I’ve been meaning to review the 1967 Hammer film version of this story, aka Five Million Miles to Earth, since last October; that was the one I grew up with on late-night television and affectionately refer to as Giant Fascist Grasshoppers from Mars. But I’ve just ordered and received the original versions of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass teleplays, which aired on the BBC in the 1950s. I’d never seen more than fragments of them before the package arrived from the UK last week.
Quatermass & the Pit is actually the third in the set; it aired in six episodes from December 1958 through January 1959. But it’s my favorite so I’m doing it first. I’ll compare it to the later film version when I get to the end.
Episode 1: The Halfmen
Our story begins on a construction site in Knightsbridge, London, on a street which two different signs (one new and the other very old) alternately tell us is Hobbs or Hobs Lane. A big, deep pit is being excavated under the former foundations of some old row houses, when a truck driver notices something that’s been dug up in the latest scoop of spoils: a damaged human skull. When the workmen examine it more closely, they realize that it’s actually a fossil and has been “down there a long time.” One of the men adds that he’s never liked working in this place.
A newspaper placard informs us that “3 More Bodies!” have been discovered.
We now go to the Nicklin Institute of Research in Natural History, where well-known Canadian paleontologist Dr. Matthew Roney is about to hold a press conference. Dr. Roney wants the press and the general public on his side so he can keep his archaeological dig open long enough to finish his work there properly; the owners of the construction site want him and his team out as soon as possible.
Dr. Roney believes that the skeletal remains found on the site are of great scientific importance. They are dated at 3 to 5 million years old, much, much earlier than hominids have previously been believed to exist.
His assistant Barbara Judd brings out a clay model she’s reconstructed from the bones they’ve recovered so far: the figure is small and ape-faced, but it stands upright and has a remarkably large brain.
After the press conference, Dr. Roney stops for a drink and a bite of lunch at his club and meets up with an old friend, Professor Bernard Quatermass (played by Andre Morell*). Except for a general interest in science, the two men don’t apparently have much in common. Roney’s fields of study are fossils and early forms of life, while Quatermass is the head of Britain’s space program.
Or, at least, he has been up to this point. As Quatermass learns at a meeting with the War Office that same afternoon, his pet project to put Brits in space and ultimately place a station on the moon is being taken over by the military; they see the moon and even Mars as the perfect sites for missile bases as part of their strategic defense program. They call this plan the Dead Man’s Deterrent: if the Soviets strike first and destroy the UK and US, these space-bases can still be used to launch a final counterattack and wipe the USSR out as well.
Quatermass is appalled, but doesn’t have much say in the matter. His prospective replacement as head of the Rocket Group (now renamed the Guided Missile Group), one Colonel Breen, is right there at the meeting and ready to take over.
One of the diggers has a dizzy spell and briefly complains of a touch of migraine. She soon recovers and when she resumes her digging, uncovers what at first seems to be a drainage pipe, until its size and surface smoothness suggest that it might be an unexploded WWII bomb.
The diggers refuse to do any more digging and Dr. Roney is forced to call in the Bomb Squad.
Captain Potter, the leader of the Squad, closes the site down until the object can be fully uncovered and, if need be, defused. As his men begin to examine the object, however, they aren’t certain that it is a bomb. It’s surely the oddest one they’ve ever seen. It’s not ticking, for one thing, and it’s not made of steel. A magnetized stethoscope slides right off the surface. As they begin to dig it out, they discover a number of odd bumps on the surface, and the thing turns out to be much bigger than even the largest of the German rockets they’re familiar with.
Dr. Roney, already frustrated by this delay to his dig, only grows more impatient as the Bomb Squad seem to be taking their time dealing with the supposed bomb. When they stop for a tea break, he seeks out someone in higher authority to get a second opinion and get things moving–that would be his old friend Quatermass, just as the Rocket / Missile Group meeting is breaking up.
Quatermass, likewise frustrated with his own situation, is glad to get away. Since Colonel Breen is still right there when Dr. Roney explains his problem, he also agrees to come along and offer his expert advice as a senior military officer (Potter is too young to have actual WWII experience). So off they all go to Knightsbridge together.
By the time they arrive, the Bomb Squad has cleared off the upper portion of the object and remain baffled by it. The hull has a rounded front section and the back portion is segmented in a way that vaguely suggests an insect’s abdomen.
As Breen and Quatermass look the supposed bomb over, Roney tells the latter that “right here” is where they found the first skull, in the dirt two or three feet just above the object.
If Phil Harding’s taught me anything, it’s that if one thing is in the dirt under another thing, then that underneath thing was there first. And the fossil bones Dr. Roney’s recovered have been there for 5 million years.
* Only one of two actors in all of this series I recognize. He played Dr. Watson to Peter Cushing’s Holmes in the 1957 Hammer version of The Hound of the Baskervilles. The other actor is Michael Ripper as the Bomb Squad sergeant. Ripper was Hammer’s counterpart to Dick Miller in Roger Corman’s movies of the 1950s and ’60s; keep an eye out for him because he’s in nearly every one of their films somewhere.