QUATERMASS

British Science Fiction Series

Years before the English Sunday supplements ever discovered the Angry Young Man, jazz, science fiction and other "marginal" art forms began to gather adherents among those who formerly might have quickly passed by them. Postwar British culture had entered a self-conscious period of transition, and science fiction suddenly seemed much more important to both pundits like Kingsley Amis, and readers in general, who made John Wyndham's novels (beginning with The Day of the Triffids, 1951) surprizing best-sellers.

The 1950s were also a period of adjustment for the BBC, which lost its television monopoly midway through the decade with the dreaded debut of the Independent Television Authority (ITA)--the invasion of commercial TV. Classical works and theatrical adaptations suddenly seemed insufficient to secure the BBC's popular support. Perhaps not surprisingly, the corporation turned to science fiction: in 1953, the drama department put its development budget behind one writer, Nigel Kneale, who in exchange produced the script for the BBC's first original, adult science fiction work. It was a serial to be produced and directed by Rudolph Cartier, and titled The Quatermass Experiment. The summer of that year its six half-hour episodes aired, and with them began a British tradition of science fiction television which runs in various forms from Quatermass to A Is for Andromeda to Blake's 7, and from Doctor Who to Red Dwarf. Kneale himself went on to adapt George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four for Cartier's controversial 1954 telecast. Later in the decade, Kneale adapted John Osbourne's Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer for the screen.

Yet Kneale's first major project was quite possibly his most elegant as well. The story of The Quatermass Experiment is fairly simple: a British scientist, Prof. Bernard Quatermass, has launched a rocket and rushes to the site of its crash. There he discovers that only one crew member, Victor Carroon, has returned with the ship. Carroon survived only as a host for an amorphous alien life form, which is not only painfully mutating Carroon's body, but preparing to reproduce. Carroon escapes and wreaks havoc upon London, until Quatermass finally tracks the now unrecognizably human mass to Westminster Abbey. There Quatermass makes one final appeal to Carroon's humanity.

Years before, H.G. Wells had inaugurated contemporary science fiction with War of the Worlds' warnings about Britain's failure to advance its colonial self-satisfaction. The Quatermass Experiment's depiction of an Englisman's transformation into a alienated monster dramatized a new range of gendered fears about Britain's postwar and post-colonial security. As a result, or perhaps simply because of Kneale and Cartier's effective combination of science fiction and poignant melodrama, audiences were captivated.

With a larger budget and better effects, Kneale and Cartier continued the professor's story with Quatermass II (1955), an effectively disturbing story of alien possession and governmental conspiracies prefiguring Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). Perhaps fittingly, Quatermass II provided early counter-programming to the BBC's new commercial competition.

That same year, the small, struggling Hammer Films successfully released its film adaptation of The Quatermass Experiment in Britain. The next year the film (re-titled The Creeping Unknown) performed unexpectedly well in the lucrative U.S. market, providing the foundation for the company's subsequent series of Gothic horror films. Hammer released its film adaptation of the second serial (re-titled The Enemy Within for the United States) in 1957.

Kneale and Cartier's third serial in the series, Quatermass and the Pit, combined the poetic horror of the first and the paranoia of the second. In it Quatermass learns that an archaeological discovery made during routine subway expansion means nothing less than humanity itself is not what we have believed. The object discovered in that subway "pit" is an ancient Martian craft, and its contents indicate we were their genetically-engineered offspring. By the conclusion of the serial, London's inhabitants have been inadvertently triggered into a programmed "wilding" mode, and the city lies mostly in ruins. "We're all Martians!," became Quatermass' famous cry, and the serial's ample references to escalating racial and class tensions gives his words an ominous power.

It is this grim, elegant ending, filmed by Hammer in 1967 (and released in the United States as Five Million Years to Earth), that Greil Marcus used in his history of punk to describe the emotional experience of a Sex Pistols concert. If nothing else, Marcus' reference in Lipstick Traces (1989) suggests that Quatermass, like those repressed Martian memories, may return at the most curious moments. Even when more expected, the name may still operate as a certain sort of cultural code word: Brian Aldiss, in his extensive science fiction history Trillion Year Spree (1986), uses "the Quatermass school" as if every reader should automatically understands its meaning.

But by the late 1970s, the BBC was no longer willing to commit itself to the budget necessary for Kneale' fourth and final Quatermass serial, simply titled Quatermass. Commercial television was ready, however, and in 1979, at the conclusion of a 75 day ITV strike, the four part Quatermass debuted with John Mills starring as the now elderly professor in his final adventure.

Only the serial's opening sequence, involving Quatermass deriding a U.S.-U.S.S.R. "Skylab 2," displays the force of the earlier serials: a moment after Quatermass blurts out his words in a live television interview, the studio monitors are filled with the image of "Skylab 2" blowing to pieces. Subsequent episodes were less successfully provocative. Concerning a dystopic future Britain where hippie-like youth are being swept up by aliens, the serial's narrative was recognized as somewhat stale and unconvincing. Yet even in the late 1970s, despite the last serial's lukewarm reviews, Quatermass remained a source of fan preoccupation reminiscent of the commitment Star Trek.

Unlike the three earlier serials, broadcast live but recorded on film, Quatermass was not adapted for the screen. It was simply edited and re-packaged as The Quatermass Conclusion for theatrical and video distribution abroad. Of the original serials, only Quatermass and the Pit has had a video release, although most of the first serial and all of the second have been preserved by the British Film Institute.

-Robert Dickinson

 


Quartermass

CAST

THE QUARTERMASS EXPERIMENT

Professor Bernard Quartermass................. Reginald Tate Judith Carroon ............................................Isabel Dean John Paterson.............................................. Hugh Kelly Victor Carroon....................................... Duncan Lamont James Fullalove.............................. Paul Whitsun-Jones

QUARTERMASS II

Quartermass.......................................... John Robinson Paula Quartermass ....................................Monica Grey Dr. Leo Pugh............................................ Hugh Griffiths Captain John Dillon ......................................John Stone Vincent Broadhead ...................................Rupert Davies Fowler...................................................... Austin Trevor

QUARTERMASS AND THE PIT

Quartermass............................................ Andre Morrell Dr. Matthew Roney ........................................Cec Linder Barbara Judd........................................... Christine Finn Colonel Breen ......................................Anthony Bushell Captain Potter.......................................... John Stratton Sergeant................................................ Michael Ripper Corporal Gibson.................................... Harold Goodwin Private West ..............................................John Walker James Fullalove.......................................... Brian Worth Sladden................................................... Richard Shaw

QUARTERMASS

Quartermass .................................................John Mills Joe Kapp .....................................Simon MacCorkindale Clare Kapp........................................ Barbara Kellerman Kickalong.................................................. Ralph Arliss Caraway................................................. Paul Rosebury Bee ...........................................................Jane Bertish Hettie .....................................................Rebecca Saire Marshall.................................................... Tony Sibbald Sal.......................................................... Toyah Wilcox Guror................................................... Brewster Mason Annie Morgan...................................... Margaret Tyzack

PRODUCERS  Rudolph Cartier The Quartermass Experiment Quartermass II Quartermass and the Pit Verity Lambert, Ted Childs Quartermass

PROGRAMMING HISTORY

THE QUARTERMASS EXPERIMENT

BBC
6 30-minute episodes
18 July 1953-22 August 1953

QUARTERMASS II

BBC
6 c. 30-minute episodes
22 October 1955-26 November 1955

QUARTERMASS AND THE PIT

BBC
6 35-minute episodes
22 December 1958-26 January 1959

QUARTERMASS

ITV
4 60-minute episodes
24 October 1979-14 November 1979

FURTHER READING

Briggs, Asa. The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom. Volume IV. Oxford.: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Fulton, Roger. The Encyclopedia of TV Science Fiction. London: Bostree Limited, 1990.

Kneale, Nigel. Quatermass. London: Hutchinson, 1979.

_______________. The Quatermass Experiment. Quatermass II. Quatermass and the Pit. London: Penguin, 1960.

Leman, Joy. "Wise Scientists and Female Androids: Class and Gender in Science Fiction." In, Corner, John, editor. Popular Television in Britain. London: BFI Publishing, 1991.

Marcus, Greil. Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1989.

Pirie, David. A Heritage of Horror: The English Gothic Cinema 1946-1972. London: Gordon Fraser, 1973.

 

See also Cartier, Rudolph; Lambert, Verity; Science-fiction Programs