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The Quatermass Experiment (2005) (Review)

The wonderful folks at the BBC have given me access to their BBC Global iPlayer for a month to give the service a go and trawl through the archives. I’ll have some thoughts on the service at the end of the month, but I thought I’d also take the opportunity to enjoy some of the fantastic content.

The Quatermass Xperiment was a very important place in the history of genre television. Originally airing as a six-part drama on the BBC, the 1953 adventure serial demonstrated that televised science-fiction could be written for adults. Written by Nigel Kneale, the show had a major influence on the genre not only at home (inspiring Doctor Who), but also internationally (allegedly paving the way for 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alien). In 2005, as part of BBC 4’s “TV on Trial” season, a remake of the classic serial was commissioned, with one especially fascinating facet: it would be broadcast live.

Man of science...

It is worth noting, before we discuss the remake too thoroughly, that only two episodes of the original serial still exist. Purged in order to make room for later programmes, two-thirds of the television series would be lost to history. Luckily the sequel serials (Quatermass II and Quatermass and the Pit) both survive in their entirety, but it’s hard not to feel that a very important moment in the history of television has been lost.

It should be noted that there was no malice on the part of the BBC. Wiping the tapes was standard practice in an era before home media could be considered a real possibility. A lot of the early Doctor Who stories (including a lot of Patrick Troughton’s era) suffered the same fate. Not that it makes it any less tragic, but it does explain how so many important contributions to popular culture could have been lost to history.

The Doctor is in...

In fairness, the BBC do treat their genre shows with a great deal of respect, and I’ve always admired how much attention they pay to shows that wouldn’t necessarily fit the conventional mold. So I think that this remake deserves a great deal of praise, paying extended homage to a very key piece of genre history, and it’s evident that there has been a lot of love poured into this feature-length adventure about scientists fighting an extraterrestrial menace.

That said, there’s no getting around the fact that the material was more than half a century old when this live broadcast was commissioned. The world has changed, as has the face of televised science fiction. The Quartermass Experiment seems charmingly dated, as its characters wax lyrical about philosophical quandaries, make grand-standing statements and provide handy analogies for anybody at home who might have fallen behind. All of this is done with a pleasant smile, and it feels like an affectionate call-back to the types of science-fiction adventures you seldom see these days, where a great cast, a clever premise and a little make-up can go as far as the most expensive CGI.

I imagine most of the actors were so glad to take part that they would have worked Gatiss...

While the technique writer and producer Richard Fell used to bring the story to life might feel like a fond reminder of yester-year, the script does struggle anchoring Kneale’s iconic story in the modern day. The story hinges on space travel, which hasn’t been a hot-button issue for decades. When the capsule falls out of the sky, a bystander confuses it with a nuclear bomb dropped by some sinister force, and it proves quite difficult to remove the drama from that outdated Cold War paranoia.

The Quatermass Experiment exists in some sort strange world where the fifties, eighties and the present day seem to exist simultaneously. The crashing spacecraft is noted by a couple making out in a parked car, even if it isn’t quite a classic convertible. Media is still decidedly old-fashioned, with newspapers and television spreading the word to the public. The internet doesn’t get a mention. The awesomely-named James Fullalove sports a pretty rockin’ fifties quiff, while M.O.D. man Lomax wears a shirt and tie underneath his fashionable leather jacket.

Fieldwork...

There are nods towards the present day, as the script gingerly references the power of fear and terror, and the word “terrorist” is used alongside “foreign governments.” However, it does feel like Fell’s script might be a little too faithful to Kneale’s original drama, and that a more adventurous approach might have made the serial a bit more relevant to the present day. That said, Kneale has certainly earned the respect shown here, and it’s hard to begrudge the team for being reluctant to tinker with a classic.

There’s something wonderfully pulpy and little bit cheesy about the production, with its straight-out-of-the-past scientist protagonist. Jason Flemyng makes an interesting Quatermass, a scientist who is more than a little awkward and aloof, but prone to moments of eloquence and sophistication. I’m almost disappointed that this archetype has fallen a bit by the wayside in the past couple of decades, as it’s fun to see a government scientist who seems to play by his own rules. “He’s a liability!” the Home Secretary declares. After a frank press conference, the M.O.D. man is quick to berate him, “Now that was grossly irresponsible!”

Ladies and gentlemen, he'll be brief(ing)...

Flemyng has a bit of fun with the lead role, and offers us a version of the character who is quite detached from the world around him. Quatermass isn’t an especially deep character, but he doesn’t need to be. The adventure moves so fast that there’s little room for anything else. “I think the only enquiry that’s going to yield any kind of result is a scientific one!” Flemying earnestly declares when he’s threatened with a public enquiry.

I can’t help but imagine how much better Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull might have been had George Lucas and Steven Spielberg borrowed the action hero scientist to investigate early astronauts, instead of an archeologist and occultist. In fact, I’ll concede that the BBC never followed up with any sequels or spin-offs, as I think there’s room for that sort of fun and hokey science hero in our television schedules.

He's just a little spaced out...

Flemying is ably supported by a fine cast of genre veterans. Indeed, most of the cast is recognisable to those with an interest in cult television. Indira Varma, Mark Gatiss and Adrian Dunbar have a great deal of fun rounding out the cast, but it’s quite fun to watch David Tennant as Doctor Gordon Briscoe. Tennant was informed he landed the part of the Doctor while rehearsing the show, and it was good practice for the actor. On top of running around corridors and spouting nonsense techno-babble, he even got to shout “no! listen!” at armed troops as he tried to solve the crisis in another way.

The feature-length adventure was broadcast live on April 2, 2005. The recording has been repeated several times and is available on the iPlayer as it aired. It goes without saying that there are massive risks in a live broadcast of any kind, but especially with something like science fiction. There are a few awkward moments – one actor seems to forget his lines, a few others trip over each other – but it all goes remarkably smooth. Even the shots of the actors celebrating at the end seem relatively in-character (though it is strange that most of the cast take the time to hug a reporter few of them have directly encountered).

David Who, now?

The Quatermass Experiment is a little corny, and it certainly shows its age, but it is a bit of good fun. It’s a loving homage to a hugely influential science-fiction television show, and – if you can get past the fact that the medium and genre have changed in the years since – it’s a perfectly entertaining little feature.

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