DVD Review: The Quatermass Experiment

This is the very first of the Quatermass stories. It aired on the BBC in July and August of 1953 and introduces us to Professor Quatermass and the adventures of his Experimental Rocket Group.

Unfortunately, only the first two episodes of the original series survive. The DVD features a copy of the script so you can see how this version of Nigel Kneale’s story turned out, but I’ve also watched the Hammer film version that was made a couple of years later.

First, the two television episodes.

Episode 1: Contact Has Been Established

The episode begins with a voice-over announcer informing the viewers that the first manned rocket into space was launched from Australia one morning. The crew consisted of three men, whom we’ll hear more about later on. Contact with the rocket was suddenly lost and there’s been nothing but silence for more than 50 hours.

We then go to the control room for the British Experimental Rocket Group in the UK, as they discuss the problem with their Australian base. Everyone looks anxious, but one woman on the team seems more upset than the others. The group’s leader–Bernard Quatermass (played by Reginald Tate), although we won’t get his name for awhile yet–speaks comfortingly to her; their conversation establishes that she is Judith Carroon (Isabel Dean), married to one of the crewmen aboard the rocket, and a valued mathematician on the team. Judith is worried that one her calculations could have caused this malfunction. Judith Carroon and Prof. Quatermass

Then, to everyone’s relief, they pick up a signal. They aren’t able to contact the crew, but the rocket is heading back towards Earth. Judith does some calculations to project where it’s going… and track where it’s been. The rocket should have gone into orbit, but broke away and apparently took up some long, elliptical path. It’s been much farther from Earth than it should’ve been–halfway to the Moon if Judith’s math is correct. Quatermass regains remote control of the rocket to start its descent. It comes down in the London suburbs, about 10 miles from their headquarters.

There follows a long interval with a black screen and suspenseful music, and the next scene opens within the ruins of what was an old lady’s home near Wimbledom Common with a great big rocket sticking up through it. The couple next door have come to investigate; the wife seems to think that they’re faced with a nuclear warhead and wants to get away as fast as they can, although if she were right I don’t think they could get far enough quickly enough for safety.

The old lady and her cat The old lady (Katie Johnson from the Ealing comedy, The Ladykillers) is all right, although she’s trapped on what remains of the upper floor with a yowling cat in a wicker carrier. She’s understandably bewildered and believes the Blitz is recurring (“Have they started again?”) A Bobby arrives to rescue both old lady and cat with a tall ladder. Other emergency services people soon gather, as well as the neighbors and reporters eager to interview anybody they can get to talk to them. Among the latter is James Fullalove from the Gazette, who takes this exciting event as a welcome relief from his usual work on things like the Chelsea Flower Show.

By the time the members of the Rocket Group arrive on the scene, the place has taken on an atmosphere of carnival. One of the team, a man named Marsh, sets up radio equipment as close to the rocket as the heat from the exterior will allow and tries once again to contact the men inside. Judith shushes the crowd; she hears someone tapping. “They’re alive!”

The outer hull of the rocket is too hot for the hatch to be opened right away, and the carnival atmosphere only increases as more people gather to see what’s going on. Fullalove snags Quatermass for an interview and we finally learn something about the three astronauts: the crew’s leader, Greene, is an old friend of the professor’s and his wife was in Australia at the time of the rocket’s launch; the engineer is a German expatriate named Reichenheim; the navigator is Judith’s husband, Victor Carroon. Once he discovers that one of the men has an anxious wife right there, Fullalove naturally heads over to her next. Judith tells him a touching little story about a joke request she made when she said farewell to Victor–she asked him to bring her back something from outer space.

At last, the hatch is opened. One man in a spacesuit emerges and immediately collapses. When they pull off his helmet, they identify him as Victor. Quatermass says he’s all right, to Judith’s relief. While she cradles her husband, Marsh and some of the others go into the rocket’s crew compartment and find it empty.

Where are the other two men? Victor Carroon emerges from the rocket

Episode 2: Persons Reported Missing

The episode begins with a repeat of the last minutes of the previous episode, beginning when Victor (Duncan Lamont, by the way, who would later appear as the drillman Sladden in 5 Million Years to Earth) emerges and the team discovers that the other two crewmen aren’t in the rocket.

Victor isn’t in any condition to explain what happened. “So cold…” is about all he can say before an ambulance arrives to take him to the hospital. He may be in shock, but he’s a hero. One of the first men in space!

Quatermass and his team examine the interior of the rocket to try and figure out where the other two men could’ve gone. They didn’t go down inside the engine section of the rocket. Were they ever aboard at all? Mrs. Greene and Dr. Briscoe, who was in charge of the Australian side of the project, are already on their way to London and can confirm or refute that idea. A police inspector joins them; he’s seen sci-fi movies about men leaving space capsules and floating off in space. Could they have left the rocket and not been able to get back? Quatermass says No; the hatch remained sealed during the flight and, besides, their spacesuits are still here. (Their articulated spacesuits, lying on the floor and a bunk; the modern viewer who has seen at least couple of similar Star Trek episodes can guess where this is leading).

A little later at the hospital, the same inspector, named Lomax, and Judith are trying to get answers from Victor. But Victor still isn’t coherent and he is very cold. After Lomax goes, Quatermass comes to see how Victor’s doing.

It’s here that Judith confesses to Quatermass that her anxiety for Victor is tinged with more than a little guilt. She was about to leave him for another member of the team, a guy named Gordon, but decided to delay telling him about her decision until after he returned from this space mission. And seeing how things have turned out, she can’t think of leaving him now.

She also tells Quatermass that her husband’s face has changed, and she can’t attribute it to the effects of high pressure during take-off after so many hours have passed. Quatermass notices that Victor has been fingerprinted, and Judith mentions the inspector’s visit.

Quatermass heads over to Scotland Yard with an armload of files containing information on all three crewman, gives them to Inspector Lomax, and demands to know what he’s bothering Victor for. Lomax explains: the police are treating this as a case of missing persons, possibly a criminal case. I’m not the only one to notice that the empty spacesuits were articulated; Lomax has observed it too and asks Quatermass about it. The suits are specially designed, made up of a number of connecting pieces. You can’t take the whole thing off at once, but have to remove it piece by piece.

When Mrs. Greene and Dr. Briscoe’s plane arrives, Quatermass is at the airport to meet them. (Dr. Briscoe is played by someone named John Glen–not an actor I know, but it amused me to see the name in the credits. He should’ve played one of the astronauts.) Fullalove is there too, sensing that Quatermass hasn’t told him the whole story at the rocket crash site. The two new arrivals confirm that, yes, all three men got on the rocket in Australia. They’ve brought along a film that was made before the rocket took off. Quatermass gently tells Mrs. Greene that there’s been “some sort of accident.” He escorts them back to his Rocket Team headquarters, where he’s also had Victor transferred from the hospital to keep the police from questioning him.

Victor is still cold, and it’s not only his face that’s changed–also the skin on his chest and, confirmed via X-rays, his bone structure. “Changing…” echoes Victor, but that’s the only new word they’ll get out of him.

Mrs. Greene wants to see Victor, even though Judith has told her that he doesn’t remember anything. But Quatermass thinks that he might respond if he sees her.

Victor does respond, but not in the way anyone expected. He calls her “Lou,” which was her own husband’s pet name for her. Mrs. Greene also sees right away that Victor looks “different.”

Meanwhile, Judith and her erstwhile boyfriend Gordon have a brief, private conversation. “I’m staying.” “With him?” “With him.” All very British and understated of them.

Quatermass makes another attempt to trigger Victor’s memory by showing him, along with the others, the film that Dr. Briscoe brought with him from Australia. It’s the only time we see Greene and Reichenheim, as well as Victor in his normal state. All three men are happy and making jokes before they get on the rocket. Greene kisses his wife good-bye (which makes poor Mrs. Greene watching this tear up). Victor repeats Judith’s request and promises to bring her back a meteorite for the mantelpiece. Reichenheim says something in German.

Once again, Victor responds in an unexpected way. He repeats what Reichenheim said–but Victor doesn’t speak German. At least, he didn’t before. Now, he answers some technical questions that Gordon puts to him in that language. Gordon then asks Victor his name. “Dr. von-” but the answer is interrupted when Inspector Lomax arrives.

Lomax and Quatermass go back over to the rocket’s crash site, where Marsh has discovered something very odd, interesting, and disturbing. There’s a sort of powder everywhere behind the equipment panels and bunks and in the crevasses. It’s heavy… and organic. No one says so out loud, but they all realize they’ve found what remains of the missing crewmen.

“What did it do to them?” Quatermass wonders.

Unfortunately, we won’t get to see what exactly occurred during those missing hours in space–not in this version of the story anyway. Episode 2 ends with this question and a coda in which Isabel Dean announces when Episode 3 will air. No more of this series survives. A pity–it’s an intriguing beginning with enough clues so you can guess where it’s going. I like the little things that suggest that Victor has absorbed some part of his fellow astronauts, whatever wasn’t turned into powder.

Quatermass, Fullalove, and the bug on the screen The worst I can say about it is that the quality of these two surviving episodes is very poor, especially the second one. I believe these were kinescopes–a way of recording shows in the early days of television, particularly live performances. You pointed a camera at a TV screen while the show was airing and filmed that. The picture is occasionally interrupted by wavy lines or blotches, and halfway through the second episode a bug lands on the screen and refuses to go away.

Even so, I would’ve liked to see the rest even if the recording was as bad. A new, live version was made a few years ago using Nigel Kneale’s original script, but I haven’t seen that yet. And in 1955, a minor British film studio named Hammer made its first venture into the sci-fi/horror genre with its own version of the story, but they changed a number of elements from Kneale’s script, including the ending.

Well, on to the film version next…


Author: Kathryn L Ramage

Kathryn L. Ramage has a B.A. and M.A. in English lit and has been writing for as long as she can remember. She lives in Maryland with three calico cats named after the Brontë sisters. In addition to being the author of numerous short stories, reviews, essays, and period mystery novellas, she is also the author of a series of fantasy novels set in a dukedom called the Northlands on an alternate Earth whose history has diverged from ours somewhere during the medieval period.