Looking BackAt QUATERMASS (1979) - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking BackAt QUATERMASS (1979)

“Get off my lawn!” yells tony. Also, Quatermass.
Bernard Quatermass is as much a part of British cultural heroism as Robin Hood, Sherlock Holmes, or Doctor Who.

In fact, you could easily argue that Quatermass is actually the precursor to at least the first of the Doctors. A brilliant scientist, he is a relatively fixed point of morality, too, and the combination of that brilliance, that morality, and the bravery to act when all around him are prevaricating is in practically every sense imaginable the same central idea as the one behind William Hartnell’s original Doctor.

Where the Doctor goes whizzing off in time and space though, taking his morality with him and arguably imposing it on other civilizations, becoming along the way very much a science fantasy icon, Quatermass is absolutely rooted to the here and now of his adventures, the Earth and its endeavours to expand its understanding, making him a very much harder science fiction hero.

As well as adventures in movies and radio, Quatermass had four main original outings (a re-make of the first of them would arrive in the 21st century). It’s important to note though that three of the Quatermass series were both made and set in the 1950s. The final Quatermass adventure, simply known as Quatermass in the UK, but re-cut and re-titled The Quatermass Conclusion for international sale, arrived in 1979, when Quatermass himself is long retired from his scientific researches, and finds himself at the crossroads of alien involvement, insane energy spheres, the hippy movement (repurposed as the ‘Planet People’), ancient monument sites, and the breakdown of society.

All of that sounds like it might deliver some cracking drama – and indeed, it might.

So why was practically nobody happy with Quatermass?

Well, partly, by 1979, Bernard Quatermass had become so iconic in British science fiction, it would be difficult to move him on in time and still get the same punch out of his stories.

The three Quatermass series in the Fifties were firstly, largely optimistic. The Quatermass Experiment of 1953 (starring Reginald Tate in the title role) had Quatermass seemingly at the height of his powers and his career, as head of the British Experimental Rocket Group, launching men into space seven years before Yuri Gagarin managed it for real.

Granted, in the Quatermass Experiment the flight goes wrong, the rocket crashes, there’s a bizarre melding of the crew, and Quatermass is finally forced to destroy Victor Caroon, the survivor of the crash, to save the world, but hey – the science at least was optimistic and at least partially successful.

In the staggeringly-titled Quatermass II in 1955, the streamlined British Rocket Group has moved beyond space launches, and is looking actively at the viability of permanent moon bases. Again, when John Robinson became Quatermass (after the sudden death of Reginald Tate shortly before cameras were due to roll), there were alien conspiracies at the highest levels of government and experimental (not to say malfunctioning) rocketry to cope with, but again, the direction of Quatermass’ energy was all positive, both in terms of the science he conducted and his stand against invasion and what could broadly be called evil.

And by Quatermass and the Pit (1958-9), when Andre Morrell (the actor to whom the part had originally been offered in 1953, and who had turned it down) finally became Quatermass, there was a very War of the Worlds feel to the action, involving an alien spacecraft submerged beneath the streets of London. While the forces of authority think his explanation of alien visitors endowing some humans with ESP and telekinesis is absurd, it’s left to Quatermass to literally save the world from the clear and present danger.

By 1979, as we say, Quatermass has long been pensioned off and is living in Scotland – a far cry from his more dynamic years in the British Rocket Group. So right from the off, the 1979 Quatermass series has the sense of an old man, long past his best, being thrust into one final adventure, somewhat against his will.

That can work, dramatically, but in Quatermass, Sir John Mills takes up the mantle of the ageing genius, and plays more on one of writer Nigel Kneale’s themes as he aged – the impact and the process of growing old – than on any particular recapturing of the character’s earlier dynamism.

You can argue that that’s true to Quatermass’ form – looking the reality of a situation in the eye, rather than harking back to former glories. It just doesn’t make for especially riveting television, which importantly, the three previous Quatermass series had done.

Kneale was also growing concerned by the Seventies – indeed, the early Seventies, as the bedrock of the script for Quatermass was written in 1972, as everyone kept trying to make him write more for the head of British Rocket Group – with teenage delinquency. Whether in the form of the simple drop-out culture of the hippies (which is pretty much what the Planet People felt like on screen), or the rather more potentially aggressive nihilism of the punk movement (which Kneale was later to claim he was aiming at), he saw teenage delinquency as a social evil that could potentially lead to significant violence and the decay of society as it had existed throughout his life.

Before we get all “OK, Boomer” about that, it’s worth remembering that similar concerns play out in Anthony Burgess’ novel, A Clockwork Orange, where Alex and his ‘droogs’ go out at night specifically looking to cause mayhem and ultraviolence. A prediction and an extension of the kind of nihilism that was beginning to find its cultural outlook through punk? Possibly. Given a similar treatment, the social threat in Quatermass might have felt more edgy, more current and more fundamentally believable.

But let’s be real. The story of Quatermass is essentially muddled, linking social decay with the teenage drop-outs who get involved with the Planet People movement, gathering at ancient monuments and, as they see it, being “lifted” up into space to live on a higher plain (similarly to the Heaven’s Gate cult, who were formed in 1974, and who ended up committing mass suicide so they could “ascend” in 1997).

It still has Quatermass as an unswervably moral figure, but times have changed around him, so whereas in the Fifties, he comes across as a lone voice of sanity in a world of bureaucratic idiots, by the Seventies, he feels obdurate rather than clear-headed. The fact that – naturally enough for a show with his name on it – Nigel Kneale makes him right, revealing that the youngsters are not being lifted to anything, but instead are being harvested for all their lovely human protein doesn’t really move the dial of quite how paternalistic and outdated Quatermass – both the character and the show – feels.

The evidence from contemporary reviews is that it felt that way on broadcast, and re-watching it almost 45 years later, it’s still the predominant sense you get. Rather than Quatermass in the middle of things, doing the dangerous necessary thing to save humanity, the John Mills series feels like the triumph of the pernickety older generation over the young slobs of the ‘modern’ generation. Ultimately, it comes off as four episodes of Grandpa Simpson shouting (almost literally in this case) at clouds.

That’s not to say there aren’t great and impressive things about Quatermass – there absolutely are. The mass gathering at Wembley stadium that leaves hundreds of thousands of young people vapourised for their protein is impressively done given the period and the budget, and some sense of pace does develop as Quatermass encounters astronomer Joe Kapp (Simon MacCorkindale, stepping away from his usual smooth romantic roles) and District Commissioner Annie Morgan (the always fabulous Margaret Tyzack).

But it’s a mark of the direction of the drama that both of his compatriots meet untimely deaths (and Quatermass himself ends up having a heart attack!) on the way to carrying out his ultimate plan – which is to explode a 35 kiloton nuclear bomb in a British observatory, in the Quatermass-hunchy hope that most of the force will be used to deliver an interplanetary “Naff off and stop filleting our dopey teens” to the alien powers, rather than simply turning much of southern England into a radioactive slag heap.

As ya do.

That’s really the issue with Quatermass. While the three original series make Quatermass the morally courageous genius in a situation where only the right action can save humanity, and only he can make the call, John Mills’ Quatermass is at a point in his life where he’s connecting two disparate things, equating them to a huge social problem as well as an alien problem, and acting as though he were still the only moral authority – while the connection between the social issue and the alien issue feels weak, and so his authority feels highly questionable. Especially when it comes to the 35 kiloton nuclear bomb!

If it’s any consolation, the signs that something was off were there from the beginning. Quatermass was originally commissioned for the BBC, but the Corporation lost faith in it, so Kneale took it to Euston Films, the people who brought the world The Sweeney. And with hindsight, even Nigel Kneale himself admitted it never felt quite right as a Quatermass script, saying that the threat never seemed “big” enough.

He's right, it doesn’t, and when the script tries to force it to be bigger, as at Wembley stadium, it ultimately only intensifies the disconnect between the actual threat and the supposed moral and social threat of teenage drop-out culture. Ultimately, Quatermass ends up feeling very much like “OK, Boomer” TV – even though of course, ironically, the Planet People would be closer to Boomers than Quatermass himself, who is distinctly pre-War.

Nevertheless, for all the 1979 Quatermass series feels like a much paler Grandpa version of the Fifties shows, it’s interesting to watch now, in the 2020s, to see resonances in much more recent science fiction and science fantasy.

One of the ideas that comes out of Quatermass is that ancient iconic sites have the main purpose of marking where bad things have happened before thanks to alien intervention. That’s an idea with resonances in Steven Moffatt’s The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang, where Stonehenge is essentially just a marker to tell aliens where they have left their equipment.

The horrifying notion of people being “taken up” by aliens, only to be harvested for protein is not a million miles away from Russell T Davies’ seemingly shocking notion for Torchwood: Children Of Earth, where aliens demand a ransom of human children, for no other reason than they’re addicted to chemicals the children produce. It’s a twist on the Quatermass idea, but the roots feels similar in the two shows. Even to some extent the Wembley mass extinction event has resonances in Russell T Davies’ The Second Coming, where the reborn son of God, Stephen Baxter (Christopher Eccleston) invites anyone who wants to see a miracle to a huge stadium. Fortunately, Davies avoids the purging of the faithful, but again, there are resonances that feel familiar.

While Quatermass then is not as enjoyable to watch as any of its Fifties forbears, you can get some good nuggets of hardcore science fiction from it, and it will still give you plenty to ponder – even if the “pull up your trousers and cut your hair” anti-youth culture social arguments entirely fail to land, and Quatermass himself feels like a paler, frailer version of the legend we know and love.

Watch Quatermass today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony Fyler lives in a concrete cave, somewhere on the edge of the sea, with his wife, who exists, and the Fictional People In His Head, who don't as yet. A journalist and editor by day, he has written Some Books, and is more or less always writing another. One day, he may even get around to showing them to people. In the meantime, he's Script Editor and occasional Executive Producer at Third Time Lucky Productions, and a proud watcher of things no-one remembers they remember until they remember.

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