Monday 16 February 2015

Why Quatermass and the Pit Still Matters

Written by Louise MacGregor

There isn’t a British sci-fi series alive that doesn’t owe some debt to Nigel Kneale.

And I’m not just saying that because I needed a good first sentence - go ask Mark Gatiss, any writer for the original Doctor Who series or noted critics like Kim Newman if you don’t believe me.

In an almost unanimous move, British television has taken Kneale’s Quatermass series as the gold standard for what can be achieved in sci-fi tv shows.

But the question is, why?

What has kept an obscure, high-concept sci-fi show from the fifties afloat well over half a century after it was broadcast?

Quatermass – An Unlikely Hero

The first and possibly most important factor in the three-part Quatermass serial (The Quatermass Experiment, Quatermass II, and Quatermass and the Pit) broadcast between 1958 and 1959 Is Quatermass himself.

That instantly memorable name lodged itself permanently in the memories of thousands of science fiction fans, directors, and writers alike, because Quatermass was something a bit different.

He wasn’t a buffed-up action hero who you’d be more likely to find wielding a big gun than you would a firm grounding in rocket science, nor was he a disarmingly charming take on the scientific Casanova.

Quatermass is the hinge point of the Quatermass universe; everyone around him is losing their heads while he keeps his. He’s a moment of silence around which the wall-to-wall ideas of the series could rotate.

He’s the first recognisably science-fiction hero, a leading man who didn’t have anything to prove to anyone and did what he did because it was good or because it was interesting.

Portrayed by no less than seven actors since his inception in the fifties, Andre Morell’s iconic performance in Quatermass and the Pit remains the ultimate interpretation of his character (and I’ll take to the mat anyone who says otherwise).

The Multi-Genre Universe of Quatermass

But once you take a step back from the character himself, there’s a lot more going in this series than just science fiction.

For some reason that’s beyond me (as someone who thinks Doctor Who might well run through my veins), science fiction is often seen as a niche subject, something than directors and writers have to fight to make interesting or populist.

Almost seamlessly, Quatermass worked in elements of detective shows, horror, speculative fiction, biblical terror and body horror into what amounted to a strikingly interesting science fiction framing device.

Here was proof, undeniable proof, that aliens and beings from another world weren’t just little green men being tussled with by shrieking women and sturdy men.

They could absorb and examine other genres with ease, permanently opening up the science fiction genre in ways that Doctor Who, Battlestar Galactica et al should be eternally grateful for.

To suggest that the Quatermass serial was niche because of its sci-fi credentials is to assume that the people you’re showing it to hate all television ever made.

Quatermass and his exploits represent a TV-license justifying pinnacle of the BBC’s sci-fi output. Genre-bending, ground-breaking, and impeccably produced, just don’t argue this with me after I’ve had a few drinks. Because I can’t be held responsible for my actions.

Read more about the thoughts inside Louise's head over at The Three Penny Guignol

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