Professor Bernard Quatermass is one of the great sci-fi characters spanning more than 50 years of television & cinema – and yet you likely know nothing about him. I certainly didn’t until I sat down to watch one of his appearances – knowing about the ’67 film I realized upon inspection it was itself named after a ’58-’59 six-part BBC series (Quatermass and the Pit), so I watched that footage first. Enthralled with the overall theme of the series, I delved still deeper in, reading about and watching The Quatermass Xperiment (1955, aka The Creeping Unknown (USA title)), Enemy from Space (1957, aka Quatermass 2 (UK title)), Five Million Years to Earth (1967), and finally The Quatermass Experiment (2005 version). (This means I have not yet watched the original ’53 The Quatermass Experiment, the ’55 Quatermass II television episodes, or 1979’s The Quatermass Conclusion or Quatermass television episodes – yes, this character has been portrayed by no less than seven actors!)
Those are a lot of appearances and titles to keep track of. But one thing is clear to me: any singular appearance by Quatermass is well-portrayed, but it’s his constant resurfacing and re-imagining by his creator Nigel Kneale that is truly impressive. The character Quatermass does not simply update and adapt to the times – in some ways I think the ’55 film was ahead of the ’58/’59 series – but he does constantly shift and shape to the necessary story, making you un-think him as a linear character (he does not simply keep living) and more like a figure of speech (on screen). He is an idea (one that was clearly stirring around in Kneale’s mind for many years, and that he was thankfully able to manifest one last time in 2005, one year before his death).
Quatermass is always one step ahead of those around him on screen, thinking through the complexity of the facts to question the possibility of the next step. He’s also one step ahead of us off screen, even now, stating in the 1967 film, “The will to survive is an odd phenomenon. Roney, if we found out our own world was doomed, say by climatic changes, what would we do about it?” The answer by Dr. Mathew Roney is wildly prophetic, “Nothing, just go on squabbling like usual.”
And then there is the issue of what is normal?
When dealing with the odd, the supernatural, the phenomenal, in nearly every appearance of Quatermass (again I haven’t watched them all) is some instance of the notion of normal!
In the ’55 movie The Quatermass Xperiment (known by American audiences as The Creeping Unknown – “There’s no room for personal feelings in science Judith!”), Professor Quatermass is himself responsible for the “xperiment” of launching three men into space in a rocket – while only one has returned. That astronaut, Victor Carroon, goes through some transformations – physical and likely also mental – and later finds himself at a chemist shop. After storming his way in he pillages the supplies on the shelf. When police are later called to the scene, they inspect the stock that Carroon (that creeper!) was muddling with:
Was he trying to kill himself? He should be dead! These drugs at ‘normal’ mixing would have killed any ordinary man! “Whaaat?” Brilliant.
Fast-forward a couple years and the same Professor Quatermass (played by Brian Donlevy) is no longer launching rockets into space. The agency that he’s head of in Quatermass II is running over-budget and his ideas – “solar mirrors, producer units, pressure domes…” – are not understood by “Whitehall bureaucrats.” Or are they? Muwahahahaha!!
While out exploring, Quatermass stumbles upon an area where some quaint English town used to be that instead resembles his “moon project” facility. One of his best engineers is incapacitated when some pod-spore spews its contents onto his face, and they’re surrounded by guards who force Quatermass to leave while they tend to the engineer.
Suspicious that something else is going on there – he essentially just had one of his best engineers kidnapped! – he works his network and is connected with the one suspicious Member of Parliament who happens to have an appointment to visit the facility that day as part of an “inspection group.” The posse is made up of 7 men and 1 woman, who upon exiting their vehicles encounter the following:
Nothing ‘abnormal’ about catcalling in 1957!
And we’d later find out why … you see, while the facility itself may be an incubator for alien life, the workers running the equipment are anything but alien. Quatermass calls upon a ‘numbskull’ reporter who carries gin around in his pocket exchanging shots-for-stories, asking the journalist to diatribe the whole conspiracy for the next newspaper edition. Quatermass explains the scenario, and that’s when we learn the true nature of those industry workers:
They’re normal! Numbskulls like that reporter. Ordinary folk, not alien power players or pod-spore infected beings. Just normal people.
(The full before-and-after scenes from this cut with a lot more – and brilliant – context can be watched here.)
The following year BBC would begin rolling out Quatermass and the Pit, a completely original retelling of the role of Quatermass as an academic whose civilian rocket group is slowly being encroached by military interests. Quatermass has an archaeologist friend who has unearthed a number of skeletal remains of ape-men from the pliocene epoch, dating them at 5 million years old. Upon further digging a rounded hull of sorts is uncovered; the diggers assume it to be an ‘unexploded bomb‘ – leading to one of the more ludicrous-to-Americans but real-for-Britons scenes I’ve encountered in television. The shape is indeed some sort of hull, a rocket of sorts, perhaps a German missile! Colonel James Breen, a military hack assigned to overtake the rocket group, is convinced of this, and later in the series when attempting to convince the Minister [of Defense?] of the sanity of his theory – versus the one Quatermass has proposed of a thinking mechanical-on-its-own spaceship – the following exchange takes place:
Right-o enough with all this silly alien mumbo jumbo – let’s get back to normal!
The 1967 film has the most interesting – and most Quatermass-less – title: Five Million Years to Earth (although it went by the same title as the BBC television series for UK audiences – man that’s confusing!). It essentially updates the television series with slightly more sophisticated art & props, and condenses the whole story down to 97 minutes (from over 3 hours for the original series, aired over 6 episodes of 30+ minutes each). The above scene, where Breen and the Minister discuss the “mysterious missile” is re-enacted nearly line-for-line in the ’67 film, but falls just short at getting “things back to normal.” However there is, much to my amusement, another instance of normal in the film that is brilliant in its own delivery:
You can’t make this stuff up!
And now jump nearly 40 years later, in 2005 the BBC again adapted the story of Quatermass, with Nigel Kneale penning one last screenplay. This is important because Kneale went back to some of his original sub-plots, like the pillaging of a pharmacy for chemistry that would kill any human under ….. ordinary circumstances. Or did I mean …
You have to imagine how giddy I was when this line was spoken! I clapped. I literally clapped!
So there you have it. Five for five. I watched five Quatermass screenplays made over a fifty year span, and each one had some mention or play on normal. Unbelievable. Yes I still have numerous other Quatermass screenplays to watch, but I’ll update this post as I find them and find the time to watch them. For now, some quick thoughts on the series themselves:
They’re all great, remarkable even. They each have their own moments, sub-plots, and scenarios (sets, shots, and props) that make them each unique and wonderful. From the Orwellian signage and slogans throughout the “law-abiding community” in Enemy from Space to the scene in The Quatermass Xperiment where the astronaut, recorded on film, walks sideways up the interior of the rocket hull (an obvious pre-cursor to Kubrick’s seminal 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey). From the Tate-in-cheek architectural tour in 2005’s The Quatermass Experiment reboot to the moment in Five Million Years to Earth when the rocket-hull melts and unveils the vault with the alien-prism inside (love that scene!). I think Enemy from Space is my overall favorite of the screenplays I’ve watched, although I’m partial the portrayal of Quatermass in the ’67 film the most; Andrew Keir is simply a good British actor (of Scottish origin) who encapsulated this character to its fullest potential.
From films by John Carpenter to the personality of Ziggy Stardust, the influence of Quatermass lives on!