Celebrating Quatermass: sixty years on

To mark its 60th birthday, Philip salutes the Quatermass series, the grandfather of Doctor Who and mainstream UK sci-fi...

This year sees the anniversary of an iconic sci-fi show, perhaps one of the most important in British TV history. Pioneering in both writing and production, the show left an indelible heritage to the genre that will outlast even this diamond anniversary: Quatermass is sixty years old.

Professor Bernard Quatermass, leader of the British space programme, first appeared on the 18th of July 1953. Quatermass’ name – with its unusual surname and forename reference to the astronomer, Bernard Lovell – was intended to provide a sense of “awe and magnitude” to his character. In The Quatermass Experiment, the professor deals with the return of a manned space mission where the sole survivor transforms into something alien. This story only partially survives and was re-made live by the BBC in 2005 (where David Tennant is first referred to as the ‘Doctor’ by an ad-libbing Jason Flemyng).

In 1955, Quatermass II found the professor contending with an alien conspiracy gripping the heart of government. Concluding the classic Quatermass trilogy – all of which would be made into Hammer Films – is 1959’s Quatermass and the Pit, in which Bernard investigates an ancient spaceship buried under London and its links to mankind’s origins.

After twenty years off the small screen, The Quatermass Conclusion was broadcast on ITV, (though a later radio play – The Quatermass Memoirs – would help fill the gap). In the concluding story the now reclusive Quatermass must save his granddaughter from societal breakdown and alien attack.

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The show was the result of the union between a visionary writer and an equally ambitious director. The former was Nigel Kneale, who was drawn to TV by the potential of the medium but frustrated at the lack of vision within the industry. The latter was Rudolph Cartier, a well-respected producer/director with a drive to achieve the unattained. Kneale provided the vision, Cartier’s similarly uncompromising approach delivered it.

When the series began in 1953, it was entirely novel to television. Kneale wanted to write intelligent and realistic sci-fi rather than the flashy, shallow fare of American movies, but was frustrated by the BBC culture of TV as “radio with pictures”. He grabbed his chance when asked to write an emergency schedule-filling serial. To realise such a revolutionary programme the duo of Kneale and Cartier would end up creating their own visual effects; the BBC’s own department found Quatermass too difficult.

Kneale would go on to be recognised as one of the most important sci-fi writers ever. As it happened, Kneale had already developed the idea for the three types of sci-fi plot he would like to write but only put them into practice in the classic Quatermass serials. As he put it, these were “we go to them, they come to us, and they’ve always been here”.

Not only would his triumvirate of plots be played out in Quatermass but they became staples of sci-fi; that Kneale and Cartier were able to realise these three stories in such visionary pieces of TV explains the long-lasting influence of Quatermass. Indeed given some of the similarities between the conspiracy plots of Quatermass II and The X Files, it is no surprise that Kneale was asked to write for the latter.

Quatermass endeavoured to keep its settings grounded. The space rocket of The Quatermass Experiment brings the world of sci-fi literally crashing down into suburbia. Eschewing the fantastical outer space trappings of Americana B-movies, Kneale would instead employ the juxtaposition of the extra-terrestrial in our own backyards. This led to the philosophy in Doctor Who, as quipped by Jon Pertwee, that “there’s nothing more scary than coming home and finding a Yeti on your loo in Tooting Bec”.

Much as Who would later do, Kneale also utilised settings in the public consciousness. The Quatermass Experiment reaches its climax in Westminster Abbey, only a few months after it had hosted the Coronation (Perhaps the settings of Quatermass II and The Quatermass Conclusion being an alien-feeling real world, rather than a real world with aliens in it, may explain why they aren’t as highly regarded). Using London so predominantly also made filming more practical. The British TV sci-fi cliché of the aliens invading the Home Counties had begun (We need more alien invasions of Birmingham. Birmingham would wear an apocalypse well).

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Kneale also felt it important to populate his world with realistic and relatable inhabitants. Keen to move away from the clichés of space pilots, Quatermass would interact with ordinary people. Kneale really helped to develop the idea of an ‘active academic’ – a brilliant scientist with a strong moral compass that uses his wits and intelligence, rather than violence, to solve mysteries and overcome odds (particularly notable in the resolutions for both The Quatermass Experiment and Quatermass and the Pit).

However it was Kneale’s determination to depict a realistic character that ultimately prevented more stories being made. After the classic three serials, Kneale felt that it would be unrealistic for the character to save the world again – Quatermass is only human after all. When Quatermass was finally brought out of retirement, Kneale decided to ensure as final a conclusion for his character as was possible – much as Arthur Conan-Doyle had attempted with his successful detective.

Given Quatermass’ ground-breaking achievements it is unsurprising that renowned figures such as Stephen King and John Carpenter have utilised, cited and even referenced it. However it is Doctor Who that bears the strongest familial bond to Kneale’s creation, which it mined for inspiration proudly. The Ambassadors of Death; The Seeds of Doom; Spearhead from Space; Image of the Fendahl and even The Lazarus Experiment draw greatly from Quatermass, and you can look out for direct nods to the character in Remembrance of the Daleks and Planet of the Dead.

Indeed, the Doctor’s exile during Pertwee’s tenure was done by the production team, in part, to emulate the feel of the Quatermass stories and Doctor Who’s historic efforts to develop visual effects clearly mirror Quatermass’ own production. It can even be argued that the character of the Doctor owes a lot to the character of Quatermass. Kneale himself may not have been an admirer, but whilst Sydney Newman and Verity Lambert may be considered the parents of Doctor Who it can also be seen that Kneale, Cartier and Quatermass are its grandparents. But the success of Doctor Who isn’t the greatest single legacy that Quatermass left.

Doctor Who may not have even existed had Quatermass not won Kneale’s battle to prove the potential of sci-fi for mainstream BBC. Quatermass was hugely popular, achieving eleven million viewers in these early days of mainstream TV. Not only were people watching the Quatermass stories but they were talking about them too – reportedly emptying pubs whilst the show was on. Hereford City Council proposed an early adjournment in order to see the show and Kneale even had a request from someone asking to know the resolution as they would miss it on account of becoming a nun!

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Reminiscent of today’s show-runners Kneale even had to guard against spoiler leaks in the press, not a surprise as this was the beginning of the concept that we now call ‘Event TV’. As a result, Quatermass gained recognition amongst the BBC for being the type of programme with which they may be able to combat the new commercial TV stations – a lesson proved once again by a certain show in 2005.

Doctor Who may be a particularly strong example of Quatermass’ legacy but by proving that sci-fi could be created for, and appreciated by, a mainstream television audience, Quatermass paved the way for mainstream British TV sci-fi as a whole.

If they ever do reveal the Doctor’s real name, they could do a lot worse than Bernard.

Read more about Quatermass on Den of Geek, here.

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