“If another of these things should ever be found we are armed with knowledge, but we also have knowledge of ourselves and of the ancient, destructive urges within us that grow more deadly as our populations increase and approach in size and complexity those of ancient Mars. Every war crisis, witch hunt, race riot, purge, is a reminder and a warning: we are the Martians. If we cannot control the inheritance within us, this will be their second dead planet.”
These words of Professor Bernard Quatermass were broadcast to the nation on the evening of 26th January 1959; they were not heeded. Twenty years later, on 24th October 1979, the professor again addressed the nation – those who were able to receive the transmission, the country in the grip of an energy crisis – and spoke fiercely of his disappointment in what the world had become.
“I am ashamed to think that I might have contributed in any way to this disgusting charade. What we’re looking at there is a wedding, a symbolic wedding between a corrupt democracy and a monstrous tyranny, two superpowers full of diseases, political diseases, economic diseases, social diseases, and their infections are too strong for us, the small countries, and if we catch them we die. We’re dying now.”
The occasion was the orbital linkup between two space missions, one American, one Russian, on which he had been invited to speak for the “Hands in Space” television broadcast, but his real goal in travelling from his retirement in Scotland was to seek news of his runaway granddaughter Hettie.
On arrival in London his taxi driver refused to take him as far as the studio, saying the area was unsafe; travelling on foot, Quatermass was attacked by a gang and only saved through the intervention of radio astronomer Joe Kapp. Expected to speak in praise of the project, Quatermass’ angry comments do not go down well in the studio, and moments later, on live television, the mission ends in disaster, all hands lost.
Invited to leave the city with Joe, Quatermass travels with him to the country to a small facility located near the stone circle Ringstone Round, believed to have possibly been a prototype for Stonehenge. Past Joe’s own garden there is a smaller circle which his archaeologist wife Claire calls “the Stumpy Men,” the 5,000 year old Neolithic burial ground of the Beaker Folk.
The belief they will be safe away from the London gangs is short lived as a procession of Planet People arrive, trampling through the facility grounds to reach Ringstone Round. Rejecting technology, they are an aggressive youth movement who believe they have been chosen to leave the planet and start a new life, but as they arrive at their destination and the sky lights up instead their bodies are burned, leaving only dust among the ruined stones…
The first three adventures of Bernard Quatermass and the British Experimental Rocket Group had been screened by the BBC from 1953 to 1959 starring Reginald Tate, John Robinson and André Morell, with successful remakes of all three as Hammer feature films starring Brian Donlevy (twice) and Andrew Keir. With former BBC staff writer Nigel Kneale no longer working for the organisation, it was ITV regional franchise Thames via Euston Films who returned the Professor to British screens, now played by Sir John Mills.
Filmed for the first time in colour for television, the original 35mm negatives have been restored by Network for their Blu-ray review, presenting the four episodes both individually as originally broadcast and as The Quatermass Conclusion, the edited feature length version intended for cinematic release. Freed from the financial restrictions of the BBC, the production value is higher than any of the previous serials, particularly in the sets featuring two custom built radio telescope dishes (“Dog Dish and Cat Dish”) and the numbers of fully costumed extras.
Contrasting to the modern immediate threat from space of The Quatermass Experiment and Quatermass II, like Quatermass and the Pit the threat here is something left behind in ancient times which still exerts a force on humanity, calling to the young men and women who organise themselves as the Planet People, but once again while events are seen as local the threat quickly escalates to global.
Opposing rational thought, a UFO mothership cult wishing to abandon the Earth and seek a new home, the Planet People are not only proud of their deluded beliefs they’re violently anti-intellectual (“Rockets have made holes in the skin of the world!”), destroying anything which threatens their wilful ignorance (“Stop trying to know things!”). Led by Ralph Arliss’ Kickalong, he is both charismatic and psychotic, charming until he gets his way then gunning down those who have outlived their usefulness.
The seventies were a troubled decade where those seeking alternatives celebrated new age mysticism, with both Ringstone Round and the Stumpy Men featuring in a narrative which followed closely on the HTV serial Children of the Stones (1977) and Doctor Who’s encounter with The Stones of Blood (1978). Kneale would later visit Stonehenge with the script for Hallowe’en III: Season of the Witch, though it was credited solely to director Tommy Lee Wallace following financier Dino De Laurentiis’ insistence that more graphic violence be included, and ancient energy trapped in rock was also the basis for The Stone Tape (1972).
Contrasting this are Quatermass, Kapp and his colleagues at the Josiah Doyle observatory where the focus is on research: working the problem is the only way to bring a solution. The Professor himself is not portrayed as superhuman, and while he knows his field he seeks outside expertise when he strays beyond it, relying on both Kapp and District Commissioner Annie Morgan (2001: A Space Odyssey’s Margaret Tyzack) to provide insight, resources and access.
Always the right man in the wrong place, Mills is a more sensitive but less intellectual Quatermass than his predecessors. “If I could miss that, what am I missing now?” he says of the realisation of why his granddaughter became alienated along with the rest of her generation, but in truth he is also an older man, weary of a changing world.
The script has been criticised as an old man’s fear of the youth which has replaced him, but the idea that the enemy was already at work within humanity as a species is present in both Quatermass II in the “zombies” of Winnerden Flats, puppets of the alien invasion, and the Martian race memory driving the urge for racial purity and purging deviations in Quatermass and the Pit.
Kneale had examined dystopia before in his adaptation of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954) and The Year of the Sex Olympics (1968) but not in Quatermass where the other tales were ostensibly set in “our” world while this clearly isn’t. It’s the bleakest of all of Kneale’s extant productions, with Metropolitan Contract Police (“pay cops”), gangs attacking the armoured vehicles as recreated in Children of Men, terrorism both domestically and worldwide, North Sea gas pipelines smashed, power cuts across the country and the elderly homeless scraping a living in junkyards.
Also incongruous is seeing Bernard Quatermass in the countryside; even Winnerden Flats, though isolated, was industrial. Similarly, other than the haunting main theme, the overly intrusive synthesiser soundtrack undermines the drama, the classical score of the originals far stronger and remaining timeless.
What is more representative of Kneale’s established style are the scenes inside the television studio showing the importance of the media and how events are shaped before being presented to the public (newspaper reporters featured in both Quatermass II and Quatermass and the Pit, fulfilling the same role) but also in that they show a cross-section of society from the demanding director to the fag-in-her-mouth makeup lady who perches on the stairs waiting to be summoned and later the dancers who watch terrified as their show is hijacked by armed soldiers for a conference call of unfolding grim news.
Despite the resources available, the special effects are very poor, inexcusably so; while it could not be expected to compete with Star Wars, released two years earlier, and indeed with the very basic needs of an orbital rendezvous in the first episode (Ringstone Round) then a brief space shuttle excursion in the third (What Lies Beneath) it had no need to, but without even a starfield they fail to approach the level of detail or sophistication created by Gerry Anderson’s craftsmen over a decade before on Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, filmed instead on flat black.
While the impeccable performance of Mills, an Academy Award winning veteran who was knighted in 1976, is the backbone of the story, others are variable, with both the Kapps (Simon MacCorkindale, later Manimal, and Barbara Kellerman, later the White Witch in the BBC’s 1988 production of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) sliding from off-kilter to downright hysterical.
While Arliss, who appeared in Doctor Who’s Planet of the Spiders (1974), is suitably menacing and the unwashed dropouts of the Planet People as a whole are believable, like the BBC’s concurrent Blake’s 7 (whose second Space Commander Travis, Brian Croucher, appears as a pay cop in episode four, An Endangered Species) the actors supplied by central casting to play the gangs and the squaddies are too often miscast drama school darlings with little presence and less credibility, leaving the battle scenes on the streets of London hopelessly lame.
The planned dual format is not without problems, with episode three particularly suffering from deliberate padding designed to be cut from the cinematic release without impacting the plot, though the late night adult entertainment show Tittupy Bumpity can be viewed as another of Kneale’s attacks on the lowbrow fare offered to satiate the mass audiences, previously one of the subjects of his own Year of the Sex Olympics.
With Nigel Kneale recognised as a pioneer of the early days of British television drama, particularly the blending of science fiction and horror, presented in a realistic manner without pronounced affectation which connected with an audience only just becoming accustomed to mass communication, what is notable upon regarding this thirty years after original broadcast is the ripples it still generates within the genre.
The statement made by Professor Quatermass as he describes the threat facing the Earth (“The ripe crop can’t appeal to the reaper. I think this is the gathering time. The human race is being harvested!”) could easily describe the basis of the plot of Jupiter Ascending, released only this year, but more distinct are the parallels with 2009’s Torchwood: Children of Earth.
There, a powerful alien force which visited Earth in the past has returned, targeting the young, gathering them to be harvested, and instead of resisting the government allowed a troublesome sector of society to be taken in hopes the entity would be appeased while those who knew the truth and attempted to intervene were in turn targeted for elimination, and in the final confrontation (and after much padding), a sacrifice was made to save the planet.
The specifics may be different but the coincidences are so pronounced that had it been widely available at the time, Torchwood’s third “event” season would likely have been recognised as all but a remake of Quatermass. While the British Experimental Rocket Group and its founding member may be gone, they are remembered and celebrated by those who are not even aware they are doing so, but never having fought for notoriety, one feels that sat with his thermos flask of tea as he gazes at the stars of the night sky, perhaps Professor Quatermass would not object to having faded from sight.