It was one of those rare, surprise successes. But could it be repeated?
In 1953, BBC staff scriptwriter, Nigel Kneale, convinced the Beeb to let him write a SF/horror play to fill an empty Saturday night slot. It was a huge success, drawing a record audience, and inspired their competitors to make their own SF serials. Hammer films made a movie version, and then showed Kneale the script they’d written for a sequel.
Kneale, however, wasn’t interested, and instead sat down and wrote his own sequel (Hammer shrugged, changed the name of the scientist hero and turned their script into X the Unknown).
Unfortunately, the original Quatermass, Reginald Tate, had died, so he was replaced by John Robinson (and Andre Morell would play him in the third serial). Robinson is perhaps the least of the Quatermasses, but still does a reasonably good job.
While his first attempt to send a rocket into space in the previous serial had ended disastrously, Professor Bernard Quatermass and his colleagues at the British Experimental Rocketry Group persevered in their efforts and had built a nuclear powered rocket. Unfortunately, the project was failure as the rocket was inherently unsafe and might explode at any time. Nor could he get government support for his planned Moonbase.
Despite all his other problems, Quatermass gets drawn into a mysterious series of events, involving swarms of highly unusual meteorites which keep landing in the same place — a top-secret factory making synthetic food.
However, when he investigates, his daughter’s fiancee is infected by something that comes out of a meteorite, and taken away by the factory guards…
For those who’ve seen the Hammer version, this undoubtedly sounds very familiar — except for the reference to his daughter and her fiancee. And in many respects, the story is quite similar, as Quatermass realizes that the invaders have been here for some time and have already infiltrated the government.
I suspect many American viewers will assume that this is a rip off of The Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, but the serial actually came out before the American film (although Jack Finney’s novel and Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters both preceded it)
But, with more time to work with, the serial spends more time on the characters, their motivations, and on some of the ordinary people drawn into the alien’s sinister plans. Perhaps the largest differences come near the end, where we do not see anything escape the wreckage of the aliens’ pressure dome except for mist and smoke, and a much longer final sequence when Quatermass and one of his fellow researchers take off in his rocket and land on the asteroid that is home to the invaders.
This serial, like the other two original Quatermass serials, was shot live with a few filmed inserts to cover the changes in sets and locations. This does, at times, mean that we get some unrelated events slowing down the story (like the vacationing family that gets shot before a big sequence set at the factory) However, a lot of care went into the production, so we find Hammer borrowing not only some of the same locations, but even some of the same camera set ups.
Perhaps the oddest change here involves Quatermass’ daughter. Kneale disliked the actress who played her, and he wrote the character out of the script for the movie version. Later he would kill her off off-screen in the final serial, Quatermass.
Fortunately, the serial survives intact, and it is a worthy follow-up to the legendary original. It looks extraordinarily good for a show shot live, and uses its budget remarkably well. While one can spot most of the tricks they used to stretch their budget as far as possible, it looks far better than most of the live shows that ran here in the Fifties. Like all of the Quatermass films, it deserves to be rediscovered.
And considering how few intelligent, thoughtful and complex SF films are out there these days, we really need our young filmmakers to revisit Professor Quatermass, and perhaps bring a little of Kneale’s dark, but deeply human approach to storytelling into their work.
(I strongly recommend the BBC set above for those who have a multi-region player. The three serials are all excellent, the extra materials are voluminous, and you couldn’t ask for a better introduction to Britain’s greatest SF hero)
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