Friday, 3 October 2014

'QUATERMASS II' (1955)


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'...

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