The Quatermass Xperiment (1955)

In 1953, The Quatermass Experiment became Britain’s first landmark TV drama, drawing in massive audiences across the country. It was broadcast live, and copies were only made of the first two episodes – the other four were lost from the moment of transmission. On 2nd April 2005, BBC Four staged a live remake so gripping that it killed the Pope, but until then, all that existed to fill the void was Hammer’s film adaptation, released only two years after the original. The move to the big screen has plenty of benefits, plus a fair few shortcomings, but it’s fascinating to see what elements are emphasised to suit different audiences.

In Hammer’s first significant attempt at horror, those elements of the story are pushed further than the BBC serial’s forensic scientific investigation (the approach many would argue had made Quatermass what it was, and certainly influenced future generations of science-fiction). Director Val Guest is concerned most with the alien menace’s impact on the real world, as is clear from the new emphasis placed on the public in the beginning. Where Rudolph Cartier grounded us in Quatermass’s work with the British Rocket Group from the off, Val Guest takes us first to the site of a catastrophic rocket crash, surrounded by a crowd of spectators and flummoxed emergency services. Quatermass (Brian Donlevy) isn’t introduced for some time – the situation confronting the wider world comes first.

This allows for a certain level of symmetry perhaps lacking in the BBC version, with one public crisis at its leading to a new one at its close, when mutated surviving astronaut Victor Carroon (Richard Wordsworth) escapes into London and wreaks havoc. It’s worth noting that, while characters and relationships are sacrificed from Nigel Kneale’s original script (more on that below), one element that Hammer keeps and foregrounds is the menace’s contact with members of the public. From elderly vagrant Rosie’s (Thora Hird) realisation that for once she hasn’t hallucinated a monster to the film’s echo of James Whale’s Frankenstein (1930) when Carroon encounters an innocent child (a young Jane Asher), the threat posed to the real world is paramount. Crucially, the mutating Carroon’s interruption of a live TV broadcast brings the menace tantalisingly close to mass attention – a motif that recurs throughout Kneale’s Quatermass work.

Added to this, the higher production values of the film bring an exciting new scale to proceedings (admittedly, it’s not entirely fair to compare it to a programme it’s largely impossible to watch). The rocket crash feels a much larger event than it does in the surviving first TV episode, while the climax of the piece in Westminster Abbey is suitably evocative and gripping. Best of all is the excellent visual storytelling on display when Quatermass et al view the silent film from aboard the rocket of its astronauts’ inexplicable deaths. It’s handled with economy, but what glimpses we have of the men walking in zero-gravity (pre-dating 2001: A Space Odyssey by thirteen years) and collapsing amidst disorienting visual effects are enough to impress and unsettle, respectively.

Carroon’s transformation is similarly chilling at points, and due credit must go to Richard Wordsworth, whose stillness and quiet intensity make plain his fear and agony. His mutation, brought about by the astronauts’ encounter with an alien presence, also marks a clear difference in the film’s approach to the horrific element at the heart of the story. Less interested in the psychological unease of the TV version, the film focuses on the physical aspects, in particular when Carroon escapes from hospital. Cue shock reveals of his deformed hand and shots of his victims’ degraded bodies. This isn’t to say that the TV serial didn’t provide such terror – but that over six half-hours, this could be better tempered by the growing suspense unravelling the mystery of Carroon’s condition, and his comrades’ terrible fate. It’s also perhaps telling that the monstrous creature threatening our world is here defeated by a massive surge of electricity, not the TV version’s intellectual and emotional appeal from Professor Quatermass.

It’s fair to say, in this regard, that the film suffers largely in the shortcuts it makes, unnecessary on TV. Not only is the principal threat defeated by more conventional means on the big screen, but the characters seen here are less imaginatively drawn, not least Quatermass himself. For one thing, the change of climax robs him of his biggest moment in the story (though his steely devotion to his work in the final scene is well done and gives him an interesting further dimension). The TV Quatermass, though, is often more impotent than we see here – never is he at the mercy of a misguided authority figure in the film, and we worry precious little that he won’t solve the mystery. Perhaps the character’s less powerful TV persona could be seen as peculiarly British, not so well served by the brasher, Americanised portrayal of Brian Donlevy.

Elsewhere, time constraints allow for little of the exploration afforded to supporting characters in the original. Carroon’s wife Judith (Margia Dean), on TV a scientist assisting Quatermass, wracked by guilt for her extra-marital affair, is not only reduced to merely a doting wife, but is also unforgivably naïve in arranging for her husband to be smuggled out of hospital to care for him at home, when it’s amazingly striking just how unwell and unlike himself he is. Removing the sub-plot of her affair allows for greater focus on the horror of Carroon’s transformation, but it seems a shame to have fudged this more interesting character arc when the 2005 remake shows how an abridged version of the serial can accommodate it perfectly well.

In spite of this, The Quatermass Xperiment is a worthy entry into the canon – it is, after all, the earliest Quatermass story to survive in its entirety (released months before the BBC’s Quatermass II). Regardless of its shortcomings of character, it’s enjoyably tense, keeps some of the original’s maturity, and demonstrates how well bigger budgets and a grander scale can serve Nigel Kneale’s original ideas. Perhaps the competition from Hammer’s big screen versions gave the BBC the encouragement it needed to go the extra mile when, three years later, it produced one of British television’s great masterpieces in Quatermass and the Pit.

Quatermass Xperiment

2 thoughts on “The Quatermass Xperiment (1955)

  1. Really interesting review! I actually just had a class about the Quatermass Experiment (the first two episodes, obviously), but I haven’t seen the film. It sounds like it’s a similar thing to the Star Trek films – we read an article about the differences between Picard’s characterisation in The Next Generation and the film First Contact. Basically the gist was that in the series, Picard could defeat enemies through outsmarting them, but in the films he becomes much more a man of action. It’s sort of the same thing here – in the television series, the resolution involves thought and empathy, whereas the film requires a more spectacular display of force.

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    1. Thank you! Yes, exactly that. Interesting that narrative brevity seems to invite less adventurous drama in those cases, which strikes me as odd. Worth looking up the 2005 remake, much closer to the original in that regard. Expectations of drama shifting, or simply reverence to the legacy of the original? (BBC4 broadcast, less pressure to compete with the mainstream, and a viewership more likely to admire the heritage of cult TV.)

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