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a grumpy old man’s whingeing over a modern world he barely understood and (perhaps not coincidentally) concerned with out-of-date issues. Indeed it was quite literally out-of-date, Kneale had written the script during 1972/73 but a perfect storm of false starts and delays had served to push back its production.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’...

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