Retro SF

Professor Bernard Quatermass was created by Nigel Kneale for the BBC and appeared in television,radio serials, newspaper serials, radio shows, novels, theater and film between 1953 and 2005. Quatermass is a Professor and works for the British Experimental Rocket Group and in charge of planting the Union Jack in space. He is usually portrayed as a dour, serious man who has little time for fools and is totally driven by his thirst for scientific knowledge and the advancement of humans into space. His demeanor means he comes across as arrogant and down right ignorant, a totally unlikable character but despite this he has been one of the most enduring science fiction characters ever. There have been many times parallels between him and Doctor Who have been drawn, and the types of stories from the early years show a heavy Quatermass influence, but Kneale himself despised the association and and the show. He commented in an interview in 1986 that Doctor Who “sounded like a terrible idea and I still think it was”.  Despite many attempts the BBC tried to get Kneale to write for the show but he always refused.

There is little revealed of Quatermass’s early life, he was at one time married because in the second TV serial his daughter Paula is introduced and in the final serial he is the legal guardian of his teenage granddaughter. The character first name was in honour of Bernard Lovell the founder of Jodrell Bank, the name Quatermass was picked from the London phone directory.

The main TV serials are The Quatermass Experiment (6 x 30 minute episodes 18th July – 22nd August 1953), Quatermass II (6 x 30 minute episodes 22nd October – 26th November 1955) and Quatermass and the Pit (6 x 35 minute episodes 22nd December 1958 – 26th January 1959).

The Quatermass Experiment – Quatermass and his team are waiting for the return to Earth of the first men to travel into space. The craft carrying a three-man crew  is overdue and thought lost but then reappears on radar and crash lands in Wimbledon. There is only one survivor, there is no trace of the other two just their empty space suits. Soon after he is rescued the survivor is kidnapped by foreign agents eager to learn what secrets he has brought back from space but he begins to mutate into an alien/plant hybrid that if it spores will destroy all human life on Earth. Quatermass learns that the surviving crewman has absorbed the other two men and he and his team track the creature to a final confrontation at Westminster Abbey where the professor appeals to the absorbed crewmen to fight back and eventually the creature is destroyed.

Quatermass II – Meteors are falling all over norther England and after a farmer finds one Quatermass is called in to investigate. He learns the meteors are hollow and contain a mix of gasses and also an alien life form. Anyone that is exposed to the gas comes under the power of the aliens and all have a strange mark on them. Quatermass learns the aliens have been coming to Earth for a while and have possessed members of the military and high ranking members of the government in preparation for a full invasion. Quatermass’s daughter learns there is an asteroid in orbit around the Earth that is launching the alien carrying meteors every 14 hours and must be destroyed before humanity is overwhelmed. After travelling to a secret base Quatermass discovers the individual aliens are actually part of one giant organism and that the gasses are keeping it alive, he manages to destroy the base but the asteroid is still sending more aliens down to Earth so Quatermass uses the nuclear engine of one of his rockets to destroy the asteroid.

Quatermass and the Pit – Workmen digging in a London street unearth a pre-human skull, after a reconstruction it is found the skull comes from a small dwarf-like humanoid with a large brain capacity. Further digging unearths a rocket craft that the military believe to be a WWII bomb, Quatermass is called in and discovers the craft is in fact a crashed alien craft and that the nightmares and spectral visions that have been rife in the area for centuries is due to latent psychic forces emanating from the craft. Investigating those forces Quatermass learns the craft came from Mars and the dying race there was trying to advance the proto-humans they found on Earth so they had the same psychic abilities the Martians had, he also learns the Martians nearly wiped themselves out with a violent purge and that the emanations from the craft were causing the same violence to happen in the people living nearby. After full scale rioting erupts Quatermass manages to  the stop emanations and return calm.

Around the time Quatermass II was being broadcast Hammer Film Productions released their own version of the first serial in the form of a feature film called The Quatermass Xperiment. Nigel Kneale was not happy about the version, partly because several changes were made to the story, and the ending changed so the absorbed crewmen’s humanity wasn’t part of the reason the creature was defeated. But his displeasure was mainly directed at an American being cast as the very British Professor Quatermass. Despite the displeasure of the characters creator though this film was Hammer’s highest grossing film up to that time. Because of the success Hammer went on to release their own versions of the other TV serials titled Quatermass 2 and eventually Quatermass and the Pit (Five Million Years To Earth in the US). 

The last outing for the character came in 1972 when Sir John Mills played the now retired Professor in Quatermass (also known as The Quatermass Conclusion or Quatermass IV), where he travels to London in search of his missing granddaughter. Society has nearly collapsed and urban areas abandoned to roaming gangs, appearing on a TV show Quatermass witnesses the destruction of a US and Russian joint mission by a mysterious force from space. Later he learns the force is linked to a series of mysterious mass vanishings around the globe where members of a new-wave hippy type group called Planet People gather to be transported to a better world. Quatermass believes his granddaughter has joined this group and so travels to one of the gatherings and witnesses one of the “ascension events” but learns instead of being transported the people are vapourised. All the vanishings happen at megalithic sites and Quatermass learns these sites act as beacons for this alien force and it is attracted to large gatherings. Planning a trap by setting up a fake mass gathering and having a nuclear bomb placed there to cause some destructive feedback along the course of the beam sent to Earth. As the moment arrives a group of Planet People arrive, among them is Quatermass’s granddaughter, in the struggle the follows he suffers a heart attack but with his granddaughters help manages to detonate the bomb.

In 2005 BBC4 broadcast a live and updated for the modern era version of The Quatermass Experiment. The original TV serials were live and this was done as a homage to the early days of TV.