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The Quatermass Experiment (2005)
Director: Sam Miller
review by Patrick Hudson
As part of its recent 'TV on Trial' season, the BBC recently remade Nigel Kneale's groundbreaking sci-fi drama as a live broadcast from his original scripts. With only two epsiodes of the original 1953 broadcast available - the last four episodes long ago lost in one of the BBC's tape-erasing campaigns - this is the closest we will come to seeing this legendary show outside of the Hammer film made in 1955 (and containing several crucial divergences from the original).
It tells the story of an experimental rocket launch that takes three astronauts further into outer space than anyone has ever gone before. After losing contact with Earth, the ship crash lands (in Kent, fortunately), but two of the astronauts have mysteriously disappeared and the third is in a state of extreme shock. What follows is a creepy sci-fi horror, short on special effects but long on tension and a sense of creeping dread as Quatermass and his associates try and discover what happened.
The decision to broadcast live was a brave one, but gives the show real energy. Perhaps it's the high-wire act of the live performance, but there was a real edge and urgency to the acting that added significantly to the excitement. Atmospheric filmed inserts used to cover scene changes, or getting the actors from one location to another, were nicely produced and provided a bit of contrast to the somewhat relentless forward thrust of the thing.
The live broadcast on BBC-4 did come at a cost, however. The camerawork and editing were fairly pedestrian, and some scenes had a distinct feeling of being a 'filmed play'. Frustratingly, there was no sense of time passing over course of the show. It all seemed to be happening in one long string of events with no time between, despite the fact that days were obviously passing between scenes. The ending suffered the most, with the lack of special effects and the single camera angle leading to a slightly bathetic finale. Interestingly, the Hammer movie has a completely different (and more melodramatic) climax, and one can't help wondering if the Hammer producers had the right idea. While this conclusion is more subtle and intelligent, perhaps the explodey version is more exciting.
The 50 years that have passed since the original was written present another challenge. Given what we know about space travel now and what we have achieved since then, some of the technical aspects have had to be brushed aside - even the idea of a British-launched spaceship is pretty hard to swallow in 2005, so no attempt is made to justify it. There are elements that jar a little to the modern eye, such as the chemistry laboratory that the creature breaks into with its open shelves of beakers and coloured liquids, while the producers have a bit of fun with others, such as making journalist Fullalove an amusing 1950s' spiv. It's an interesting contrast of the times that in the 1950s' Professor Quatermass was a distinguished fellow in his late fifties, whereas in the 21st century he's a vigorous chap in early middle age. It seems a little ironic that while the producers expect us to accept the idea of a privately financed British rocket launch, and that a rocket could crash land in the countryside without destroying itself or everything for miles around, they don't trust us to believe in a hero with grey hair.
Minor cavils aside; this was an exciting and well-put together show with an excellent cast. It was gripping and tense, and only slightly let down by the underwhelming climax. Combined with the re-launch of Doctor Who, it makes one wonder of the BBC's attitude to fantasy TV is gradually changing for the better.
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The Quatermass Experiment (1955)
Quatermass 2 (1957)