Quatermass: The Quatermass Experiment

July 27, 2014 in Cult TV, Guest Blogs by GuestBlogs

A Guest Blog by Hevy782


In 1953, science-fiction on TV was revolutionised by the broadcast of the Quatermass Experiment. Now, more than sixty years later, its still remembered as one of British television’s greatest classics. While literary science-fiction was leaps and bounds ahead, on television it was seen as something purely for children. All this changed when Nigel Kneale decided to create a science fiction serial aimed at an adult television audience, something that had never been attempted before. It was a gamble that ended up being a great success, for six weeks the streets and pups were emptied as people rushed home to watch the national phenomenon that was The Quatermass Experiment. This then paved the way and provided inspiration for many British science-fiction series’ that followed such as Doctor Who and Sapphire and Steel. The serial itself was broadcast in six parts and was set in the near future against the backdrop of a British Space Programme where the first manned flight into space has just been attempted and is being supervised by the titular Professor Bernard Quatermass of the British Experimental Rocket Group. Three astronauts went up but only one has come down, and he is behaving very strangely. Following further investigation it soon becomes apparent to Quatermass that an alien presence entered the ship while in flight, and now that same alien presence threatens to wipe out the world and only Quatermass and his associates can stop it.

The episodes were done live which was very common back then. It was decided that the story would be telerecorded (a new method which would transfer it onto film so that it could be watched again) for prosperity purposes but after some faults in the second episode’s telerecording lead to the idea being abandoned, meaning that the last four can never be seen again. This means that we only have the first two episodes to go off of for review purposes however we do have the film version released in 1955 along with the more faithful 2005 remake (which was also done live to make it more authentic) to help too. So while we may never be able to experience it the way it was originally supposed to be, we do have a pretty good idea of how it was supposed to be. On the casting side of things we have the experienced actor Reginald Tate in the title role as Professor Bernard Quatermass along with Isabel Dean as his assistant and wife to one of the astronauts, Judith Carroon. We also have John Glen playing the Rocket Group’s doctor, Briscoe, and Ian Colin as Scotland Yard’s Inspector Lomax. In the 2005 remake the roles were played by Jason Flemyng, Indira Varma, David Tennant and Adrian Dunbar respectively.

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Now onto the spoiler-free part of the review, the story itself is fairly easy to follow and is arguably made all the more enjoyable for it. From looking at the first two episodes you can tell that it’s a very atmospheric piece with a good amount of mystery and horror. The mystery itself is the main thing that drives the story, especially in the first half as your anxious to find out what’s going on. It’s hard to talk about the pace of the original due to the absence of the last four episodes but certainly in the first two it is slow enough to build up tension and atmosphere but not so slow that it gets boring. The 2005 remake however has a bit of a confused pace with some parts being really slow and others going too quickly. This inconstancy is probably due to the shorter run time and the need to put more emphasis on certain parts but nevertheless it can be quite jarring. As for performances in the original, Reginald Tate does a great job as Quatermass. He isn’t as bold and brash as his film counterpart (played by Brian Donlevy) nor does he lack the gravitas in his performance that his 2005 counterpart did. While all three are very good performances, I feel that Reginald Tate (for the two short episodes that we got to see him in) got the balance absolutely right. Then there’s Isabel Dean as Judith who’s character has an interesting subplot (more on that in the spoiler part) which is completely missing from the film version and her character reduced to the anxious wife of the astronaut. As a final note for the non-spoiler part, it’s easy to see the difference in TV today and back then simply by looking at the age of the actors casts, with the cast of the 2005 version being considerably younger than the original version. But I digress.

Okay, we now move into the spoiler part of the review so if you don’t like spoilers I suggest you skip to the end as we will be going to be talking about nothing else but them in this paragraph. Now that I’ve got that out the way lets more onto the biggest spoiler which is the conclusion to the whole thing. Arguably I should be doing this last but I thought I’d get it out the way first just to make a change. So then, in the original version as well as the 2005 remake the monster is killed by Quatermass appealing to the human part of the creature to kill itself before it can spread its spores. A rather emotional ending for TV back then which proved that writer Nigel Kneale was ahead of his time. While not something so out-of-the-blue in today’s world it was something quite different back then. The ending also takes place in West Minster Abbey (sounding familiar to any Doctor Who fans yet) in the original where you actually got to see the monster while in the 2005 version the monster is well hidden. It’s impossible to comment on how well the monster was executed but it was done by Kneale himself putting on monster gloves and moving through a blow up of the Abbey’s interior. Now onto that subplot I was talking about earlier in which Judith was revealed to be having an affair with Briscoe but this all ended when the rocket went missing. This is something extremely mature for a science-fiction serial to handle and its something which (as far as I can tell) is handled very well in the original and is defiantly done well in the 2005 remake. This is something that makes her character very three-dimensional but doesn’t diminish either Carroon or Briscoe at all either. The mystery itself that is built up in the first two episodes is very intriguing and its a credit to Kneale’s writing in the way he makes you want to know more about things like why Carroon can now speak German and what that stuff is that is in the inner workings of the ship, it all makes your mind run wild with the possibilities, some of which are actually more horrifying than what you see on screen itself.

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Overall, it’s hard to properly judge The Quatermass Experiment as we don’t have the whole thing as it should be but nevertheless I’m going to go ahead and say that it is probably my least favourite off the four, but only just. In fact, I’ve done nothing but praise it this whole review which should tell you something about what to expect in future ones. Next week we’ll be looking at Quatermass II, and this time it should purely be about the original version given that we’ve thankfully got the full thing for us to enjoy.