Bernard Quatermass was always a very unorthodox and unlikely science fiction hero. Yet in the 1950s this middle-aged boffin working for the British Rocket Group, usually dressed in a comfy sensible overcoat, enthralled and genuinely terrified a post-War British TV public in three legendary BBC TV serials which made science fiction a respectable and legitimate form of television entertainment.
Twenty years after his final appearance in Quatermass and the Pit in 1959, Bernard returned to British TV for one more adventure in 1979. But this was to be a very different Quatermass in a story which, although written in the late 1960s for a proposed fourth BBC serial, absolutely reflects the worries and concerns of a grim, industrial decade riven by strife, unemployment, austerity and a growing sense of public unrest and despair. TV dystopias have rarely been as unrelentingly bleak as Quatermass, a story which again pits Bernard, now long-since retired and living in splendid isolation is Scotland, against a hostile and ruthless alien intelligence.
Somewhere in the last quarter of the twentieth century, a melodramatic voiceover tells us at the beginning of the first episode, “the whole word seemed to sicken... as if some primal disorder was reasserting itself.” Civilisation, it seems, is hanging by a thread. Law and order has gone to pot, the UK is on its knees, its population disenfranchised, its rubble-strewn, decaying streets ruled by vicious machine-gun toting thugs and muggers and power-cuts are common place. Bernard Quatermass comes to London in search of his granddaughter who, he suspects, has fallen under the spell of the hippy-like Planet People who believe that their destiny lies in the stars and that they will be transported to a harmonious new world. Quatermass meets up with scientist Joe Capp (Simon MacCorkindale) who is monitoring strange anomalous space transmissions from his countryside radio telescope tracking station. But when hundreds of Planet People congregating at a nearby stone circle known as Ringstone Round are vaporised by a beam of light, Quatermass soon realises that the planet is again under attack from some mysterious alien force...
Time has been surprisingly kind to Quatermass – helped, of course, by this stunningly sharp new Blu-ray transfer courtesy of Network. The four episodes not only encapsulate the concerns of the time it was made, but many of them seem just as relevant today as society becomes increasingly fragmented and directionless. Quatermass himself is no longer the figure of authority he was in his glory days; now he’s old and tired and he finds himself bounced between various factions as reports of similar cullings take place around the world lead him to realise the true scale of the disaster facing Mankind. There are echoes of the Torchwood mini-series Children of Earth in a story where the aliens – we never learn who they are or where they come from – regard Earth as a protein food source and have intentions which are far from benevolent.
Quatermass is wonderfully atmospheric stuff and Euston Films, who produced the series for ITV, made the most of their then-generous £1.25 million budget. Urban sequences look grubby and rundown, motorways are littered with abandoned cars and abandoned bodies and whilst it’s hardly an effects-driven piece, there’s something cold and chilling about the glowing beam of light which arcs down from the sky to turn the pitiful Planet People into dust. A sequence set in the now-demolished Wembley Stadium – and its terrible aftermath – is hauntingly realised and genuinely quite disturbing, the atmosphere turned green due to the sheer number of young people vaporised all across the world. John Mills invests Quatermass with a wonderful bewildered weariness and yet the old genius is never far from the surface and he retains the twinkling brilliance of his younger days when he finally assembles a team of scientists and works with them to suggest the only possible resolution to a dilemma threatening a battered Mankind. The finale is touching and dramatic as Quatermass saves the day one more time and, at last, there seems to be note of optimism for humanity amidst all the chaos and confusion.
Quatermass in 1979, as it was in the 1950s, is intelligent and thoughtful science-fiction for adults. It’s uncompromising – core characters are killed off dispassionately and apparently arbitrarily – and despite pacing issues which might leave a modern audience slightly restless it’s utterly gripping, immersive and, despite its provenance in the 1970s, surprisingly timeless if not timely. A slice of classic British genre television to cherish.
Special Features: Music only tracks for all four episodes / Episode recaps / Textless titles / Image gallery / Theatrical version restoration / Souvenir booklet
QUATERMASS / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: PIERS HAGGARD / SCREENPLAY: NIGEL KNEALE / STARRING: JOHN MILLS, SIMON MACCORKINDALE, MARGARET TYZACK, BARBARA KELLERMAN, BREWSTER MASON / RELEASE DATE: JULY 27TH