Thursday, March 1, 2007

Into the Unknown

Quatermass at the BBC (1953-2005)

André Morell, the definitive Professor Quatermass, in QUATERMASS AND THE PIT.

THE stories of Nigel Kneale explore science, superstition and social issues. Although hating the tag "science fiction writer", his work, nonetheless, takes us through experiences that leaves us brighter and more aware, speculating on all the mysteries that remain to be clarified. He was one of the genre’s most illuminating humanists, a confrontational individual who used his writing as a metaphor for our problematic times. Kneale often painted cynical landscapes of our future and developed into a masterful satirist, whose tweaks at mankind’s expense proved just as prophetic as his works undertaken in a more sombre mood. His abundance of intelligent ideas tapped into contemporary fears and a succinct observation of human behaviour. Comparisons to H. G. Wells cannot be underestimated; Kneale was a genuine seer, predicting the disintegration of broadcasting and society, typified by his depiction of Reality TV in THE YEAR OF THE SEX OLYMPICS.

Kneale’s arrival as a staff writer at the BBC coincided with television’s post-Coronation mass appeal. Early drama was dominated by unambitious stage and literary adaptations, and there is some justification in Mark Gatiss’ claim that the writer invented popular television. During the 1950s, Kneale wrote three serials featuring his most famous character, British Rocket scientist Professor Bernard Quatermass. Each broadcast live, THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT, QUATERMASS II and QUATERMASS AND THE PIT all made a lasting impact on the nation’s consciousness, and were also subsequently made into films by Hammer. Manned space flights were years away, but THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT presented them as near docu-drama; viewers were terrified by the realistic presentation of astronaut Victor Carroon (Duncan Lamont) returning to Earth in the grip of alien infection. Its sequel, QUATERMASS II, features a heavily guarded government refinery, supposedly a factory for synthetic food, but in fact an alien-breeding colony nurtured on poison gas and processed human blood. And in QUATERMASS AND THE PIT, a capsule unearthed on a London building site is found to contain the remains of Martians and augmented ape-men, tapping into the dormant Martian mental faculties bred into Mankind and provoking a gigantic race purge. QUATERMASS AND THE PIT is the most complex and bleakest in the trilogy, portraying the human condition as an irreversible alien experiment, and Kneale’s only remedy is restraint against the ancient destructive urges implanted in us. This last serial was shown at a time when newly arrived Caribbean immigrants – the so-called Windrush Generation – faced widespread daily abuse.

The Quatermass Memoirs were broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in 1996. The series mixes a new monologue by Kneale - in which he discusses the genesis and development of Quatermass - together with archival material and a dramatised strand in which the Professor discloses his reasons for reclusion and discusses his demons with a persistent reporter.

THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT evokes the wartime blitz spirit, while QUATERMASS II tackles the threat of an Orwellian "enemy within." Unlike the bombastic spectacle of American horror films of this period, Kneale’s aliens use humans as involuntary symbiotic hosts as part their life cycle, or as a means of continuing their species. Consequently, the strongest emotion evoked by the Quatermass stories is one of disgust. The tales create images that allude to things that are universally repulsive: faeces, urine, rotting flesh, foul odours and deformed bodies, a literary technique used more by writers of horror and supernatural fiction. In THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT, there is the physiological deterioration of Carroon whose arm resembles an exfoliating cancer, not to mention the gelatinous remains of the missing crewmembers, the slime the creature leaves in its wake, and the deformed bodies of those it has drained of life. Similarly, QUATERMAS II has foul-smelling gases and faecal aliens writhing in the excremental "food" inside pressure domes, and QUATERMASS AND THE PIT takes place almost entirely in a mud-filled excavation in which the decomposing bodies of the Martians are discovered.

In April 2005, BBC4 aired a new QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT, the BBC’s first live drama broadcast since a series of lunchtime plays in 1983. Shown as the centrepiece of the channel’s ‘TV on Trial’ season – a re-evaluation of the medium from the 1950s to the 2000s - like almost everything involving Kneale’s character, the production is literally an experiment; it takes risks, suffers from underfunding but certainly is heroic. With only the first two episodes of the original series surviving, the idea of creating a two hour condensing of the writer’s scripts was a fine one, if only for the nerve of its staging and to have a more complete document for posterity. The setting is a notional present day via 1955, leading to an almost alternate feel to the 21st century in which there has seemingly been little space exploration and terms like "pressure suit" are still in use. Kneale’s references are only lightly updated, like casting Anglo-Indian actress Indira Varma as the astronaut’s wife, who delivers her 1953 dialogue without seeming as comically cut-glass as the original actress, Isabel Dean. And as a replacement for the Coronation-friendly Westminster Abbey, which saw the mutated Carroon’s demise in the original, the finale takes place at the Tate Modern Gallery, an inspired choice in finding an equivalent symbol of pride in an era where Royal association is forever receding. Not only does it provide a vast, shadowed space for Quatermass (Jason Flemyng)’s "casting-out" of the alien lifeform within its fabric and air, the Tate acts as a stringent metaphor in a cultural shift from religion to art.

Jason Flemyng is the Professor in BBC4’s rendering of THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT.

Other changes, however, are less successful. In the year Christopher Eccleston became the new DOCTOR WHO, the casting of Flemyng as a younger Professor seems to appeal to the same primetime mentality. Flemyng delivers his high-tech speak as well as anyone, but being the same age as the actors playing the astronauts and his colleagues creates both a symbolic and plot problem. Most of his scenes are with seasoned performers as Adrian Dunbar, David Tennant and Mark Gatiss, over whom he cannot adhere to the same boffin-like authority of Reginald Tate’s Quatermass from the initial serial. Tate was undeniably in charge, but Flemyng is too often on the defensive, as if any of his co-stars could challenge his role.