Pop Between Realities, Home In Time for Tea 2 (Quatermass)
Pop Between Realities, Home in Time for Tea is a recurring feature in which things that are not Doctor Who are looked at in terms of their relation to Doctor Who. This time, we look at Nigel Kneale’s classic science fiction serials, the Quatermass series.
If you kidnapped somebody from November 24th, 1963, and asked them about British televised science fiction, it would be self-evident that the most important thing to talk about is Nigel Kneale’s set of three serials in the 1950s, The Quatermass Experiment, Quatermass II, and Quatermass and the Pit. Still influential well into the 1960s due to the adaptations by Hammer Films into The Quatermass Xperiment (1955, The X refers to the film rating they were going for), Quatermass 2 (1957), and, in 1967, their version of Quatermass and the Pit, everybody knows that the Quatermass serials were major influences on Doctor Who, which is why Kneale refused to write for the program, viewing it as just a ripoff of his ideas.
And really, with even a cursory glance at the first three seasons of Doctor Who, you can see just how much the show relied on Quatermass. Just look at all the stories featuring intense paranoia about space, a government that is evil and untrustworthy out of misguided virtue, and broad global terrors of alien invasions that threaten to consume the Earth. It’s a wonder Kneale didn’t sue over the rip-offs, really.
Hopefully you see what I did there. If not, suffice it to say that up to this point, it’s far easier to discuss the ways in which Doctor Who is a decisive break with the Quatermass tradition than it is to discuss the similarities. That won’t always be true, of course – in particular when we hit the Pertwee era and Season 7, the show actually will start to (arguably) act like a Quatermass clone. Even then, Lance Parkin, in an essay reprinted in the first volume of Mad Norwegian Press’s fantastic Time Unincorporated series, makes a fairly compelling argument that the influence of Quatermass on Doctor Who is egregiously overstated.
Let’s look at the actual series. The three 50s Quatermass serials belonged to the classic live transmission school of television – with only a few exceptions of inserted scenes in the later two, all of Quatermass was shot live. The original Quatermass Experiment, in fact, only has its first two episodes in existence not because the BBC wiped the tapes a la Doctor Who, but because there were no tapes in the firstplace – nobody actually tried to record it for posterity. (The first two only exist because of an aborted plan to sell the show to Canada) Watching them now is… an interesting experience. As with most serials, they transplant somewhat poorly to the modern era, or at least, to the modern practice of watching them as a movie that occasionally runs the credits in the middle of the feature.
But one thing that does come across is an amazing sense of tone. The Quatermass serials throb with a growing sense of paranoia and panic, with the constant sense that there are terrible things in the world and that humanity is on a slow and relentless march towards its own destruction with only the enlightened men of science able to stem the tide. The three classic serials have instantly memorable premises – the British Rocket Group’s first manned launch goes horribly wrong and only one astronaut returns, and he’s possessed by an enormous vegetable creature that wants to consume the Earth. Some meteors crash to the Earth and break open, exposing people to a pathogen that leaves them mind-controlled drones preparing for an alien invasion. And, perhaps most memorably, Quatermass and the Pit, in which a buried spaceship reveals that humans are actually evolved from aliens and that all of the classic British folklore about goblins and demons is really about aliens.
But in execution, there’s something weirdly timeless about them. I should clarify, I mean timeless in the sense of not fitting in anywhere. The frenetic energy of the serials makes them feel ahead of their time in the 1950s, but by the time of the 1967 Hammer version of Quatermass and the Pit, there’s already something stilted about the entire affair. Perhaps the weirdest and most educational version to watch is the 2005 BBC production of The Quatermass Experiment, in which a lightly abridged version of Kneale’s scripts was used for a live-on-TV performance in the style of the 1950s, only featuring David Tennant, Mark Gatiss, and Indira Varma. Watching modern actors try to find any nuance or depth in Kneale’s dialogue is an at times actively painful experience (Tennant, more than once, seems openly annoyed at the lack of rhythm or lilt to his expository monologues, and you can just about hear him praying that his upcoming scenes of technobabble in Doctor Who don’t go like this. On the other hand, Mark Gatiss is better than I’ve ever seen him), but on the other hand, for all the bizarre anachronism of it, what is perhaps most remarkable is just how watchable it is. It has no business working, but it does.
So I suppose that’s one similarity with Doctor Who, which also has no business surviving from 1963 to 2011 and counting. And there are some other similarities, taken as a whole – Quatermass had three different actors on television, two in the movie series, and two more who have played the role since those. Lacking in a sense of clear continuity, Quatermass is a mode of science fiction that is unusual today – less a distinct world and setting than a style of story and a type of main character. The only other obvious example of this, of course, is Doctor Who. And, of course, as I’ve reiterated time and time again, the serialized format is crucial to both shows (and seriously, we did unbelievable harm to Doctor Who when we reduced it to an anthology series of movies instead of a proper serial.) And I suppose both do have male scientist protagonists.
But past a vague structural similarity and an uncanny endurance, it’s easier to spot the differences. For one thing, Quatermass is much more grounded in England than Doctor Who has been thus far. I mean, yes, Doctor Who has from day one shown a bias towards contemporary Earth and particularly London. Since the show debuted, the TARDIS has touched down in near-contemporary England four times (An Unearthly Child, Planet of Giants, The Daleks’ Master Plan, and The Massacre), and in contemporary New York once. That’s way out of proportion to the number of times that, for instance, the 57th Segment of Time, Marinus, or 15th century Mexico have been visited. But the stop-offs have mostly been brief. The only time the show used contemporary England as the primary setting for an adventure, Planet of Giants, the hook was that the crew was miniaturized – i.e. they were still on an alien world, even if it was one that we recognized as a strange variation on our own. And when we visited London proper (interestingly in the next adventure), it was a ruined post-apocalyptic London. The interest, in other words, is in presenting variations on our world, whereas in Quatermass, it is in providing our world going wrong.
The difference is perhaps subtle, but it is significant. Doctor Who featured a character from contemporary England in all but five stories in the Hartnell era. Of those five, three featured Vicki, a thinly-veiled Scouse girl, one featured a stop-off in contemporary England, one featured 1960s technology invading the Middle Ages, and the only one not covered by at least one of the above is just a one-episode teaser for one of them. But that was, mostly, its main contribution. The major thrust of Doctor Who was taking someone like Barbara – a regular old and solidly maternal schoolteacher – and dropping her in an alien jungle. It’s thus far taken the mundane and dropped it off in the fantastic. Quatermass does the exact opposite – it takes the fantastic and drops it into our world. Which is closely related to the observation I already made – that Quatermass is about a scary universe that might eat us, and Doctor Who is about an amazing universe we can explore.
This gets at what is perhaps the biggest difference is between the Doctor and Professor Quatermass. For all that the Doctor is a scientist, he is by and large a troublemaker first and foremost. Quatermass is part of the establishment. Even if he is a firebrand who butts heads with the military, government, and his fellow scientists, he is still fundamentally a part of the British social order. The Doctor, on the other hand, has an intense disdain for the social order. As we’ve seen, given his druthers, he thinks burning it down is funny.
It’s not that Quatermass is statist. Quatermass II is, at its heart, a piece about anxieties over the Welfare State. The serial’s major setpiece is a synthetic food plant that’s actually a cover for a rapidly growing alien creature. To start, the idea of synthetic food – i.e. a technologically engineered solution to a social problem – ties easily to the basic idea of the Welfare State. Combine that with the motif, repeated throughout the serial, of Quatermass getting vital information from tramps or elderly rural folk, all of whom talk vaguely and ominously about the sense that something had been taken away from them. It’s over that backdrop that Kneale does his Invasion of the Body Snatchers plot. (Quatermass II comes a year after the first publication of The Body Snatchers in the US, but a year before the movie. I don’t know if Kneale was aware of it, but even if he was, it was not a major film at the time, and Kneale would deserve some real credit for seeing the potential in it)
Taken in context, then, the usual Body Snatchers interpretation of it as being a metaphor for McCarthyism or Communism stumbles fairly badly. Rather, Kneale is sketching a world here where the state is necessary (as it brings us people like Quatermass) but fragile, much like the rest of the world, and that if the state overreaches it is brought down much more easily. But it’s crucial to note, the state is still indispensable. Even in Quatermass and the Pit, which makes much of Quatermass’s frustrations with attempts to militarize space and his butting heads with the government, the story ends up with Quatermass as the wise technocrat cautioning the masses against the perils of mob rule.
In this regard, there’s a fundamental incompatibility with Doctor Who. Now I should note that neither Quatermass nor Doctor Who are, most of the time, overtly political. That is, it’s not like either really did stories that explicitly and consciously intervene in contemporary politics – the Doctor never hangs a “Vote Labour” sign on the TARDIS. But on the the other hand, there is no such thing as apolitical science fiction. Whenever aliens show up, one thing those aliens signify, necessarily, is the issue of immigration and otherness. Any time a scientist insists that we are all in grave danger and is laughed off by the political establishment, it makes reference to the climate change debate. Any time technology becomes too advanced and a danger to us is a commentary on genetic engineering or the Internet. Science fiction, by virtue of its conceit, is about the world and how it changes.
And more broadly, it is not as though political philosophy operates in a vacuum. I’ll use contemporary US politics here because they’re the ones I’m more familiar with, but the fact of the matter is that a story about a highly educated man who loves other cultures, hates ignorance, overthrows governments, and gets full of moral outrage when he sees people suffering and demands that it be fixed is necessarily more allied with liberal politics than conservative politics. There’s no way around this, because political ideology is linked to personal ethics and personal ideology. If you make a character who is defined by his beliefs about how the world ought to be, you’re making a character that comments on politics.
We’ll talk more about this on Friday when we’ll fill in some gaps about 1960s counterculture in Britain. (And I feel the need to apologize here, because I have the distinct sense that these little digression posts are wildly less popular than the ones where I actually watch Doctor Who, but we’re dealing with a major transition in the tone of the series, and if we want to understand Patrick Troughton stepping out of the TARDIS as something other than a piece of received fan lore, we’re going to have to make sure we understand television in 1966. So even though there’s only three William Hartnell stories remaining after The Savages, it’s going to be taking us eight posts to get to Power of the Daleks from there.) But for now, let’s note that the politics of Quatermass are distinctly conservative, and this is mostly a big difference with Doctor Who, which, while not always liberal, is at least always most comfortable with stories that are, broadly speaking, of a more liberal worldview.
So to recap the score, yes, both Quatermass and Doctor Who share a certain anthology flavor and a male scientist protagonist, although Quatermass (thus far) comes much closer to having a set formula than Doctor Who. But Quatermass is fundamentally conservative while Doctor Who is fundamentally liberal. And Quatermass is about the fragility of Earth and humanity, while Doctor Who is about the boundless potential of the universe. Thus far, Parkin is right – there are a lot of things that are much more obvious influences on Doctor Who in 1966 than the adventures of Professor Quatermass.
Basically, as long as Doctor Who is mostly a show about futuristic planets where thinly veiled allegories for colonial oppression take place, it’s just not going to be much like Quatermass. Now if it were set in contemporary London and based around a horrifying non-human threat that could overthrow humanity as masters of the Earth, perhaps running out of some major recent landmark like Post Office Tower, maybe we’d want to talk more about the similarities between Doctor Who and Quatermass.
But frankly, what are the odds of that happening?
Quatermass II and Quatermass and the Pit are available on DVD via those links, and if you follow them and buy them, I’ll make some trivial amount of money. And to be honest, if you’re interested in classic science fiction at all, both are required viewing.
April 11, 2011 @ 11:32 am
Take your time – I'm in no hurry to leave Hartnell behind, and one of the things I really like about your blog is the way you provide the background to understand what's going on. I may not always agree with your conclusions, but you give me the tools to see why you've reached them (and to take my own thinking past nostalgia and gut feelings).
June 10, 2011 @ 5:40 pm
Quatermass II comes a year after the first publication of The Body Snatchers in the US, but a year before the movie.
Note, though, that it's four years after The Thing from Another World, which plays with the Enemy Within concept on a more intimate scale, and 17 years after the story that inspired The Thing. So there's other models out there. There's even an Oz book that transposes to the Body Snatchers plot to the Emerald City — in 1946. (But I doubt anyone involved with Quatermass read that one!)
July 16, 2011 @ 3:32 pm
To Philip Sandifer: earlier you called the Doctor "anarchic," but now you align him with "liberal politics." Aren't those different concepts? (Speaking as an anarchist myself.)
To Jesse: yes, but the Howard Hawks Thing, unlike the Carpenter version, wasn't a bodysnatcher or shapechanger. It was just a guy in a suit.
July 23, 2011 @ 6:16 pm
To 7a1ab: "anarchic" and "liberal" mean different things in the UK than in the US. The Liberal Party in England is (was) associated with religious Non-Conformists: their fundamental ethos is to be concerned about concentrations of privilege anywhere, be it in organized labour, in existing class structures, or in commercial wealth. This is much more associated with eco-anarchism than American "liberalism", which is focused more on individual rights and labour unions. The Liberal stereotype in England is the slightly otherworldly, beards and sandals, deeply caring guy who's unaccountably upset about a particular aspect of society that seems innocuous to you. That's very much in tune with the psychedelic era and with Doctor Who-like impishness.
January 22, 2012 @ 11:58 am
The thing with Nigel Kneale is, before he created Quatermass, he famously adapted 1984 for the BBC in 1954 (which starred Peter Cushing, Donald Pleasance and Andre Morell, is still in existence and, although dated, is very good). But when it was first shown, it was excoriated by the media ie the newspapers.
Then, the story goes, Buckingham Palace leaked that the Queen had quite liked it. Cue huge 'about turn' by the papers. At least one paper famously had to publish a second, more positive review following the repeat performance a few nights later. It was remade as a movie in 1956 or 57 with some of the same cast but different leads (an American I can't remember the name of and Michael Redgrave), which is very hard to find now.
The question is, if the Palace hadn't leaked that the Queen was a fan, would Kneale ever have worked for the BBC again, never mind been allowed to create Quatermass? And if there was no Quatermass, would there ever have been a Doctor Who?
Who says the British Monarch has no real power?
December 9, 2013 @ 10:30 am
"It's thus far taken the mundane and dropped it off in the fantastic. Quatermass does the exact opposite – it takes the fantastic and drops it into our world. Which is closely related to the observation I already made – that Quatermass is about a scary universe that might eat us, and Doctor Who is about an amazing universe we can explore."
It reminds me of Farah Mendlesohn's distinction in "Rhetorics of Fantasy" between portal-quest fantasy and intrusion fantasy. Portal-quest (Doctor Who) has everyday people entering into the fantasy realm; Intrusion (Quatermass) the fantastic invades the everyday world. DW occasionally has intrusion fantasy episodes, but its default setting is portal-quest.