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I Wish Bernard Were Here...

Quatermass - looking back at a sci-fi icon

By Daniel TessierPublished 2 years ago 13 min read

Who was Quatermass? A genius? A scientist, qualified in half a dozen disciplines? An explorer, on a quest to know the unknown? A pacifist, ruing the inevitability of war? A family man, trying to protect his own? A broken man, burdened by guilt? An idealist? An iconoclast? Or was he simply the avatar of Nigel Kneale, the man who created him? He was all these things.

On the 18th of July, 1953, episode one of The Quatermass Experiment aired on BBC television. Almost seventy years later, its influence on television drama in general, and science fiction in particular, is still being felt. These were the early days of television; previous forays into the still niche genre of science fiction has been adaptations of respected novels and short stories, or frothy adventures intended for children. With its horrific, scientifically-minded tone, Quatermass changed all this. This was serious science fiction for adults, written as thought-provoking, disturbing drama.

Nigel Kneale wrote The Quatermass Experiment as part of a long and hugely influential screenwriting career. He is known for his seminal 1954 adaptation of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, his early work adapting classic texts and his later career creating original science fiction and horror material for both the big and small screens. Quatermass cemented his reputation as a screenwriter and will forever be his greatest legacy. With his longtime collaborator Rudolph Cartier directing, Kneale created a unique piece of television history.

Bring Something Back

The original Quatermass, Reginald Tate

These were the days when space travel remained a theoretical possibility only, the forefront of rocket technology that had been the product of the arms race of WWII. Experiment exists in a lost future; an unspecified time at some point after 1953 in which the fear of the bomb is still with the British public but the march of progress is firmly going forward. The Experiment itself is the vision of Professor Bernard Quatermass: the first manned mission to space. Britain, on the forefront of science, although in cooperation with Australia. The three man crew includes a Briton, and Australian, and a German, quite forward thinking in those postwar years when international tensions were still high. A manned space mission offered a dream of inexorable progress in the face of postwar austerity. Yet it also reflected Kneale’s fears of the future. The possibility that science would yet do humanity great harm was clearly an element in the story of Experiment, as the mission loses control, the spacecraft drifting off course and finally crashing down to Earth with an unexpected content.

Three men went up in the spacecraft, yet only one returned: Victor Caroon. Shocked, unable to communicate, and somehow changed. He does not recognise his wife, Judith, a member of Quatermass’s team of specialists. Caroon’s tissue has been somehow altered. Shreds of information escape from his lips, but not in his own tongue. Slowly, Quatermass and his team realise the truth: the three astronauts have been altered merged, into one being, by some unknown force. A new life form has been born. Following an encounter with a cactus, Caroon absorbs plant matter into his system, mutating and escaping into the outside world, threatening England and all life on Earth with his relentless absorption. For 1950s audiences this was groundbreaking, frightening stuff, an astonishing glimpse of the unknown. Who could know what exists in the depths of space? Not Quatermass, who, driven by his own part in this catastrophe, risks his life to end the abomination.

The Quatermass Experiment starred Reginald Tate as Professor Quatermass, in my opinion a performance that has not been bettered. Although not Kneale’s first choice for the role – that was Andre Morell, who would play the character later – Tate was a veteran actor who brought a steely resolve to the part, couple with a troubled, human element that made Quatermass such a powerful character. Sadly, Tate died before production could begin on a sequel serial. What’s more, only the first two of the six episodes of Experiment exist; television in this period was still transmitted live, and only the first two instalments were ever committed to film.

The Destroyers

John Robinson in Quatermass II

Quatermass II featured John Robinson as the eponymous Professor. Robinson was a last minute replacement for Tate, and lacks the charisma that made Quatermass such an arresting character. His austere, almost callous performance is nonetheless powerful. The harder edge to his version of Quatermass is in character; we meet Quatermass here as a failure, his new rocket design having exploded catastrophically upon launch at Woomera, Australia. Robinson’s best scene comes early on, as he admits defeat to his colleagues and Paula, his daughter, aware that he shall never get funding to try his experiment again after such a tragedy.

Where the first Quatermass serial was an exploration of the hopes and fears of the new scientific age, Quatermass II is about the prospect of invasion and war. A mere ten years after the conclusion of WWII, the fear of invasion was not far from the minds of the British public. Both Cartier and Kneale’s wife, the author Judith Kerr, had fled the Nazis’ appalling treatment of the Jews in Germanic Europe. Fear of the unlike features prominently throughout the Quatermass serials, as does the fear of invasion, and conquest. Combine this with the increasing fear of Communist infiltration in the mid-fifties, the increasing industrialisation of Britain and ongoing militarisation, and the origins of Quatermass II become clear.

When Quatermass is called on by his prospective son-in-law to investigate a secret base, seemingly linked, somehow, to a shower of meteorites that have landed in southern England, he is drawn into a conspiracy that reaches to the highest echelons of government. The meteorites are nothing but vessels for an invading force of ammonia-based life forms, a collective intelligence that can infiltrate the bodies and minds of their victims and turn them to the invaders’ cause. As the terrifying scale of the infiltration becomes apparent, Quatermass and his few remaining allies are forced to fight the ‘ammonids’ themselves, taking the offensive in Quatermass II – the Professor’s own rocket design.

Mars, the Bringer of War

Andre Morell as Quatermass

The third serial, Quatermass and the Pit, is commonly considered the finest of the Quatermass tales. It’s a far more sophisticated piece of television, with the cautious steps towards a more filmic process in Quatermass II having come to a head in 1958 with this gripping, atmospheric piece. Andre Morell finally gets his turn as Quatermass. His version of the Professor is a somewhat posh, but with little arrogance. He’s a touch eccentric, less straight-laced than earlier versions, but unmistakeably intelligent, forthright, creative and highly moral. Quatermass and the Pit is an outright criticism of war, with the British Experimental Rocket Group being wrenched from the Professor’s hands and into those of his military counterpart, Colonel Breen. Space technology is being corrupted into weaponry, the growing nuclear threat hanging over the viewers’ heads making its way onto screen.

Kneale’s misanthropic streak begins to rear its ugly head in Pit. When proto-human remains are discovered beneath the earth during the building works in process at Hobb’s Lane, in London. The unprecedented finds threaten to rock science’s understanding of humanity’s evolution, but no one is prepared for just how much. For buried with those fossils is the remains of an alien spacecraft. Quatermass becomes involved in the investigation, and slowly pieces together the truth of the matter. The truth behind the centuries of hauntings at Hobb’s Lane. The truth behind all things supernatural. The truth of the influence of alien life on our own development.

Uncovering the remains of the craft’s occupants – insectoid creatures with devilish horned faces – Quatermass comes to the astonishing conclusion that, millions of years previously, alien life came to Earth. The Martians arrived, and moulded us in their image. Their intelligence, their power, their capacity to advance… and also their hatred, their fear of the unlike, their capacity for war and monstrous cruelty. Quatermass and the Pit is a frightening mix of science fiction and the supernatural, building to a terrifying climax that rips open the secrets of the human soul. Kneale uses these Martian devils as a fictional exploration for what he saw in the heart of humanity: a deep, disturbing darkness.

Enemy from Space

Brian Donlevy, the cinematic Quatermass

Quatermass didn’t only change the face of television; he influenced the course of cinema as well. Hammer Films bought the rights to create a movie adaptation of Experiment. With an eye on the American market, they cast Brian Donlevy, an actor known for tough guy and noir roles. Disliked greatly by Kneale, he does bring a certain steely authority to the part, but his bullish arrogance is miles from any of the television Professors. Nonetheless, 1955’s The Quatermass Xperiment – respelled to emphasise its mature ‘X’ certificate – was Hammer’s greatest success to date, and spurred the studio’s production of further sci-fi and horror films. The Quatermass Xperiment – marketed in the US as The Creeping Unknown – is the very first Hammer Horror.

Hammer planned to follow Xperiment with a wholly original Quatermass movie, but were denied the character rights by Kneale. They released X the Unknown, starring Dean Jagger as Doctor Adam Royston, a sort of simplified version of Quatermass. An atomic physicist, Dr Royston is given good character by Jagger’s performance, and he would have made a better Quatermass than Donlevy. Unlike the extraterrestrial threats faced by Quatermass, the ‘X’ is a molten being from the magma beneath the Earth’s crust. A product of our own world, still as full of mysteries as the depths of space. Hammer then acquired the rights to adapt the second Quatermass serial, and released Quatermass 2 in 1957. Titled Enemy from Space in the US, it again starred Brian Donlevy, making him the first actor to play Quatermass twice.

For reasons unclear, Hammer chose not to exercise their right to produce a film version of Quatermass and the Pit until 1967. The movie version, retaining its original title in the UK but going by the evocative Five Million Years to Earth in the US, made some tweaks to the storyline and streamlined it, but it was essentially the same. For the first time in colour, Quatermass returned to critical acclaim and this remains one of Hammer’s most popular films. Although Andre Morell was approached to reprise his role, Quatermass was played in the event by Andrew Keir. Keir’s Quatermass is gruff and no nonsense, but with a keen intelligence and a powerful screen presence, a vast improvement on Donlevy.

An Endangered Species

Sir John Mills as the good Professor

In spite of numerous attempts by the BBC to coax a new Quatermass serial out of Kneale during the 1960s, the Hammer version of Pit remained the only outing for the character during this decade. However, Kneale's career in television soared, and included such notable science fiction productions as The Year of the Sex Olympics and Beasts. By the 1970s, Kneale had a new Quatermass story to tell, and the success of his BBC-produced ghost story, The Stone Tape, led to the commissioning of a new, four-part serial. Goodwill of the part of the BBC faltered, however, and in the event, the final serial was produced by Verity Lambert and Ted Childs for Thames Television and Euston Films, for broadcast on ITV.

The 1979 serial was entitled simply Quatermass, although fans often refer to it as Quatermass 4 to distinguish it from its predecessors. Euston Films also released a cinematic cut of the production under the title The Quatermass Conclusion, another title sometimes attributed to the serial. For his final outing, Quatermass was played by respected actor Sir John Mills. Now an old man, Quatermass has lost much of his spark and vitality, but none of his intelligence and keen observation. While he comes across fairly weak during the opening scenes of the story, his involvement in the latest astronautical mission galvanises him. Mills's Quatermass is a weary old man, lacking in faith in humanity and its endeavours, but one who is revitalised by intellectual curiosity and causes he believes in. While the threat in Quatermass 4 comes in the nebulous form of an unknowable intelligence, harvested the youth of mankind through pagan rites, the driving force for the Professor himself is simply a need to find his missing granddaughter - Paula's daughter.

Quatermass 4 is the most pessimistic of all the serials, blatantly displaying Kneale's contempt for the direction in which culture developed through the twentieth century. Quatermass is a mouthpiece for Kneale, horrified by the violent, anarchic society around him. While Quatermass struggles to survive in the dystopian final years of the twentieth century, Kneale's issue was with the sixties and seventies, in which he saw a violent descent of humanity. While the final Quatermass serial is a chilling, evocative and lavishly produced piece of science fiction-horror, it is also a deeply cynical work that betrays an author terrified of youth and vitality. Kneale's own novelisation of the serial adds a great deal of depth to both plot and character, but fails to save the story.

An Uncertain Future

Jason Flemyng as Quatermass in 2005

Due to the far-reaching reputation of Kneale and the original Quatermass serials, interest in the Quatermass character remained strong through to the 1990s. Numerous attempts to produce a new cinematic version of Experiment faltered due to complex rights issues, while Kneale's pitch of a prequel serial, privisionally entitled Quatermass and the Third Reich, was met with little interest at the BBC. The ongoing story of Professor Quatermass ended in 1996, with a BBC radio production. The Quatermass Memoirs was a mix of archive material, interviews with Kneale and a new fiction strand in which we caught up with Quatermass, played once again by Andrew Keir, just prior to the events of Quatermass 4. This was Keir's last acting role; he died just a year later.

Nigel Kneale died in 2006, but he lived long enough to see his first, seminal script reach the screens once more. In 2005, digital channel BBC4 produced a low-budget remake of The Quatermass Experiment starring Jason Flemyng as the eponymous Professor. The one-off production was broadcast live, and featured a number of actors who were, or would become, well-recognised faces for genre television fans, including Mark Gatiss, Indira Varma and David Tennant. Richard Fell adapted the script, with Kneale acting as consultant. The production was generally quite effective, yet seemed slow, despite the greatly curtailed running time that seriously underran. Perhaps the fault was with not sufficiently updating the scripts; indeed, this version of the story exists in an even more vaguely defined time period than any of the original serials. While the live broadcast was seen as daringly experimental, the production came across as considerably less ambitious than the original serial, which went out live as necessity.

While the rights situation surrounding Quatermass remains complex, efforts continue to revive the character in some format. The latest such attempt is by the old stalwarts Hammer, returned from beyond the grave and producing movies once more. Occasionally news of a movie comes up, only to disappear again. Big Finish made moves to release audio dramas based on Quatermass, but were again scuppered by the rights tangle. Nonetheless, it can only be a matter of time before Professor Bernard Quatermass returns, in an updated production. For while times have changed and society has moved on, there is still a vast universe out there, full of unknown dangers. We need someone with intellect, curiosity, unshakable faith in science and a dogged bloody-mindedness to see us through. When the unknowable forces arrive from beyond, we need Quatermass.

science fiction

About the Creator

Daniel Tessier

I'm a terrible geek living in sunny Brighton on the Sussex coast in England. I enjoy writing about TV, comics, movies, LGBTQ issues and science.

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