence is enough for us to lose our capacity to comprehend altogether. Then in the fourth series the aliens don’t appear at all, but remain merely supremely unknowable. As Mark Fisher comments: ”[Their] purposes remain sublimely, unfathomably opaque, like their physical forms. Anything we ‘learn’ about them is conjecture, inference, speculation. They are light years away from us. In every sense.” These other-worldly creatures are closer to Lovecraft’s other-dimensional demons than to 'Doctor Who's more straightforward morality play.

Let's end on a question- how do you get to be good? Aspiring to would seem a good start. ’Experiment’ at one point parodies ray-gun shoot-up sci-fi sprees, with a faux-film about Space Captain Dallas and his obliterator gun. The swipe was perhaps a little sweeping. (The Shakespeare-based ‘Forbidden Planet’, for one counter example, was made at a similar time.) But the desire to distance itself from such pulpy fodder was genuine and not entirely unearned.

When 'Quatermass' instigated small-screen SF in the UK it insisted on some basic rules – it should be done intelligently, take seriously both its nature as SF and its capacity to comment on current events, and it should be aimed at a general audience. It should ideally come with a thick streak of black humour. If most of what followed was to miss this bar, few fared worse for having such a bar to aim for. Even 'Who', which could more shamelessly plunder the cliches of space opera and horror, often felt some obligation to do something with those cliches once they were pocketed and brought home. In short, after 'Quatermass', even some of the failures failed better. Every now and again, reputations can be deserved.

Grateful thanks, as ever, to ‘Redsock’

Coming Soon! “And now it is nineteen-eighty-four…” (Actually, something else is probably coming sooner)

Friday 24 October 2014


(aka 'The Quatermass Conclusion' or sometimes just plain 'Quatermass', depending on who you talk to)

This final installment in our series of Quatermass reviews is also considered unsuitable for children and those of an anti-plot-spoiler disposition

" if some primal disorder was reasserting itself."

’Quatermass’s fourth and final chapter was not to appear until 1979. It received a poorer contemporary response than its predecessors, and was commonly seen as a grumpy old man’s whingeing over a modern world he barely understood and (perhaps not coincidentally) concerned with out-of-date issues. Indeed it was quite literally out-of-date, Kneale had written the script during 1972/73 but a perfect storm of false starts and delays had served to push back its production.

It’s set in a dystopian near-future in “the last quarter of the Twentieth Century”, where society is almost on the point of collapse, beset by inner city gangs and power cuts “…as if some primal disorder was reasserting itself”. (In a case of life imitating art the series own launch was delayed by a strike at ITV.) However the end of human society is pretty much a backdrop. Kneale is primarily interested in the Planet People, gangs of hippy cultists who believe they will be mystically ‘rescued’ from the fading Earth and transported to another planet. (Helpfully labelled by them as “the Planet”.) When the first Quatermass series was broadcast, the teenager was barely a concept. Here the conflict of youth versus age is central, with Quatermass attempting to find his lost grand-daughter who he suspects has smelt the patchouli oil and joined the long-haired weirdos.

The passage of time has made Quatermass into quite a different character from previously, elderly and unsure of himself. It’s tempting to speculate that while he had once been a mouthpiece for Kneale’s views, here he’s a stand-in for Kneale himself. As he spends episodes anguishing whether he still has it in him to combat this new evil, you sense Kneale wondering whether he can still write ‘em any more. The storyline is strung around his travelling from retirement in rural Scotland to discover the degree of urban collapse, just as you suspect Kneale (an Isle of Man resident) did himself on infrequent trips to London.

Kneale’s portrayal of the Planet People is in many ways amusing. Of course he's riffing off the hippie fetish for the 'cosmic', as exemplified by the classic Hawkwind track 'Time We Left This Earth Today'. But there is no getting round the fact that he clearly knows very little about hippies or what made them tick. The critics had a point, it is in many way’s an old man’s perplexity at a youth culture - struggling to understand why they wear such strange clothes or gather to listen to their funny music, and ultimately finding something sinister in his incomprehension.

Just like in tabloid shock stories, youth culture is never actually the culture of youth. There’s always some manipulating force secretly whipping them up – Communists, Satanists or (inevitably for here) aliens. The series’ central premise is that aliens are manipulating our minds to make us gather together, the easier to be harvested - but only the young are suggestible. (The Planet People are essentially millennial cultists, who merely happen to see their heaven as a planet.)

There is also something generically science-fictiony about their portrayal. They are basically shoehorned into the role of the herd-minded Frankenstein villagers against the rationalism of the scientists. Both 'Experiment' and, to a greater degree, ’Pit’ had already utilised the standard SF fear of the crowd, but here this is turned up a notch. Quatermass’ new sidekick Joe Kapp introduces them by contrasting them to the gangs; “they’re violent in a different way – to human thought.” There are Luddite scenes of them smashing up laboratories and frequent cut-to’s of them massing mindlessly in the countryside, chanting their mantra-word “Lei”, filmed as if they were zombies. Kneale’s novelisation describes their movements as “an angular jerking and twitching of their legs and arms, a rolling of eyes.”

(There does also seem something zeitgeisty to this theme, however. The BBC series ’The Changes,’ about a global outbreak of Luddism which takes us back to the Iron Age, filmed the year Kneale first wrote his script , was broadcast in ’75. It also shares themes and several plot points with the 1974 'Tomorrow People' storyline 'The Blue and the Green'.)

Moreover, the Planet People become fuzzy within the storyline itself. They’re sometimes presented as a kind of ascetically amoral cult, oblivious to earthly matters like life and death. There’s a scene where they walk chantingly into a gun battle between youth gangs. The first wave are mown down, but as more follow the gangs find themselves dropping their guns to join the procession. Yet, as they’re Quatermass’ chief antagonists, every now and then they’re given something villainous to do in order to spice up the melodrama. When one member looks like deserting, ‘chief’ Kickalong casually and somewhat pointlessly shoots her dead. (However, he could point out in his defence that she was being played by Toyah Wilcox.)

Yet by 1979 many wondered just what hippies were doing there in the first place. Three years into punk, surely they were yesterday’s moral panic. “All that’s different from them an’ those they were reacting against”, Johnny Rotten had sneered, “is that they’ve got long hair and bowler hats.” Even tabloids like the ’Daily Mail’ were becoming quasi-soft on hippies, if only in order to paint punks like Rotten more blackly. In Grant Morrison’s comic strip ’Zenith’ an ex-Sixties superhero Mandala was transformed into a suited and scheming Tory MP, Peter St John. Morrison was admittedly writing eight years later, but his take on hippiness felt far more cogent.

In truth, the hippies were never homogenous nor neatly defined. Indeed, that’s perhaps even more true of hippy than most youth cultures. Talking about 'hippy' in the way you would about 'punk' or 'mod' feels strange; you instinctively tend towards the more pluralised term "the hippies". Nevertheless
Richard Cross recently attempted a broad (if vague) definition of the hippies' "common principles — a rejection of crushing social conventions; of miserable wage-labour; of war and militarism; and a celebration of freedom, both collective and individual”. Put like that, hippie culture even starts to sound appealing. Perhaps we should be passing the patchouli oil after all...

However, their ideology doubtless contained a strong dose of New Age claptrap where whatever felt good was automatically deemed to be right. It’s now generally accepted that when hippy culture went mainstream it became a prime instigator of our current self-fixated therapy culture, ‘positive thinking’ gurus and other such arrant but insidious nonsense.

Kneale’s novelisation frequently returns to the analogy of a mental circuit breaker – “when the senses overload, a safety cutout says enough is enough.” This is of course the Planet People in a nutshell, convincing themselves they could believe their way out of a bad situation without needing to lift a finger to fix it. They first disinterestedly dismiss signs of death among the alleged transported as “accidents – you always get accidents.” But when there comes to be too many ‘accidents’ this becomes ‘spillage’, those who weren’t pure of heart enough to make it through the cosmic pearly gates. Even harm in the here-and-now can be justified by comparison to the vacuities of the greater good.

And if that wasn’t a fair or rounded portrait of hippy subculture, why should it be? SF’s job description is to find fault, to hold a distorting mirror to the present - not a neutral or a flattering one. Moreover, Kneale’s penchant for black humour has not deserted him. When one Planet Girl spits at Kapp “stop trying to know things” it’s both chilling and hilarious. It’s in many ways a Swiftian satire, not a sociology lesson. (It contains, among other things, a 'Top of the Pops' parody, filtered through 'Clockwork Orange', called 'Titupy Bumpity' - you can't get much more Swiftian than that.) SF dystopias often contain more satire than is commonly recognized, for an important reason. The satirical element reinforces the metaphorical nature of what is being presented, with which comes it’s sense of warning, - without which the entire exercise would be somewhat pointless.

Moreover, while the above complaints may have some validity, perhaps they look at the series too much from the perspective of its delayed release date. Now we can see the whole thing in hindsight, why not get the benefit of it? Why not elongate that hindsight a little and imagine it had come out on time? After all there's much which was been dismissed on release, only to be later taken for a classic.

In 1969 Buckminster Fuller published a book titled 'Utopia Or Oblivion', three words which might well sum up an era. It’s difficult to capture in retrospect just how contrapedal Seventies culture was. And how science fiction, which had always held to a view of the future which was bifurcated verging on bipolar, was the ideal arena to capture that. The future would either turn into a fluorescent silver techno-fix or else fall into pieces, with neither middle ground nor third option.

The juxtaposition of the jaunty Thames TV fanfare bleeding into the series’ doomy synthesized theme makes for a perfect microcosm. Like Romero’s 'Dead' films, the horrific nature of Kneale’s dystopia was not that it presented as something incredible but conversely something alarmingly credible. Even the coda suggests the alien menace is only leaving us alone temporarily.

But perhaps the truly eerie thing about this series arrives when we see it precisely the opposite way up - its strangely prophetic nature. What had seemed past its sell-by in 1979 would come to feel more and more contemporary over the succeeding years. In one scene the Planet People riot when the police attempt to stop them reaching a stone circle, which seems to strangely foreshadow the conflicts over Stonehenge in the late Eighties. The Stonehenge Festival had begun in 1972, but was then a small affair known ony in marginal and counter-cultural circles. It wasn’t propelled into the popular consciousness until it was banned with the ensuing ‘Battle of the Beanfield’ in 1985 - six years after transmission. But there the scene is.

(It even has signs of being shoehorned in, as if it were attempting to insert a duplicate of a real event. It’s been established the police are now mercenary ‘Pay Cops’ who do nothing except for bribes, and are anyway unable to keep control in central London. Why they should find time and inclination to defend a bunch of old stones in the middle of nowhere would seem somewhat mystifying.)

The explosion of raves in 1988 (dubbed ‘the Second Summer of Love’) were also popularly presented as mass gatherings of blissed-out mindlessness. Environmental protestors (usually labelled as starry-eyed ‘eco-warriors’ or simply smelly ‘crusties’) were to become a stock-in-trade for hackneyed scriptwriters, trying to spice up their dull dramas or stodgy soaps… ‘Planet People’ were soon to be everywhere!

But even Kneale’s paranoid reading of youth culture was to gain more verity. In the Seventies, while some hippies had craved escape into oblivion the more militant ones had fuzzily imagined getting past the existing society and replacing it with something better. Whereas environmental protestors today increasingly talk of what's to be done when things inevitably collapse…

Another counterbalance to the somewhat caricatured portrait of the Planet People is the character of Joe Kapp. Kneale gives Quatermass an arc, from befuddled old man who’s lost his grand-daughter back into the scientist we knew. (He effectively marshals a gang of ‘oldies’ to match the youth gangs.) But he smartly gives Kapp the opposite arc, descending as Quatermass ascends. In their first encounter with the Planet People, Quatermass tries to engage with them while Kapp can only offer them disdain. (“They infest the land! Like bloody lemmings…”) Paranoid of his own wife and daughters going over to them, Quatermass’ sidekick is like his shadow - as fanatically devoted to science as the Planet People are to their cult. (Much as Patterson has been the shadow of Quatermass’ guilt in 'Experiment'.) While Quatermass’ efforts to communicate with the Planet People are fruitless, the encounters are enough for him to intuit what is happening to them. Kapp’s closed mind, meanwhile, leads to personal tragedy…

…not that Kapp’s the only character around here who will suffer tragedy. Quatermass’ private life had previously been kept at a rather English reserve from events. Peter Hutchings has written how he “remains a curiously isolated figure, bereft of anything resembling a meaningful relationship.” While 'Experiment' extracted melodrama from an adulterous subplot, Quatermass himself was uninvolved in it. He’s a father figure without a wife, a literal one in ’QII’ but with honorary daughters in both other series. Even here his connection to his grand-daughter seems remote, there are no flash-backs to their lives together nor, while we continually intercut to her with the Planet People, is her character ever developed.

Nevertheless, Quatermass’ search for her is the impetus of the series and their estrangement its epitome, like a thread not always visible but holding everything together. “That’s all that matters to me now!” he cries, holding up her photo. “A human face.”

Perhaps not uncoincidentally, all three previous series had been resolved with the sacrifice of another. First Patterson and the three astronauts; then the construction workers and finally Roney in ’Pit’. It is the new weakened, humanised Quatermass who is finally able to make his own sacrifice, reunited finally with his grand-daughter. Sacrifice, after all, only has meaning when you are giving up something meaningful.

Earlier in these reviews I compared ’Experiment’ to a flimsy Wright brothers plane. Created over a quarter-century later ’IV’ would be by comparison a jump-jet, making it almost absurd to compare them. (Though if measured against films that came out the same year, such as ’Alien’, it would be at best a paper plane.) Perhaps consequently ’IV’ became the most ambitious series, the first one to try and depict a dystopian future. (While there had been haphazard attempts to locate earlier stories in a near future, particularly with ’II’, these were easily overlooked.).

But ironically these fine days would bring their own flaws. ’Experiment’ was rushed through to fill a gap in the schedules, and extemporised on such timely events as the Coronation. ’IV’ sat on the shelf for years and the timing of its eventual release was poor. It’s tackling of youth culture was sometimes amusing for all the wrong reasons. Perhaps it was also too successfully dystopian for a mass TV audience. But far from the failure that is sometimes depicted, it holds up more strongly today than is often recognised. Like his chief character, Kneale's innate talents did not desert him.

And speaking of 'Titupy Bumpity'...

Continuing thanks to RedSock

Coming Soon! The last word (honest!) on ’Quatermass’...

Friday 17 October 2014


This third instalment of our Quatermass series reviews is also considered unsuitable for children and those of an anti-plot-spoiler disposition

”He wasn't very tall. He had the face of an ape, but he had a big brain. And he stood like a man.”

A shorthand summary of the third ’Quatermass’ series (made in 1958) might be ‘Von Daniken upside down’. A New Age guru, professional maker-up of things and all-round crank, Erich Von Daniken claimed civilization to be a gift bestowed on us by benevolent aliens. You know, just like those benevolent European colonialists were always giving the Africans stuff. (Disclaimer, yes I do know won Daniken was writing later. This is a comparison, okay?)

Inevitably, when Nigel Kneale reflects this in the darker mirror of 'Quatermass' the aliens instead keep us bound and fearful. As in Wells' ’War of the Worlds’, the Martians ravage first their own planet then turn to ours. But Kneale brings in contemporary knowledge, that Mars is a dead planet, to incorporate a vaster timescale. The Martian capsules arrived and buried themselves deep into our prehistory and brainstems, psychically manipulating us into their servants. Our most horrific folk images, gargoyles and devils, are therefore really projections of this Martian control – boogeymen, internalised prison guards.

Like ’Experiment’, ‘Pit’ is at root a Freudian fable; we all have a brutish unthinking id within us, buried no more deeply than the dug-up capsule which sets off the story. But ’Experiment’ drew its horror from a thing which absorbed three men. The capsule here isn't the rocket, it could reduce us all to savagery! Kneale has commented this upping of the ante was a reaction to the late Fifties, which he perceived to be “a more violent time”.

Argubaly it puts its two predecessors together, the resurgence of the regressive brutes hanging out in our back-brains from 'Experiment' combined with the sinister, unknowable, puppet-master aliens of 'Quatermass II'. And perhaps partly for this reason it was this third instalment which would become the fulcrum, the template for much Brit SF which followed.

Perhaps its shallowest but most widespread influence was the idea that scientists might have some place in science fiction. In pulpy sci-fi scientists were either megalomaniac adversaries for action men heroes, worringly brainy Lex Luthors to be struck down by brawny Supermen, or ray-gun-supplying equivalents to Q from James Bond. Here it is the scientists who are the protagonists, pitted against the military and bureaucracy. One stands for the open, enquiring mind; the other the closed and blinkered. Quatermass spends more time struggling against stiff shirt Colonel Breen than any Martians, who he describes as “a career militarist of the worst type... with a slide-rule mind.”

Of course, like most science fiction the science isn’t exactly what you'd call scientific. When Breen tells Quatermass “you’re letting your imagination run away with you”, you can’t help but feel the slide-rule mind has a point. For a scientist he seems to have a shaky grasp of the distinction between theory and conjecture. After deciding the capsule is from another planet he seems to pick on Mars almost arbitrarily, which then becomes canonical for the rest of the series. Not for these great minds all that slow slog of consolidated research, they proceed by flashes of insight. (Most commonly followed by dramatic music.) Roney’s opticencephalaorgaphi (to you and me, a thought projecting machine) turns out to have been built as a hobby, the way someone else might knit a sweater. When the script describes him as “unscientifically impulsive”, you sense this is meant as a compliment.

The shameless science-as-magic of ’Doctor Who’ is still some way off. But the scientist is being fused with the creative visionary who stands against the weight of tradition. In a telling exchange Breen complains “your imagination’s running wild” and Quatermass exclaims ”Yes! Isn’t yours?” If the buried capsule becomes a metaphor for the Freudian id, space stands for the ego, for imagination. In this way the lack of any genuine scientific method doesn't really matter, as the science is only there to stand for something broader. Hence Quatermass’ poetic plea against the militarisation of exploration: “We are on the edge of a new dimension of discovery. It’s the great chance... to leave our vices behind. Not to go out there dragging our hatreds and our frontiers with us.” Perhaps its not just von Daniken that's being reversed. Surrealism prized the imagination as a ticket back to the savage state. Here it's what takes us out of it. Surrealism placed the imagination with the id, Kneale with the ego.

’Pit’ is most commonly billed as a battle between science and superstition. As Mark Fisher asserts, it “attempted to wholesale swallow Horror into SF by tracing a whole slew of ostensibly supernatural phenomena back to scientifically-plausible phenomena”. Indeed it’s even tempting to read these themes back into its predecessors. After all, they both mixed SF with horror and ’Experiment’ at least focused on the human slide back into irrationalism.

In ’Experiment’, a colleague crossly tells Quatermass “I’m a scientist not a convert to superstition”. But here, despite Fisher, science will have surprising allies before the series is out. In fact, the storyline is almost strung along Quatermass’ journey of acceptance of superstition. Early on, he has an uneasy encounter with a reader of tea leaves. But when a local Vicar later expects Quatermass’ disdain he tells him “on the contrary I agree with you”. (Similarly in the later ’IV’, (aka ‘Conclusion’ the Kapps' Jewish ceremony is treated sympathetically.) “Ever study legends?” Roney asks him. “Legends gave us the first clue in this business.”

So it becomes the fusion of scientific knowledge and superstitious notions of the devil that save the day. Nigel Kneale is no Richard Dawkins. The serial closes with the Vicar sitting at Quatermass’ side, in an echo of the way he worked alongside a journalist and police inspector in 'Experiment'. Similarly, susceptibility to the Martian’s powers is – inevitably enough - greatest in the feebler craniums of women and the lower orders. But it’s also associated with enhanced mental powers – such as psychic sensing. We’re told the humans who served the Martians had been engineered “bigger brains”. Those bigger brains alone can mean merely better servants to the Martians, science alone is necessary but not sufficent for what the human race requires.

Pixley’s notes to the DVD collection mention the BBC hierarchy disliking Quatermass’ concluding speech, claiming it put him “into a pulpit”. (It was gone from the otherwise faithful film version.) Indeed, ’Pit ‘ does contain the same humanist notions as ’Experiment’; we are not merely the puppets of Martian monkeying, we have our own selves. But ’Experiment’ suggests our better nature can appear as soon as whistled for. Here there is nothing automatic about it. Quatermass’ speech does not solve anything but comes after the final battle. And he appears not as exaltory but somber and resigned; he walks out of the TV studio after making it, as if unconvinced of his own hopes. In short it will be a struggle to “overcome the Martian in us”; in the classic quote it is entirely possible that “this will be their second dead planet” if we don't get our thinking caps on. And our main weapons in that struggle will be knowledge and rationalism, catalysed by a heavt dose of imagination.

(Historical footnote: lest the big Q's reference to “race riots” now sound reactionary, it refers not to civil rights activism but anti-immigration riots which were then besetting England, most infamously in Notting Hill. The digging crew in the opening include a black workman. As noted in 'The Quatermass Trilogy: A Controlled Paranoia' his straightforward portrayal is replaced in the later movie version by “a stereotypical, superstitious Negro of the eyeball-rolling variety”, a shift which almost works to enhance the original intent. Yet as they also note he is the only black character in the original trilogy, suggesting intergration had its limits even to the liberal mind.)

Continuing thanks to RedSock

Coming soon! Not the last word at all about 'Quatermass'...

Saturday 11 October 2014


The Old Market, Brighton, Mon 29th Sept

Hawkwind, I discovered recently, now have their own covers band. Which is pretty weird when you think about it. Cover bands are of course a red rag to rock fans. Fans like to listen to the original band with the original line-up, ideally playing an original album in the correct track order. They can become almost as obsessive as ornithologists; if they insist on seeing a particular line-up with the original bass player, it's not necessarily because they think it will sound better or even different that way. It's just what they want to come and see, something to tick from the checklist.

But what if you've been in the same band, playing the same songs for decade after decade? Don't you hit a point where you effectively become your own covers band? And the whole business of staying true, of keeping it like it was, doesn't that hasten the process? Stalwartism can be an albatross.

And past reputation, that risks weighting the albatross. As argued here only recently “you couldn't overstate the importance of Hawkwind if you tried. They're a credible candidate for the most important band in the history of everything, ever.” A reputation based on the classic 'space trilogy' they produced early in the Seventies, culminating in the legendary live album 'Space Ritual'. But if they weren never quite the same sonic visionaries again, they carried on releasing classic albums throughout the decade. (This account by my blogroll buddy Murray Ewing is a pretty good guide.)

Except of course the Seventies are now a long time ago. Plus, as most reading this will already know, the two founders irrevocably fell out with Dave Brock booting Nik Turner from the band. (Twice over. The history of Hawkwind can be confusing.) Picture if Paul McCartney had continued the Beatles without John Lennon. Or, more accurately as Turner was always the frontman, Brock would be Brian Wilson or Jerry Dammers – a pivotal figure who was not necessarily terribly visible.

Which leads to the question - with all these changes and setbacks, combined with the heightened expectations people have of Hawkwind, have they been blown into becoming their own covers band? And their actual covers band are actually redundant? Let's take some pointers...

The merch stall notably only sells T-shirts. Okay, maybe there was a bag you could buy, but none of the actual music. And there must be more same-band T-shirts being sported here than at any gig I've ever been to. Hawkfans are clearly the Deadheads of the UK. It made the whole thing feel almost like some kind of rally.

Yet a fair percentage of the audience are young folk, and they seem to know as many of the songs as me. (Which left me wondering, when I first saw the band early in the Eighties, were any of the old timers there heartened to see the fresh faces of me and my schoolmates? Thinking about it – probably not.)

It is an oldies set-list. Yet quite an eclectic one, which ignores their token hit single. Their unreproducable early years quite sensibly go unreproduced, with most emphasis on the riff-based tracks of the mid to late Seventies. 'Steppenwolf' and 'Reefer Madness' are the order of the day. Notably, the politics and drugs references of the Sixties underground remain intact. If anything there's a disproportionately high number of political songs, including 'Uncle Sams On Mars' (in a different, more abrasive version) and a new track accompanied by an Occupy photo-montage.

The lengthy instrumental breaks were retained, but rather than wig-out sessions were more like regular solos. The keyboard section of 'Orgone Accumulator' in particular felt like it had dropped in from somewhere else, merely interrupting the track. At other times it felt like the music was being made a sonic backdrop while the filmshow or the dancers did something. The theatre-show notion that only one thing can happen at once, that couldn't be more counter to the crazy fugue states of the early days.

The band are extremely tight and proficient, and Mr Dibs makes for a decent enough frontman. But they're polished, they're in control. The classic space rock band has carved out some turf for itself down here on Earth. They're not their own covers band. The Hawk is still a hawk not an albatross, but does much less of the actual hunting. It's like an underground form of showbiz.

Nothing is more likely to tug at my sense of nostalgia more than this band. Those basslines are my Proustian cake. But in the great schism of the Church of Hawkwind, I guess I'm more a dissenter and a Turnerite than a devout Brockian. (His post-Hawkwind outfit Inner City Unit reviewed here. Which makes you like the Protestant heretics breaking from Catholicism, there's less of the flamboyance and the ostentation, and the congregation is normally smaller. But perhaps its stayed more attached to the roots of the thing, the Church of Hawkwind versus the Gospel.

'Motorway City' may not be most people's first thought for a Hawkwind classic. But for me it dates from the time I was first getting into the band, and represented everything about why they mattered to me – euphoria and escape given a science fictiony spin. Steppenwolf (the band, that is) gave you the image of the biker sailing on the open road, but Hawkwind upped the ante with a whole city on the move. (Was it written about the then-still-intact Peace Convoy? I don't suppose we'll ever know.) Plus it was one of the live numbers where an instrumental break actually was an instrumental break.

Concorde 2, Brighton, Wed 1st Oct

Goat hail from Korpilombolo, a small town so far to the north of Sweden that it was never truly Christianised and pagan traditions still thrive. The music they play is simply the folk music of this town, and its something they've done since childhood. It's a blend of psychedelic funk and afrobeat, the latter influence stemming from a Voodoo witch doctor who one day decided to decamp there. They now live together in a commune from where they await “the return of the horned one”.

On the other hand, they might not do. There doesn't seem to be any history of the band before they were gigging in Gothenburg and a reliable source of gossip states they don't even spell the town's name right on their website. But the point of the story is more likely that it's a good story. Its one of those stories which should be true, to the point where the fact that it isn't becomes almost trivial.

Of course some might want to argue that, much like their origin story, with their wacky masks and crazy costumes there's something of a simulation to it all. And of course as the record shows we at Lucid Frenzy take a dim view of simulation. Like New Wave was to punk, have they taken volatile unpredictable freeform psychedelic music and bottled it, make it neat and tight, made it marketable? While they frequently go into lengthy instrumental breaks they notably keep to the beat. There's nothing that teeters on the edge.

But if there's no actual derangement to their music, there's no shortage of abandon. With many bands you can tell when they're coming to the climax of the main set, when they start pulling out enough stops to make sure they get clapped back on. With Goat the gig's pretty much at that fever pitch the whole way through. They're quite unrelentingly up.

Besides, lacing afrobeat with psychedelia actually makes for a pretty good cocktail drug. Psychedlia could get ungrounded quite quickly, and only some of its practitioners were able to fly through space in the way that lack of grounding required. Even something like Pink Floyd's 'Interstellar Overdrive' needed a heavy riff to moor it at either end of the track, more barrage baloon than rokcet. Here the afrobeat provides that grounding, stops things floating off into noodliness or indulgence. It's sky meets earth, head aligned with feet. And the afrobeat has enough space within it to stay insistently punchy without ever becoming merely repetitive. (Within tracks. There's perhaps not a massive scope to the sound between tracks.) In the Guardian, Paul Lester described their music asParliament covering Can's 'Tago Mago' with Bhundu Boys and the Incredible String Band, or a super-jam involving Faust, Funkadelic, Fairport Convention and Fela Kuti.” Which sounds like a magic potion of some sort.

And another besides, the truly out-there psychedelia was non-mainstream music which worked best in a non-mainstream setting. And the squat centres and free festivals it used to happen in, they've all been supressed in recent years. It simply won't work as well in a venue that clamps shut at 10.30pm so they can fit a club night in. Goat's more concentrated, more directed music fits better inside those confines. While notably their audience is the Hawkwind audience with the proportions inverted – a young and boisterous crowd with a fair smattering of us old 'uns.

The neologism I'd coin for it is 'bironic'. In one sense it feels a knowing parody of this sort of music, blowing up the absurdity with over-the-top fancy dress. And yet at the same time it's so compelling that you cannot help but be swept up in it. It's self-mocking and it's genuine. It's to psychedelia what the Fucked Up gig was to hardcore. And, where we're at right now, perhaps it's bironic men and women we need to come and rescue us. There's no point trying to imagine ourselves back in the Sixties, where people blithely fancied The Man would never be able to take their music. But if we're all just going to smile knowingly like a bunch of hipsters there's no point in our showing up. We could just as easily feel self-satisfied at home. The absurdity becomes the spoon of sugar that helps the medicine go down. And the medicine can still work. (According to the Urban Dictionary, bironic actually means “ironically bisexual” or some such. Whatever, mate...)

Because at the end of the day Goat seem to have the same bit between their teeth that pyschedelic music always had. Which is the same as the instinct that makes a child melt down all his plastic toy soldiers - it's to melt everything back into one again. The masks and costumes aren't just an image gimmick, but the age-old carnivalesque trigger to the loss of self. The singers wave branches across the audience like magic sticks, and indeed once you've been annointed it feels impossible to stay outside of things. The perfect Goat gig would be where we all show up in masks.

And in fact after the gig I stumbled across this quote from band spokesman Mr Goatman: “When you make music in a collective, the individual is unimportant. The music I partake in making has little to do with me as a person; there’s something else at play.... For us, it’s unimportant who we are.” Quite so, Mr Goatman.
Goat probably don't come from a small town in northern Sweden where old pagan rites are still practised. But after seeing them live you could imagine they did. Which is probably the part that counts.
Not from Brighton. Not from anywhere near Brighton. Hey, would you rather have something local or decent footage..?
Fabrica, Brighton, Mon 22nd Sept

The work of American experimental film-maker Stan Brakhage is something I have always enjoyed whenever I've come across them. (Even though I am not exactly what you'd call a subject expert.) True, he's very much yesterday's avant-garde. But I suspect at least some of the appeal may stem from that. Starting in (yes, really) the early Fifties he used the most lo-fi technology, even of the day. Partly due to working practices including marking or multi-exposing the film frame itself, you pretty much have to see his work on old-style film reel projections. (At the Barbican's 'Watch Me Move' exhibition a few years ago, his was the only work to be shown this babbage engined way!)

Though coming after the classic Modernist era, Brakhage is in that way very Modernist – rather than trying to naturalise film grammar in your mind until you take it for granted, he ruthlessly homes in on everything that's unique to the medium of film, and uses that as his native language. He's less using film to talk than he is talking film. But more than that, his non-narrative semi-abstract works are almost like Pollock paintings – you're best off going to see them on a big screen rather than catching them on an iPhone while you queue for a cheeseburger.

His linked series of 'Dog Star Man' films, made between '61 and '64 and described herein as “a hypnotic visual feast”, is given a live score by local impro collective Reds. (Themselves described as “an amorphous psychedelic beast”.) Wind instruments blow up squalls while violins pluck and keyboards throw up tones. Perhaps the nearest to a conventional sound comes from the guitar, whose reverby lines live up to that psyschedelic tag with echoes of Robby Krieger. (At points even the Dead Kennedys' East Bay Ray came to mind!) The guitar can be like the skeleton of the sound, around which the other players mass. The programme tells us they're recently formed but there doesn't seem to be any casting about for themes – spirited yet accomplished, they strike up straight away. While at the same time the daunting-sounding seventy-plus minute duration of the films seems to allow them to grow bolder and wilder.

Unlike other films he made, it seems Brakhage wanted 'Dog Star Man' to be silent. Yet the programme tells us his widow okayed this performance. Personally, I side with the YouTube poster who states “this needs some crazy weird music”. After all, why stimulate just one sense?

And you know the magic is realy working when the synaesthesia takes hold. It comes in stages. Brakhage's rapid-cut and overlaid images are sometimes from abstract and sometimes from natural sources. They also vary massively in scale, from a solar corona (the High Altitude Observatory of Boulder, Colorado are thanked) to close-ups of the human face and body. (The title might be a portmanteau between the dog star and the recurring shots of a man with his dog.) Other images might well have been microscopic. But you stop making the distinctions after a while. Like the overlaid images, everything starts to multi-expose on your mind.

Similarly, having the musicans play in semi-darkness around the screen stops you differentiating between them too much. You can't observe whether the violinist or keyboardist made that particular sound (and round here its not always obvious), so you just take in how those sounds combine. In your mind, they move as one.

But after a while, when the magic is really working, you stop even diferrentiating between sound and vision. The soundtrack might well be subsequent to the film, but the two start to coalesce and you simply see what you hear, and vice versa. It all becomes one experience.

Chiefly, the word from that description of Reds that rang with me wasn't even “psychedelic” but “amorphous”. The experience is incohate without being formless, a state of flux which never settles – like swirling dots which may or may not be joined together. It's the suggestion of form, without ever spelling anything out, that sets your mind racing.

Getting hopelessly carried away, as is my wont, and riffing on the cosmic imagery I started to imagine the period just after the Big Bang, where nothing was yet locked down, before things had to become thing-like, when the universe was effectively a stem cell and everything still had the potential to become anything.

Which may be the basis of those repeating scenes of the man (actually Brakhage himself) and dog struggling to climb a snowy mountain. (An unusually recognisable image for Brakhage.) Significantly, in a typical violation of standard film grammar, we're never shown if he's made it to the top or even get to glimpse the peak. Perhaps in some ways the solar corona so frequently cut to stands for the peak, something unattainable yet still to be reached for.

The film not having a soundtrack becomes like Shakespeare not coming with many stage directions or authoral notes, it just increases the opportunities. But it doesn't work like the open ending to a novel, where you're given some information and left free to speculate what's left. You don't come away with your own reading. It's more like a space you can hang out in, with no end to the free association.

A better way to spend a Monday evening I simply cannot imagine.

Brakhage's film in full...

Various commenters come up with multiple suggestions of other pieces of music to play in a parallel browser window. Perhaps the John Cage thing would be to choose another YouTube page at total random, and try that. Or you could if you so desired try the below, an entirely separate performance from Reds (but sounding every bit as good as the one I saw)...

Coming soon! Back to 'Quatermass'...

Friday 3 October 2014


This new instalment in our overview of the classic SF series 'Quatermass', as part of our new feature on the Museum of Forgotten Futures, is also considered unsuitable for children and those of an anti-plot-spoiler disposition.

Though made by the same team of scripter Nigel Kneale and director Rudolph Cartier, ’Quatermass II’ is perhaps the oddity of the celebrated ’Quatermass’ trilogy. While (as we've seen) the first and (as we’ll see) third series concerned themselves with our overcoming the primitive in ourselves to head boldly into the future, ’QII’ gets phobic about the present. Of course, counter-intuitive as it may sound, much science fiction is future-phobic – but here that dystopian future has arrived and set up shop with no-one even noticing.

Perhaps for that reason ’QII’ is the least shown or spoken of. The first series is famous for being groundbreaking (and for the iconic scenes of Westminster Abbey) even if so little of it has survived, while the third is the one that actually gets watched. This remains true even if we include the almost as rarely-shown Hammer movie version.

But when it is spoken of, 'QII' is almost always referred to as “the zombie one” or “the British Body Snatchers”. It came out only shortly before the celebrated Don Siegel film ’Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ (1955 and ’56 respectively), both featuring alien invaders who take over human bodies and strip them of all individuality. But before we rush to cry ‘zeitgeist’ there are some crucial differences…

’Body Snatchers’ took the reassuring form of small-town America and undermined it. The signature scene is where the taken-over townsfolk are seen milling about, acting to assuage the suspicions of some strangers. As soon as the strangers board their bus, the townsfolk congregate to a single point – human individuals reduced to a hive mind. ’QII’ takes the familiar English landscape (a village and its surrounding countryside) and replaces it with a sinister one. The village of Winnerton Flats has been usurped by a portakabin new town of the kind then springing up around post-war England, and a secret base which was actually a real Shell refinery.

The plant’s police are another example of this. Regular policemen in ’Quatermass’ are generally portrayed as soft-hearted sentries, forever reiterating “you’re not really supposed to go in there sir, it’s a top secret base… oh very well, but be quick before me Sergeant gets back then”. But these are black-clad and ruthless authoritarians, barking orders, ignoring entreaties or enquiries. (And so of course much more reminiscent of the police we actually encounter nowadays!)

To underline the transformation, we’re given two separate sets of visitors to remind us what a great place the old place was – a tramp who praises the villagers’ kindnesses (played by none less than Wilfred Brambell) and a picnicking family, still keen to live out the rustic English dream on what looks suspiciously like a mudflat. But the key line’s given to a curmudgeonly old buffer in the pub, who pontificates about Doctors: “Doctors all work for the government, don’t they? When there was less government about things were better, I know that.”

For all its similarities to ’Bodysnatchers’, ‘QII’ is more reminiscent of Frodo’s return to the Shire at the end of ’Lord of the Rings’ – to find it corrupted by the very evil he’d been away fighting. (Though of course Tolkien dismissed any readings of this section as a comment on the nature of post-war Britain, just as Jack Finney, author of the original ’Body Snatchers’ novel, did of America.)

’Bodysnatchers’ is one of those films that engenders two quite polarised readings – some seeing in it a Cold War anti-Soviet fable, others a critique of middle class small-town conformity. (‘Pod people’ even came to be a generic term of abuse for suburbanites.) To help us overcome this dichotomy, let us throw in something to complete the triangulation of crossfire – JB Priestley’s 1953 short story ’The Grey Ones’. Priestley’s story is admittedly not great; it suffers from being schematic, at times feeling like little more than a checklist of modern conditions the author considers contribute to “greyness”. Nevertheless, this very deficiency allows it to act as a sort of skeleton key.

While for Priestley the Devil is behind all this, his infernal aim is not to turn us hedonistically sinful or wicked but “to make mankind go the way the social insects went, to turn us into automatic creatures, mass beings without individuality, soulless machines of flesh and blood”, pushing us “nearer the bees, ants, termites”. While his chief characters comments “the Grey Ones must have almost finished the job in some of those [Soviet] countries”, the Soviet threat is explicitly ruled out as their cause, in favour of modernity itself - a bureaucratised, mechanised society stifling us of our very essence.

It’s a similar story in ’QII’. In the first story Quatermass is constantly complaining about the Civil Servant Marsh. (“Hasn’t he had enough..? Damn them, damn them all! They spend their time obstructing whatever you’re trying to do, and when you don’t do it properly, they’re straight down on your neck.”) But Marsh is not a major character, indeed his chief function seems to be to give Quatermass someone to explain the basics of rocket science to – a sidekick with delusions of being an adversary. The Experimental Rocket Group seems to operate with a fair amount of de facto autonomy.

All this is over in ’QII’, where they are being sidelined and starved of funding by a bureaucratised (and, as we find out, alien-controlled) Ministry. But the infection is inside the Rocket Group too. The mathematician Pugh complains he once used his own brain “to benefit mankind”, now he merely presses buttons.

But even if this is not an explicitly anti-Soviet theme but a meditation on the modern condition, isn’t all the veneration of the pre-war world inherently conservative? We’ve already heard the old man in the pub complaining of doctors being “government men” a mere decade after the creation of the NHS. Indeed it would be easy enough to read both Priestley and ’QII’ as a critique of the post-war social contract – such iniquities as valuing new houses for workers over preserving country estates, or attempting to place toffs under the same scrutiny and regulation the rest of us have always undergone.

All this is doubtless true of Priestley, and perhaps ’QII’ as well – except here we get a googly ball thrown at us. Traditionally, before George Romero reset zombie films it was always the serfs who were made into the zombies – mindless drones, effectively automatons before automation. (Check out Hammer’s 1966 shocker 'Plague of the Zombies' for a classic example.) Priestley and Kneale both break this rule, but in different ways. Priestley presents the Grey Ones as acting as a cabal, always attempting to take over the top positions. (“They work together in teams. They arrange to get jobs for one another, more and more influence and power.”) Like his exporter protagonist, Priestley consequently has little interest in the lower orders. But in ’QII’ it is specifically only people in positions of power who are overtaken - which includes the plant’s police but not the lowly construction workers.

It’s consequently the plant’s workers who tumble the plot and rise to destroy it, marching upon it in the night as if the villagers in Frankenstein had speed-read the Communist Manifesto before springing into fiery-torched action. Mobs are a staple of science fiction and they always stand for the herd mentality, little separating them from the Thing in the previous story. Here the mob contrast with the zombies to become the clued-up ones! They cut off the supply of gases the aliens feed off, an effective metaphor for the withdrawal of labour if ever there was. “You are destroying the process which you have worked to create” they’re informed over the loud-hailer, “you and your comrades.” The aliens offer them a slap-up feed in the canteen and even a soothing burst of Worker’s Playtime – but to little avail.

Arguably, what the whole thing is really about is dehumanisation through commodification. Something has interposed in human relationships. We have come to treat each other as machines, and in so doing have come to think like machines. And the people who resist this the most, inevitably enough, are the people who notice this the most – the people most treated like machines.

Could we be looking at one of those rare points where new left and old right find a kind of common ground, and the more regulated world of the post-war social contract is being given a deserved critique? Well, let's not get carried away. It could also be claimed that this plot-line is just as ‘small-c’ conservative as the rest of the series. Though the end of the war had seen waves of strikes, by ’55 we were deep into a new era of relative peace between the classes. Revolting workers might then have seemed as old-world as quaint English villages like Winnerton Flats. Perhaps not to the same degree as today, where the Miners' Strike seems a fitting subject for musicals. But old-world nonetheless. Moreover, their activity notably swells as a result of Quatermass’ oratory, his commanding RP tones contrasting with their faux-Irish. (In the following episode a voice-over carefully explains they had been acting under his “instruction”. So that's alright then.)

Kneale was apparently inspired into this plot-line when scouting locations at oil refineries, and finding the workers unaware of what happened in their own plants. With one plot alteration (taking away the presence of other alien bases sighted in other countries), this might have become the ending - the workers heroically taking down the base but blowing themselves up with it. (The other series all end with the sacrifice of another, after all.)

However, all this happens in the penultimate episode – with the result that the explosive destruction of the base serves to overshadow the actual ending – where Quatermass flies to the alien’s planet to destroy them. As it is, in the next episode he alone seems to have survived. (A public school education being of course a good defence against explosions.) Indeed in the film version (unlike it's predecessor scripted by Kneale), this is almost what happens. The rocket still goes up, but unmanned and intercut with the battle at the plant. Strictly speaking it’s still the rocket which saves the day, but the plant remains the focus of the action. Admittedly, this does also lead to the aliens appearing from the domes like lumbering Godzillas – an awkward retreat into B-movieness. (And even if we were to overlook this lapse, the TV version would still rank as superior overall.)

The actual ending doesn’t just suffer from being anti-climactic but also (with all the rocket ship and alien planet business) from being ambitiously beyond the effects technology of the time. However, in it’s favour it does right one problem which has beset the series to that point.

Characters are forever suddenly speaking in a robotic, monotonised voice - with no-one around them seeming to notice these tell-tale signs are happening all over again. When Pugh takes the rocket up with Quatermass we are already well aware he’s become zombified. However, Quatermass reveals mid-journey he knows this himself. He does nothing, perhaps because Pugh’s presence on the rocket is a fait accompli, perhaps partly because he doesn’t want to believe this of his old friend. Their final confrontation is transformed from a telegraphed twist into something terribly inevitable. Which really couldn't fit the theme better.

Overall, if the actual ending of ’QII’ limps in after the wallop of the previous episode, it’s still a significant improvement on the squib which concluded its predecessor. If this middle section is little-seen, it really deserves to be better known.

Coming soon! A brief foray into other stuff.
Coming shortly after that! More 'Quatermass'...