This November marks the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who. It’s an important milestone for a show that, like its hero, will not die. However, some science-fiction fans are disappointed that the BBC is not celebrating another, arguably more seminal birthday this month: the 60th anniversary of The Quatermass Experiment.
On July 18th 1953, the late Nigel Kneale’s troubled professor made his debut and set a template for much British film and TV science-fiction that survives to this day. He also probably paved the way for the Doctor’s arrival.
The first serial was followed by two more for the BBC (Quatermass II in 1955, and Quatermass and the Pit over the Christmas of 1958/59), Hammer feature-film adaptations, and a final Quatermass/The Quatermass Conclusion mini-series/feature film for ITV in 1979. Most recently, the original Experiment was remade in 2005 for BBC4.
Mention Quatermass to anyone over 40 and you’ll invoke a very British sense of horror and a narrowly-averted apocalypse. Quatermass was never a cult character; he was decidedly mainstream. He was British TV’s first fictional creation who could ‘empty the pubs’. Kneale died in 2006, but his influence over UK media will persist for many years to come. And rightly so. But whether it is properly recognised is another matter.
In an obituary tribute to Kneale, writer and actor Mark Gatiss (Sherlock), wrote: “It's ironic that, although he can lay claim to having invented popular TV, the fact that he wasn't known as a ‘straight’ writer has forever kept him in the ‘cult’ bracket, legendary to some but never considered alongside Dennis Potter, David Mercer and Alan Plater.”
Kim Newman, one of the UK’s foremost sci-fi commentators, has gone further. “Nigel Kneale is probably the most important writer of his time in the world,” he told the BBC. “When he wrote The Quatermass Experiment, American science-fiction was Captain Video where the space rangers had cardboard helmets and all that kind of stuff.”
However, within the worlds of science and engineering, Quatermass has further meaning. He was the man who created a real technologist to stand at the forefront of a popular drama as the hero, and as a reflection of how those technologists actually wanted to see themselves.
The technological man
Quatermass appeared as the scientific hero was only just taking form.
In Britain, H.G. Wells had promoted a technocratic utopia in Things to Come (1936), but the film’s characters were proselytizing cyphers. Sir David Lean’s The Sound Barrier (1952) offered Ridgefield, the aviation innovator but he was more tragic than heroic.
Across the Atlantic, the Quatermass decade was that of the atomic-age creature feature. But here, science was to get a bum rap. In the first big post-WW2 monster movie, 1951’s The Thing From Another World, the scientist isn’t so much evil as loopily misguided. He wants to reason with the monster; the good ol’ boys from USAF know that actually you need to electrocute the sucker to ashes. We’ll come back to that ending.
Otherwise, the landscape was still dominated by megalomaniacs and white-coated sidekicks.
An experiment in every way
“When I wrote The Quatermass Experiment it was intended to be a story about people. In science-fiction people tend to get sidelined by the special effects,” Nigel Kneale recalled in 1996. “Well, back in Alexandra Palace in the early 1950s, we didn’t have any special effects. The story was told through its characters and all the better for it.”
Quatermass the character was, like so many other aspects of the first serial, an experiment. A six-week gap opened up in the 1953 Summer schedule, giving Kneale and producer Rudolph Cartier a chance to break the rules.
The BBC hierarchy still thought of TV drama as ‘radio with pictures’. Cartier, a talented filmmaker who had fled Hitler’s Germany, and Kneale, who wanted to use TV’s power to match dialogue to facial expressions (given the then tiny screen sizes), strove for something more dynamic. They also wanted to challenge the idea that TV drama should essentially comprise literary adaptations by producing something original.
And, though it’s unlikely Kneale mentioned it to his bosses, they wanted to slip a little vinegar into the milk. Early Summer 1953. A nation had rejoiced (and bought lots of tellies) for June’s coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. A British expedition had conquered Everest (albeit with a New Zealander at the forefront). And rationing had finally ended.
Kneale, though, didn’t buy into the ‘New Elizabethan’ meme - and time proved him right on that. It was, in his words, “an over-confident year”. So, over six weeks and to massive ratings for the time, his tale unfolded of how Britain’s first space rocket flight returns with an extra alien passenger. It absorbs the human crew and embarks on a potentially apocalyptic rampage until it is defeated and destroyed in, with an obvious nod to that other ratings bonanza, Westminster Abbey.
No longer ‘great’ Britannia
The TV ending then repudiates the use of force, the sense that Britain remained mighty. Remember The Thing: when Hammer remade The Quatermass Experiment as its first horror movie, it copied the American movie’s climax, frying the monster on a metal lighting rig. In the BBC version, however, Quatermass quite literally talks the invader to death.
The original episode is lost, but the 2005 remake recreates the scene in Tate Modern. A guilt-burdened Quatermass appeals to the three astronauts he sent into space and which the monster has absorbed to fight and destroy it from within. And this ‘thing’ simply dies.
It’s a terrific conceit. It got around the BBC’s complete lack of any special effects department in 1953, but more importantly sets down an approach to resolving threats through logic, discourse and intelligence. The thinking man has his own weapons (and, if you think about it, very likely as a result of that climax, the Doctor has never been allowed to carry a gun).
Kneale’s first Quatermass script contained one further swipe at the traditional portrayal of science, or more to the point, how it was viewed by the British establishment. The writer would describe how he gleaned his hero’s surname by choosing the most obscure under the most obscure letter in the London phone directory. He spoke less about where he got the professor’s first name, Bernard.
Meanwhile at Jodrell Bank
A recent biography disclosed that this was a mark of respect for the astronomer Bernard Lovell. There should be a ‘Sir’ there, but in 1953, he was just plain Bernard. And at the time, few would have expected him to ever get a knighthood - even possibly, a prison cell.
Between 1952 and 1957, Lovell was engaged in a huge battle to fund and build the steerable radio telescope at Jodrell Bank in Cheshire. He was attacked in parliament, in the press and in academia as the project’s budget mushroomed. At one point, he was even threatened with a charged of fraudulent misuse of public funds. The controversy only stopped in 1957, when Jodrell was able to not only track the Sputnik launch but also its launcher (i.e., it proved itself as the West’s then only early warning station for tracking Soviet ICBMs).
“Bernard Quatermass was what I imagined a scientist should be. A man with a sense of awe at the sheer magnitude of what he might discover,” Kneale said. “What we often got from our scientists in the real world was a different sense of awe, a reverence before the terrible.”
These ‘reverant’ establishment scientists were the kind of government officials who recounted the “magnificence” of an H Bomb test on a radio broadcast. Kneale positioned - and clearly wanted - Quatermass outside this mainstream, outside that establishment. And as he developed the character over three further serials, that process gathered pace.
Quatermass II is arguably the UK’s first paranoid conspiracy thriller and its answer to The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (it appeared in the same year as Jack Finney’s original novel). The government has been taken over by aliens who infect their consciousness into human beings. And they are using Quatermass’ own plans for a moonbase to build facilities capable of supporting them on Earth, while they make plans to change our atmosphere. This time, though, Quatermass does actually nuke them with his own unstable rocket.
Quatermass and the Pit is the finest of the serials. It opens with the professor resisting attempts by the government and military to control or interfere with his rocket group. However, the alien challenge comes from a spaceship buried for five million years, but which may hold the answers to some rather nasty aspects of man’s character. These range from racism to original sin.
Finally The Quatermass Conclusion is, it must be said, an honorable failure. Twenty years after the professor’s last appearance, the series tips into despair and malaise - though as it reflects late 1970s Britain and coincided with the infamous ‘Winter of Discontent’, that’s not so surprising. By this time, Quatermass’ concerns are exclusively moral. Mind you, he does nuke the bad guys again, this time giving up his own life in the process.
What connects all four stories - as well as the films, to some degree - is that the character’s values remain consistent (and across the four original series, grow) despite apparently ever-changing actors. The burdened man of the original (Reginald Tate) is the same humane figure as that offered successively on TV by John Robinson (II), André Morrell (Pit) and Sir John Mills (Conclusion). He is also the same character as is played by Andrew Keir in the film of Quatermass and the Pit, and Jason Flemyng in the Experiment remake.
In a documentary on the 2005 remake, executive producer and script adapter Richard Fell acknowledged a deliberate attempt to update Quatermass by making him less patrician than his predecessors. But some things could not change.
“We took the decision quite early on [to cast the part] younger. When we met Jason Flemyng we felt he was right for the role immediately. He had the kind of tortured authority which is very much [part of] the Quatermass character,” Fell said.
Out of seven actors to play the role, only the American Brian Donlevy in Hammer’s first two film adaptations can be said to stray significantly from the template (and indeed Kneale hated his performances). Yet even he is well suited to the urgently paced newsreel quality sought by the 90-minute films in which he appears, as opposed to that of the three-hour long serials.
So what was Kneale’s trick and why has it influenced so many of the better portrayals of technologists in TV and films since?
First off, Quatermass is a terrific detective. If the apocalypse it is to be averted, massive firepower won’t work. There is a mystery to be solved, an open mind is required, and a dramatic cousin of the scientific method must be applied. The stories are not about being stronger; they’re about being smarter.
Then, though occasionally brusque and aloof, Quatermass doesn’t live in an ivory tower; Kneale won’t let him. His first experiment fails; his second leads to a nuclear accident; in the third story, he is enmeshed in realpolitik; and by the fourth, he is a tired old man with only just enough strength to fight. Yet, throughout all this, he is aware that his actions have consequences, can empathise with those around him, and suffers for his mistakes. Quatermass is neither amoral nor detached - two hallmarks of the laziest characterisations of scientists in fiction.
And throughout, he keeps trying. Mistakes get made, but the key is to learn and move on. Quatermass is an embodiment of rational progress, but also someone who is open to new ideas.
However, beyond all that, he embodies tensions that many scientists and engineers had to try and resolve after the end of WWII marked the beginning of the atomic (and, if we add Bletchley Park, digital) age.
When he named his character, Kneale almost certainly was not aware of the profound reservations Sir Bernard Lovell would ultimately come to express over his work on the H2S ground-scanning radar system in the early 1940s. A brilliant technical achievement, it was also key to enabling massive bombing raids such as those visited on cities like Dresden. The morality of his work (or otherwise) dogged Sir Bernard, a deeply religious man, until his death.
Quatermass emerged as many scientific leaders were struggling with the consequences of their work during WWII and wondering what their roles would be in the Cold War. But beyond that, the issues of the good and bad potential uses of innovation, the risks in going as far as one can, and the need to match the emotional to the scientific will always be with us. And Kneale created a character that was a vehicle for all that.
In short, for portrayals of the scientist in fiction, Quatermass seeded authenticity. He was a grown-up - compare that to the various adolescents and manchildren that pollute much sci-fi today.
And, as we mark his 60th anniversary, isn’t also strange to notice that once again, Britain may again be looking to the stars.