The Quatermass Experiment (1953/2005)

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While I’m delighted to see all the attention being given to the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who, I’m somewhat saddened to see a lack of any mention at all for another significant anniversary in the annals of television science fiction: July 18 saw the 60th anniversary of the 1953 début of one Bernard Quatermass, arguably the Doctor’s spiritual father.

Quatermass was a phenomenon in the 1950s, the first science-fiction/horror show to really go mainstream in British television and literally clear the streets when it was on. There were three six-part serials beginning with The Quatermass Experiment in 1953 then followed by Quatermass II in 1955 and Quatermass and the Pit at the end of 1958. The lead character was always the same, a leading British rocket scientist played initially by Reginald Tate but who sadly passed away before the sequel in which John Robinson was hastily cast; Andre Morell took over for the third story, and Sir John Mills subsequently played Quatermass in a 1979 big-budget production for ITV, the last new story to be filmed. All three of the original serials were also made into films – indeed, 1955’s The Quatermass Xperiment (as it was retitled) was the first horror outing for the small Hammer Film Productions and which persuaded them that the genre might be a good one to exploit more fully in future…

The film version is good (despite a miscast American actor Brian Donlevy starring as Quatermass) and has stood for a long time as the definitive record of the original story since the telecast has been mostly lost. Off-air recordings of the first two episodes do survive and were released on DVD by the BBC in 2005, but they are in a pretty poor condition: watchable for the connoisseur, but not broadcastable. Nonetheless they’re fascinating for a true fan of this sort of thing such as myself. The story revolves around the return of a rocket presumed lost which crash-lands near London; three crewmen were on board but only one is recovered, and he’s acting very strangely. In the end it’s clear he’s undergoing a violent metamorphosis and Quatermass is in a race against time to save the planet.

Episode 1 features a lot of people in mission control staring anxiously at monitors, before moving to the (well-realised) scene of the crash featuring a lot of 1950s archetypes behaving much as you’d expect working class characters to have responded to the Blitz just a few years before. Some of this is hopelessly anachronistic, and the way that the press are allowed to wander around the scene stopping everyone to ask questions is quaintly hilarious; still, it’s a revealing record of the post-World War 2 era and the ‘normal’ reaction of people of the time to rockets and spaceships. Episode 2 focuses more on questioning the surviving astronaut Victor Carroon (Duncan Lamount) and examining the ship for the answers to what went wrong and where the other crewmen are. Some of the recognisable cast members in attendance are Isabel Dean, Moray Watson and Paul Whitsun-Jones.

Sadly, just as things are getting interesting the surviving record comes to an end, leaving us to the modified film version and the novels to try and picture the rest. That is until 2005, when the BBC got a peculiar but inspired idea to remake the story – and not only that, but one that would be performed live just as the original serial had been. It was the first time that a live drama had been attempted by the Corporation in 21 years, and the tramsission even started with the same title card as the 1953 show had together with some of the same stock footage of rocket tests before moving to more modern scenes.

Commendably, the remake tried as much as possible to use writer Nigel Kneale’s original scripts. Obviously some things had to be pared down to make the original six-part, three-hour serial conform to a 100-minute feature-length slot, which includes the streamlining of the cast of characters. But watching the original and the remake back-to-back it’s genuinely remarkable just how much of the same dialogue is employed; admittedly the first episode is cut down from 30 minutes to just 10 but that’s just removing some of those terribly dated 1950s clichés that wouldn’t have worked for a 21st century audience in any case. By contrast, almost the whole of episode 2 is present and correct.

The 2005 Quatermass Experiment is an interesting, uh, experiment but also something of a niche curio simply down to the fact that dramas are so very rarely made live anymore. It’s clear that certain steps have to be taken to make it viable in the first place: whereas the 1950s version could mount a crash site in a studio, such a thing was never credible in 2005; similarly the primitive FX used to place the climactic showdown with a huge alien monster in Westminster Abbey might have worked in low-resolution black-and-white, but would be laughable if attempted in modern widescreen colour. Some of the workarounds that the 2005 production team find pay off well, but others are less so and the finale in particular is a very weird shift into the abstract in an empty warehouse doubling poorly for the Tate Modern turbine hall that leaves us frustrated for the contemporary spectacle of the original.

I recall watching the live broadcast of The Quatermass Experiment on April 2, 2005. It was the day that Pope Jean Paul II died, and indeed I still remember the exact scene where the BBC plastered a large newsflash banner across the screen (not just once but twice) that totally broke the atmosphere of the broadcast. As with all live productions there is the fear that something will go terribly wrong, but by and large it seemed to go pretty smoothly – I didn’t even notice one of the actors (Adrian Bower playing journalist James Fullalove) completely dry in one scene thanks to his co-star Paul Broughton pitching in to help out. Some of the sound mixes are a little off, and filmed inserts used as placeholders while the next scene is set-up go on a little too long and are overused, undermining some of the build-up of tension. In the DVD release of the broadcast the more obvious stumbles have been tidied up and that specific fluffed scene now replaced by footage from an earlier dress rehearsal to spare blushes, but there’s a fairly aggressive green colour grading to the video presentation and a hollowness to the black areas that’s disappointing and distracting.

I was surprised by just how much I had forgotten some of the cast that appeared in the broadcast: Adrian Dunbar as MOD investigator Lomax, the ever-wonderful Indira Varma as the wife of the returned astronaut Carroon (Andrew Tiernan), Isla Blair as the secretary of state – and especially Mark Gatiss as Quatermass’ assistant Paterson. Looking down the cast list I now notice there’s also a brief cameo as an art curator from someone who has only since made his name, Sherlock’s Andrew Scott.

Jason Flemyng played Quatermass, and in doing so became (after Andrew Keir in the 1967 film version of Quatermass and the Pit reviewed previously) the seventh actor to portray the part in only eight screen outings. That inconsistency goes a long way to explaining why the character never really successfully evolved from being just a name and a trope. Flemyng seemed to me then and indeed still now to be miscast in the role which requires a much more conventional and older figure. That said, he’s certainly a good actor and it’s possible that no one else was prepared to take on a role that required him to carry the live transmission for much of its running time, and especially the climax which is practically a single-hander scene. Fair play to him for having the nerve to take it on.

But at the time – and rewatching even now – Flemyng was unfortunately overshadowed by the other member of the main cast, one David Tennant as medical doctor Gordon Briscoe. Already showing an assured talent for rattling off technospeak to order, it’s hard to shake the feeling that he would have made a better Quatermass than Flemyng; but a lot of that is to do with the specific timing when this aired, which was exactly two days after the BBC had dropped the bombshell that Christopher Eccleston was leaving the just-relaunched Doctor Who series. Almost instantly Tennant’s name had been in the running to take the part (after having already made his name in Russell T Davies’ version of Casanova a few months earlier) and so the poor guy had to go into the final 48 hours of preparation for the live The Quatermass Experiment under intense media spotlight for a completely different project.

Perhaps that media storm contributed to how the 2005 remake attracted BBC Four’s fourth-highest ratings (The Curse of Steptoe, The Road to Coronation Street and The Alan Clark Diaries are the others) which despite the small glitches was hailed as a success (although not enough of one to tempt anyone to repeat the nail-biting experience!) It certainly cemented Tennant’s position as front-runner for the newly vacant TARDIS spot; he also features in one of the next nearly-goofs, happily retained in the DVD release, in which he’s required to run full-tilt from one part of the stage to another before cornering at ninety degrees, at which he clearly slips and comes close to sliding straight into an off-screen camera before catching himself and carrying on. Clearly such skills would come in handy in his new career as a Time Lord once he finally had a chance to sit down and decide to take the role on.

In all, the 2005 remake is steeped in almost as much history as the 1953 original; and in total, the Quatermass legacy over 60 years is one that should be remembered and celebrated with far more enthusiasm than it is being. It seems such a shame that Quatermass is so little remembered these days. Its most enduring visible legacy is arguably in paving the way for Doctor Who, and indeed the Third Doctor’s ‘exile on Earth’ time in the series was pretty much explicitly intended as a repurposing of the Quatermass format; Jon Pertwee’s first outing as the Doctor, “Spearhead from Space” reviewed here just a few days ago, is itself heavily inspired by the plot of Quatermass II. It’s a debt that was acknowledged in a nice verbal touch in “Remembrance of the Daleks” years later.

But right now, let’s pay homage ourselves to this remarkable trailblazing series and also to the talents of Nigel Kneale, without whom the television of (and about) the future might have been very different indeed.

The Quatermass Collection DVD boxset contains all the surviving recordings of the original 1950s BBC broadcasts. Quatermass: Conclusion contains the Sir John Mills 1979 serial but is currently out of print. The 2005 live BBC broadcast (including making-of and audio commentary from Tennant and Gatiss among others) and the three Hammer film adaptations are available separately on DVD. Quatermass and the Pit is also available in high-resolution on Blu-ray.

UPDATE (21/12/2015): When I wrote the above review it had been almost eight years between my watching the live broadcast of the 2005 The Quatermass Experiment and rewatching the DVD. While some things stood out clearly in my memory (the ‘Major news announcement’ banners concerning the death of Pope John Paul II that night for example) in other respects my recollection was clearly rather poor and a detailed side-by-side comparison of the broadcast and DVD versions far beyond me. I knew that the scene in which Adrian Bower ‘dried’ had been replaced by an earlier dress rehearsal recording (and presumably the actor’s agents would have blocked the DVD release if the scene hadn’t been replaced due to the possible detrimental effect on the actor’s future career) but I had naively assumed that otherwise the DVD was pretty much accurate to what had gone out on the air.

Not so, it turns out. Someone has now done exactly that sort of scene-by-scene comparison of the two and made an exemplary job of it – and in the process found a rather large number of changes between the live edition and the DVD edit. In some cases, errors have been edited out (out-of-shot crashes, for example) and some scenes tightened for purely aesthetic purposes. Other edits are more debatable: one shot where it appears an actor may be looking directly at the camera is replaced, and another scene in which the actors have their backs to the cameras similarly substituted. I can kind of get why the DVD wants to polish things up, but it does mean that the opening caption “This film was broadcast live at 8.20pm on April 2nd 2005” now becomes at best rather disingenuous and misleading. The over-zealous post-editing work particularly overreaches in a scene in which a couple are interviewed about seeing the crash landing of the space ship when they’re asked why they were there to see it happen: their awkward silence at this point is one of the programme’s few moments of laugh-out-loud humour (they’re embarrassed about admitting that they were there having sex, basically) but the DVD editor clearly just thinks the actors forgot their lines or that the live show edit should have been made sooner, and so out the scene goes. Which is a great shame and painfully heavyhanded.

I’m not quite as hardline as the comparison article author John Hoare when it comes to decrying all these changes – although certainly the sheer number and impact of them that his article describes certainly took me aback. No, for me the real problem with the DVD is the aggressive colour grading, which I had spotted at the time and termed “disappointing and distracting.” The only reason why I didn’t hit this point harder in my review was because I wasn’t sure whether or not this had been how the broadcast had originally appeared, or whether my own DVD player and/or TV set-up were in some way to blame. After reading Mr Hoare’s excellent article this weekend I can confirm that none of these excuses apply and that the DVD video presentation is simply spectacularly misjudged – to the point where I would describe the end result as actually technically defective, and would have expected it to be recalled and replaced by the manufacturer. To the best of my knowledge that never happened, so this is very much a case of caveat emptor for anyone picking up back copies of the disk and for that reason alone I felt it worth adding this coda to my original review.

2 thoughts on “The Quatermass Experiment (1953/2005)

    […] The Quatermass Experiment (1953/2005) […]

    Dirty Feed – ‘The Quatermass Experiment’ Experiment said:
    December 30, 2015 at 10:36 am

    […] article, including Transdiffusion, who came up with a better title than I did. There’s also this piece on Taking the Short View by Andrew Lewin – or, rather, an updated version of his excellent 2013 article, with added […]

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