Friday, 31 October 2014

MONSTERS VERSUS ALIENS (THE LEGACY OF 'QUATERMASS')

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)

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