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Quatermass And The Pit (1967)
Director: Roy Ward Baker

review by J.C. Hartley

Watching this film again, and considering some of the points raised in the extensive interviews that accompany it, I found myself making the kind of pedantic connections that only people who have lived a long time on a diet of popular culture make. So I'd like to start my review with a few meandering digressions.

Back in 1975, in one of his 'Q' series, Spike Milligan wrote a sketch called 'Pakistani Daleks'. Racially offensive in a lazy stereotypical way, ultimately the sketch was genuinely funny at the expense of the Daleks and their credo that violence is the answer to everything. Milligan probably was a racist in that old Empire 'foreigners are funny' attitude rather than anything more sinister, he was also certainly misogynist due to his childhood experiences with nuns; in the cultural atmosphere of the mid-1970s, lazy racism and institutionalised misogyny had made its camp in the heartland of light entertainment.

The sketch was initially blocked by the BBC. The issue wasn't the morally and ethically suspect content, but the satirical presentation of Doctor Who's most famous villains, coupled with the fact that writer Terry Nation had rather cleverly asserted creator's rights to the creatures, rights which he shared with the BBC. Raymond Cusick who, as designer, had an arguably greater claim to be the creator of the Daleks never received either the plaudits or the royalties. Trying to clear the sketch with his resented BBC masters, Milligan contacted Nation to ask if the writer could smooth things with the BBC for Milligan to use the Daleks. Nation responded by recalling how when he first moved to London from Wales, and was on his uppers, Milligan loaned him five pounds; a fiver was something in those days, even I can remember when it bought you 25 pints of nasty fizzy British lager. So Nation said Milligan could do what he wanted with the Daleks; typically Milligan said he'd rather have his fiver back.

Buoyed by his 1965 success with the Daleks, Terry Nation had introduced a new range of mechanical monsters, the Mechanoids of Mechanus, featured in the finale of the eight-part Doctor Who serial The Chase. These spherical robots did, I believe, generate their own action figure, and featured in the TV Century 21 comic story 'Eve Of War' as the sworn enemies of the Daleks, brilliantly realised by the artist Ron Turner. However, the Mechanoids didn't make the same impact that the Daleks had. As a seven-year old in 1965, The Chase had quite an effect on me, so I was interested to watch it years later when it appeared on video.

Children who grew up with television understood television's language, its shorthand and its tropes. I can remember my exasperation when my mother or grandmother failed to spot that a scene was a flashback or a dream sequence, so in The Chase when the Daleks created a robot Doctor to kill the real Doctor, I was well aware that William Hartnell was playing both parts. Imagine my surprise on viewing the video when I realised that the makers had not only ignored the obvious solution to the scene but had hired an actor to play the robot double who looked nothing like Hartnell. The Chase concludes with a vista of the Mechanoid city and a massive spectacular battle between Mechanoids and Daleks. Again the video evidence was all too plain, the vast span of a towering bridge looked like it had been made out of twisted tinfoil, and the cataclysmic battle was achieved with cutting, prismatic lenses, and Eisensteinian montage effects.

What has all this to do with the Hammer film version of Nigel Kneale's Quatermass And The Pit adapted from the BBC TV serial from the late 1950s? Well, as part of the excellent extras package which includes a battery of interviews with the likes of Mark Gatiss, Julian Glover, Kim Newman, and Joe Dante, the issue of special effects comes up, with many of the commentators preferring both the design of the aliens in the TV version, as well as a dramatic scene revealing the cull of the Martian hives. Duncan Lamont (The Evil Of Frankenstein), playing a workman brought in to attempt to drill into the mysterious spaceship discovered in a London Underground station, unleashes psychic race memories from the collective unconscious relating to the culling on Mars. Some dodgy model and montage work reveals the carnage which, as Kim Newman opines, was realised better on television possibly as a result of the inevitably grainy imaging which was part of 1950s' black and white TV. I remember Lamont's chilling performance from the first time I saw the film, it scared me then and it is still powerful now.

Excavation work at a London Underground station unearths prehistoric human skeletons and a curious rocket-like pod made of an unknown material. The position of the skeletons, and the eventual breach of the craft, as well as a series of psychic phenomena and tales of haunting and apparitions, lead British rocket group scientist Bernard Quatermass (Andrew Keir), and archaeologist Doctor Roney (top-billed actor James Donald), to take an unlikely but dramatically necessary intuitive leap.

The insectile inhabitants of the craft are Martians, killed while returning modified humans to Earth. The Martian race was dying as their planet lost its atmosphere, and in attempt to perpetuate their kind they have genetically manipulated some strands of humanity creating, in effect, dual development. The original broadcast Quatermass And The Pit came some five years after Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End, with which it shares some slight thematic details, and this film version just pipped Clarke and Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, which of course also deals in alien manipulation of humanity.

The Martian pod draws upon surrounding power sources, eventually unleashing a hideous psychic backlash in which dormant Martian impulses to cull the hive are roused in susceptible humans. Using telekinetic power, mobs roam the London streets hurling their weaker human victims aside. In a powerful scene, one such mob kills a bystander who, not by accident surely, appears by some elements of dress and appearance to be Semitic. Famously, the original broadcast of Quatermass And The Pit coincided with a wave of race-riots, particularly in the Notting Hill district of London. The fear of difference and its manifestation in murderous violence is directly attributed to something buried deeply within the collective unconscious. Uniquely, Quatermass himself is susceptible to these violent impulses, so it is Roney who emerges as the man of science and logic immune to primitive urges to isolate and kill the outsider.

Quatermass' British rocket group received a passing reference in BBC's clumsily titled 1988 Doctor Who serial Remembrance Of The Daleks. This serial also included a storyline dealing with racial violence; featuring Dalek in-fighting between a so-called pure strain and a mutated version, as well as human racial tensions, with George Sewell as a fascistic local businessman, an older nastier version of his Barney the tallyman from 1965's Up The Junction. Of course, Sewell's role in Remembrance Of The Daleks was set in 1963; that's time paradoxes for you.

Nigel Kneale's widow and those of the commentators who knew him personally attest to the writer's active dislike of science fiction, but it is a narrow definition of the genre. The writer of Quatermass, and such dramas as The Year Of The Sex Olympics and The Stone Tape, rooted his narratives in a reality which is common in much mainstream SF, and worlds away from the anything-goes environment of the space opera which was surely the version he actually despised.

The blu-ray transfer seems excellent. The extras package is pretty good if you enjoy talking heads, especially as they include Nigel Kneale's widow with some entertaining memories of the serials, including Julian Glover (who plays misguided army type Colonel Breen, who believes the Martian craft to be a Nazi V weapon designed to destabilise London). There are the usual trailers including some stuff for the American release. Also included is a World Of Hammer featurette on science fiction, including clips of X - The Unknown, Dick Barton, the other Quatermass films, a Hammer Frankenstein, and Losey's The Damned. The featurette is narrated in typically laconic style by Oliver Reed whose commentary is frequently drowned out by the particularly intrusive score.

Quatermass and the Pit



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