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. Read the rest of this entry »

Quatermass and the Pit (1967) (Blu-ray)

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It’s not particularly well known that Hammer Films had their first horror genre success with The Quatermass Xperiment in the mid-1950s, an adaptation of a hugely successful BBC TV science fiction series. Toward the end of Hammer’s successful times after years of vampires, werewolves, mummies and monsters, the studio returned to a belated adaptation of the third (and last, at the time) TV serial, Quatermass and the Pit.

Like its predecessors, this Quatermass serial is intelligent, adult science fiction with serious themes: here, a theory of how religious evil and superstition can have its roots in science (or more accurately, science fiction – ancient telepathic little green men from Mars.) The gradual revealing of this is compelling, and the implications (that humans today may be the result of Martian genetic experimentation) profoundly shocking for the day.

Nowadays, such theories are tame and routine and have been done to death. Indeed, serial author Nigel Kneale was already stealing from some well-known SF theories when he wrote Pit, and certainly his own serials have since been plundered themselves to the point of cliché. It’s a shame that Quatermass doesn’t get more credit for popularising some of these theories, and it doesn’t help that modern audiences will look at this and say “Hang on, this is basically just a big Doctor Who episode.” Well, it is – but only because that show stole pretty much the entire format and approach of Quatermass when it regenerated the format into The UNIT Years with Jon Pertwee essentially playing Professor Quatermass at least as much as he was a renegade Time Lord.

It’s a shame that Quatermass himself is not a better character, but he was always more of a cipher and a plot device for the events that unfold round him than he was a fully-rounded creation. It didn’t help that the part was played by someone different in almost every TV serial and film version so that there was no ‘proper’ Quatermass, just a bunch of different actors playing wildly different roles from Andre Morell to John Mills. The most damaging and inappropriate of these was Brian Donlevy, the American (albeit Northern Ireland-born) ‘tough guy’ who essayed the role in the first two Hammer films. At least in Pit the part is played by Andrew Keir, perhaps the best of all the actors to play the role.

It’s a really great premise, with the scenes set in the eponymous Pit – actually a closed London Underground station in Kensington undergoing extension – particularly effective. Okay, it’s all clearly done on studio sets (even the London streets are evidently the slightly unreal studio backlot version of the city rather than the real thing) but it all looks good enough to suspend disbelief even now in high-def – save for one ill-conceived ‘dream sequence’ which just looks like toy soldiers poorly concealed by false-looking static interference.

Given the age of the material and the fact that it was never a big budget affair,it’s amazing that the Blu-ray looks as good as it does. A large amount of fine grain has been left in place, but it never distracts or obscures the details and instead just reinforces the film nature of the original in a satisfying way. The colours are good and strong and there’s nice contrast throughout, and the sound is also perfect (whereas the original DVD version had a nasty irritating buzzing sound through one portion of the film as I recall.)

It’s a classic of its time, and still thoroughly enjoyable on its own terms today, despite its age.