Friday, 17 October 2014

'QUATERMASS AND THE PIT'

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'...

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