Before Doctor Who, There Was Nigel Kneale

The pioneering British screenwriter helped make sci fi what it is today.

In terms of science fiction, Nigel Kneale may not be as immediately recognizable to mainstream audiences as, oh, Ray Bradbury, or Arthur C. Clarke, or maybe even Richard Matheson, but for that small circle of geeks who do know him, he’s legendary. If not for Kneale’s pioneering work in 1950s television, shows like Doctor Who and The X Files would likely have been very different, if they existed at all. It’s no exaggeration to say that he changed the very face and direction of science fiction, though it was pretty much all an accident.

He began his career in the late 1940s, reading his own short stories aloud on BBC radio. They were quite popular, but after the stories were collected and released as an award-winning book, Kneale decided to turn his attention to writing scripts. In 1951, after a couple of his radio dramas had been produced, he was offered a job in the drama department of the BBC’s still-fledgling television unit. His specialty would become adapting popular stories and classics for the small screen.

It was there that Kneale and director Rudolph Cartier agreed that the programs being aired on the BBC were too slow, too stiff, too much like filmed stage plays. They were just too damned British is what they were, and something needed to be done. Together they would revolutionize British television, and Kneale himself, over a career that would last nearly five decades, would become one of the most important and influential screenwriters in England—thanks in no small part to one of his characters, Prof. Bernard Quatermass.

In an era when scientists from Victor Frankenstein to Edward Teller were portrayed and perceived as evil geniuses, war mongers, or power mad maniacs unable to control their own deadly discoveries, Kneale created the rocket scientist Quatermass, who was rational, sober, and noble, whose only interest was in pure research and who fought to ensure his rockets were used as they were intended: for space exploration, not for blowing up commies. But pushy and cement-headed governmental and military authorities were only the beginning of his troubles, and compared with some of the other things he’d be encountering, a mere annoyance.

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In 1953, Kneale and Cartier introduced Quatermass in a six-part, three-hour miniseries, The Quatermass Experiment. A radical break from the costume and domestic dramas that had marked BBC television up to that point, it was the first time anyone had dared present English TV viewers with science fiction and horror.

When the first manned flight into space (in one of Quatermass’ rockets) returns off course and off schedule missing two astronauts and with the remaining astronaut sick with some unknown disease, well, Quatermass has a mystery on his hands. What begins as a mystery anyway soon becomes a nightmare when the sick astronaut starts absorbing every life form around him and quickly devolves into some kind of alien blob that terrorizes London. As the creature continues to grow and eat people, it becomes evident that the blob poses a threat to the entire world unless Quatermass can figure out a way to stop it.

Despite the above description, it was an extremely intelligent, complex, and genuinely frightening story, with an undercurrent of philosophical inquiry. Not only did it represent something new for British TV viewers, it represented a new kind of science fiction film with a wholly new kind of alien invasion. These weren’t rubber bug-eyed monsters or men in funny spacesuits anymore. The Quatermass Experiment was performed live before the cameras every week, and regardless of its low budget and lack of special effects it drew enormous audiences. Kneale knew how to use dialogue and character to drive a thrilling and terrifying story. At the same time, as so many had before him, he used the camouflage of a science fiction story to deal with contemporary Cold War issues, but in such a subtle and understated way that it was easy to watch the show as simply an exciting tale about an alien invasion and a world in peril, not a lecture.

Even on the simplest of technical levels, the show was something vibrantly new. The cameras moved, the acting was naturalistic, not stage bound, and even if the special effects weren’t great, they were trying. For the times, the show had real zing.

Two things happened as the result of the series’ success. First, the BBC immediately began nagging Kneale for more Quatermass, and (in an underhanded move beyond his control, he would later claim), the rights to The Quatermass Experiment were sold to Hammer Films, who wanted to turn it into a feature. Both were realized in 1955.

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Quatermass 2, again teaming Kneale with Cartier, found Quatermass once more confronted both with government ignorance and a sinister alien invasion. This time, when a shower of thousands of tiny but strangely aerodynamic meteorites falls across England, nobody seems to consider it anything more than a curiosity. Meanwhile, Quatermass has been having a devil of a time getting his latest rocket design off the launchpad.

Well, though, when these little meteorites start cracking open and the gaseous aliens inside start possessing humans, and those alien-possessed humans start building a secret factory in the middle of nowhere, Quatermass realizes he has another spot of trouble on his hands. In the end the only way to stop the bodysnatching and human enslavement is to head out into space in one of his own rockets.

Although they still had no effects budget to work with, the results were again complex, thought-provoking, extremely intelligent (with more quiet Cold War commentary), and drew even larger audiences than the original.

Meanwhile, Hammer released The Quatermass Xperment (the dropped “E” was used to emphasize the film’s X rating). Seasoned screenwriter Richard H. Landau had been brought in to condense Kneale’s three-hour script to a more manageable 90 minutes, Val Guest (who had never directed sci-fi before) was hired to direct, and American character actor Brian Donlevy was cast as Quatermass to help in the American distribution.

Kneale was, you might say, less than pleased with what had happened to his story. He was particularly upset with the choice of Donlevy to play the head of the British Experimental Rocket Group. In interview after interview he made a point of attacking the actor’s weight, acting ability, and drinking problem. (To be honest, those who had seen Donlevy in countless films prior to this might find it much easier to believe him as a brass tacks prison warden or DA than as a serious research scientist.) He was also upset about the cuts and additions to the plot and dialogue, and never fully forgave Val Guest.

(Sadly, comparisons between the original BBC production and the Hammer film are impossible, as only the first two episodes of the original still exist. Personally—Donlevy aside—I think Guest crafted a fine and atmospheric film that remains deeply creepy today. Hammer had the effects budget to put some of Kneale’s descriptions on the screen, and the monster in particular is especially effective.)

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When the BBC sold the Quatermass 2 film rights to Hammer, Kneale insisted that he be given the chance to write his own screenplay. Unfortunately for him this meant working together with Guest, who once more had been signed to direct. Worse, noting Kneale’s script was much too long. Guest made a few cuts of his own and rewrote some of the dialogue. He even completely changed the ending, scrapping Quatermass’ trip into space. (As Kneale would put it, Guest dumbed it down.) Even more mortifying, the chubby, drunken and gruff Donlevy would once again play the austere and brilliant Prof. Quatermass.

In the end and in spite of his serious misgivings with what the film became by the time of its 1957 release, including a changed title for the US market, Kneale would admit that Guest’s new ending was better than his own.

All their clear differences aside, Kneale and Guest would work together once again that same year on The Abominable Snowman, based on Kneale’s 1955 teleplay, The Creature.

A scientific expedition (led by Peter Cushing and a boisterous, loudmouthed Forrest Tucker) encounters what else but an abominable snowman. While at first the creature is taken as a hideous, vicious monster, what with all the dog and Sherpa killing, Kneale’s script (as per usual) uses the creature as the focus of a debate about the nature of man.

This time around things were much smoother. Kneale’s original script was 90 minutes long, so no major cuts had to be made (though Guest trimmed some of the dialogue, feeling it was too talky). Kneale was pleased with the cast, many of whom had come directly from the BBC version, including Cushing (who had also starred in Kneale’s acclaimed adaptation of Orwell’s 1984). And the budget allowed for an escape from the constraints of a live production’s limited sets and special effects. (Kneale recalls that during a “snowstorm” scene in the original BBC broadcast, you could clearly see the stagehand with a push broom stirring up the sawdust that was standing in for snow.)

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Kneale’s only major gripe was with Guest’s insistence that the Yeti never be fully revealed. Kneale felt this was cheating the audience, while Guest wanted the audience to use their imaginations, as nothing he could show them would match the horrors they envisioned. In the final cut of the film it’s obvious they reached some kind of compromise, and one that works for both sides.

As with their previous collaboration, it was an extremely successful film, both on intellectual and aesthetic terms as well as commercially.

The following year and under great pressure from the BBC, Kneale revived Quatermass for what he hoped would be the last time with Quatermass and the Pit. The less said about the always-surprising story the better. Let’s just say it begins with the discovery of what may or may not be an unexploded German V-2 rocket at a construction site and evolves into another unexpected alien invasion, this time one that can be traced back thousands, perhaps millions of years.

It’s really, really something, and decades later would prove to be a direct influence on Chris Carter. Following the broadcast it was hailed as a highpoint for British television, and Kneale’s script is an undeniably brilliant one.

After the miniseries, he began dividing his time more evenly between television and features, as well as between science fiction and serious drama. Still considered a master of the literary adaptation, in 1960 he wrote the screenplays for John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer, both of which went on to be considered classics. In 1964 he wrote a wonderful script with a neat bookending twist for a film version of H.G. Wells First Men in the Moon featuring the stop motion work of Ray Harryhausen. His original 1968 dystopian teleplay The Year of the Sex Olympics is seen today as a frighteningly prescient vision of a culture sedated by reality television pushed to its logical conclusion. Made a few years after that, his technological ghost story The Stone Tapes remains just as effective in the digital age.

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In 1967, almost ten years after it first aired, he returned to Hammer Studios to work on the film version of Quatermass and the Pit, this time with director Roy Ward Baker and starring Andrew Kier, who may well be the best Quatermass of them all.

More than either of the other features, Quatermass and the Pit, in spite of its shorter run time, sticks remarkably close to the original miniseries. Baker understood and respected the material and used the resources at Hammer to bring it to glorious life. And Kier seems to breathe the role of Quatermass, an honest-to-god scientist who has somehow once again found himself caught between lunkheaded military officials, a public that won’t listen, and a wholly unexpected kind of alien invasion. Along the way Kneale slips in some awfully provocative thoughts about the origins and nature of mankind, but as has always been the case in his work, he’s not ham-fisted and dreary about it; he lets the facts of the story and the developing plot make his points for him. Screw that though. The film scared the shit out of me when I was a kid and it scares the shit out of me now. I love all the Quatermass films, but this is the best of the lot.

For the next ten years he returned to television, writing for several series across several genres, all the while resisting the requests to bring Quatermass back. Professor Quatermass, he said, had already saved the world three times, and that’s enough.

But in 1979 he returned one last time with a sprawling, big budget miniseries starring John Mills and entitled simply Quatermass. This time the professor finds himself in a dystopian future in which England is overrun with gangs, the economy has collapsed, and an alien force of some kind is reducing large groups of smelly New Age hippies to a fine white powder. However much some of us might want to encourage Quatermass to just stay the hell out of it this time, just let the aliens go about their business (I mean, why mess with a good thing, right?), the good doctor feels it’s his duty to figure out what’s happening and stop it if he can. While attempting to uncover the nature of the mystery, we learn a great deal about Quatermass’ private life—something that had been missing from all the other films.

In a move he later admits was a mistake from the beginning, Kneale was asked to write a miniseries that could easily be cut down directly to 100 minutes for a ready-made theatrical release. While the original version was no less intelligent and multi-layered as any of the others, the chopped down film version (released as The Quatermass Conclusion) was a confounding mess, essentially a collection of scenes from the original strung together with little thought to story or character.

Kneale himself expressed his dissatisfaction with both the long and short versions, this time taking the responsibility himself, admitting the story didn’t work the way he wanted it to. In a 1992 radio piece, The Quatermass Memoirs, he all but ignores the very existence of the fourth entry. Yet interestingly enough, his only novel—released in 1979 to coincide with the airing—was in fact a novelization of Quatermass.

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In 1982 he was approached by John Carpenter and Debra Hill to write a film they were producing. It was their attempt to reclaim the Halloween franchise and return it to its original concept, as a series of unique, unrelated films connected only by the common Halloween theme. At the time, Joe Dante was signed on to direct. What they wanted from Kneale for Halloween III: Season of the Witch was a story about witchcraft in the computer age. What they got was a wild conspiracy horror story about an evil Irish toymaker who, using a stolen chunk of Stonehenge, wants to celebrate Halloween the way his ancestors did, namely by killing millions of children with booby-trapped Halloween masks triggered by a TV signal.

Well, Dante left the project and Carpenter regular Tommy Lee Wallace took over as director. Wallace rewrote the script, Carpenter rewrote the script, and although Wallace insists the final shooting script was 60 percent Kneale, Kneale demanded his name be removed as the rewrites added too much gore and had once again oversimplified his story. Today Wallace gets the sole screenwriting credit, but has said time and again that he doesn’t deserve it.

With the great Dan O’Herlihy as the evil toymaker and Tom Attkins as a doctor who stumbles across the conspiracy (one that involves Irish robots, even!), it’s a neat, tight and completely insane little horror thriller. It was also absolutely savaged by critics and audiences alike upon its release for not being another movie about Michael Myers and a knife. In any case, to four or five of us anyway Halloween III remains the only film in the franchise worth caring about. And we still can’t get that fucking Silver Shamrock commercial jingle out of our heads.

After that Kneale continued to write for television, a medium he had livened up considerably, with only occasional forays into film, and a good deal of his work still garnered the highest praise. He turned down a number of jobs with shows he had directly inspired, including Doctor Who and The X Files. In 2005 he acted as a consultant when his original script for The Quatermass Experiment was resurrected and once again broadcast live on British TV. Fittingly, it was the last project he would be involved in, dying two years later at the age of 87. But his influence and extraordinary imagination—and the influence and imagination of Bernard Quatermass—is still quite evident today in both England and the States, on television and in films, in all of Chris Carter’s projects, in the films of Larry Cohen and John Carpenter, and to be honest in damn near everything I’ve ever written.

The sad thing is that these days, in this world he envisioned and helped create, Kneale would likely find it virtually impossible to sell his original screenplays, as the powers that be would label him (as they would label Quatermass) “too quirky.”


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