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Quatermass and the Pit

Entry updated 29 September 2020. Tagged: Film, TV.

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1. UK tv serial (1958-1959). BBC TV. Produced and directed by Rudolph Cartier. Written Nigel Kneale. Cast includes Anthony Bushell, Christine Finn, Cec Linder, André Morell, Richard Shaw and Brian Worth. Six 35-minute episodes. Black and white.

As in Quatermass and the Pit's two predecessors, The Quatermass Experiment and Quatermass II, Kneale's theme is demonic possession, couched in this case through the premise that a Forerunner civilization, based on Mars, had five million years ago Genetically Engineered apes from Earth (see Apes as Human; Evolution; Uplift) in order to create Homo sapiens as a slave population required by the arthropodal Martians whose planet was dying. Most critics judge the television serial better than the film version, with Quatermass's pessimistic assessment of the implications of the tale given ample room to breathe:

"We are the Martians. If we cannot control the inheritance within us, this will be their second dead planet"

The published script is Quatermass and the Pit (1960) by Kneale. Due to the BBC's destruction of most of the first series it was possible to assume that Morell was the best of the BBC's three Professor Quatermasses; this assumption runs counter to contemporary responses to Reginald Tate's sensitive performance, which reportedly deepened markedly (this is unfortunately unverifiable) in later episodes. For further details of the story see below. [JC]

2. Film (1967; vt Five Million Years to Earth US) Hammer/Seven Arts. Directed by Roy Ward Baker. Written by Nigel Kneale, based on his BBC TV serial. Cast includes James Donald, Julian Glover, Andrew Keir and Barbara Shelley. 97 minutes. Colour.

Hammer's third Quatermass film, a decade after the second and the only one with a UK actor (Keir, a Scot) in the title role. The first two were The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) and Quatermass II (1957). Workers digging an extension of the London Underground expose the remains of several hominids, estimated by competent Canadian archaeologist Dr Mathew Roney (Donald) to be five millions years old. They also uncover an apparent unexploded bomb left over from World War Two; it is actually a Martian Spaceship, which contains the remains of arthropodal Aliens, also millions of years old; Professor Bernard Quatermass (Keir) almost immediately leaps to the correct conclusion. In a plot-turn deftly blending sf with speculation on Jungian archetype, it turns out that racial memories have been coded in our brains by Martians during our prehistory (see Apes as Human; Evolution; Forerunners; Uplift): our image of the Devil is a distorted "memory" of the Martians' appearance (antennae equalling horns), and our irrational belligerence reflects the Martians' ritualistic culling of the weaker members of their species. The spaceship's Power Source is merely dormant, and as it comes to life (Poltergeist phenomena being the first effect) it reinforces ancient nightmares. In the disturbing climax, panicked Londoners begin an orgy of destruction as a Devil's head rises above the streets and paranormal powers are let loose. Quatermass and the Pit is surely the inspiration for Stephen King's novel The Tommyknockers (1987).

Kneale's characteristic blend of Gothic and science is intelligent and entertaining. Although inferior to its television original, which had more time to develop its irrational but mesmerizing thesis, the film is still above average. [PN/JB/JC]

see also: BBC Radiophonic Workshop; Spike Milligan; Supernatural Creatures.


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