The Quatermass Experiment (2005)

“I have brought upon the Earth what is possibly the most terrible thing ever known. What came out of that rocket was not a man. It had been men — a human amalgam possessed by the thing that entered into that rocket over 4 million miles away and transformed them. It had their brains, their faculties. But over the last three days, it has developed the means to existence on this planet — the means to ensure that it only shall exist.

“The Army have plans to destroy it. But should they fail, it is almost certain that every living thing on Earth will give way to this, and life as we know it will cease to exist…

Quatermass

“If the worst should happen, I beg for your forgiveness.”

I’ve reviewed this story twice before: the first two episodes of the otherwise lost original 1953 BBC live television version and the Hammer movie version made a couple of years later.

In April 2005, the “experiment” was repeated on BBC 4. Nigel Kneale’s original script was adapted, with his assistance, and updated to allow for changes in social mores and geopolitics as well as our increased knowledge about space and space travel that simply wasn’t available 50 years earlier. Instead of six 30-minute episodes, the story was compressed into one show approximately an hour and 40 minutes long.

But one thing remained unchanged: Quatermass was enacted and aired live. The BBC (nor anyone else, really) has not regularly presented live television dramas since the ’60s. It’s a style that was common in TV’s earliest days, when performances were a sort of combination of theatrical plays and radio drama, but it has long been abandoned in favor of videotape or film. Live TV is like working without a net.

The brave actors who embarked upon this project include Jason Flemyng as Professor Quatermass, Indira Varma as Judith Carroon and Andrew Tiernan as her astronaut husband Victor, Adrian Dunbar as Inspector Lomax, and on the British Rocket Group team, Mark Gatiss and David Tennant (the latter was cast to become the 10th Doctor while he was rehearsing for this).

In a nostalgic call-back to the 1953 BBC version, this show begins with the original Quatermass theme music and opening title before we switch to much more modern stock footage of a rocket being fired into space. Professor Quatermass, Judith Carroon, and Paterson (Gatiss) are in the BRG control room. They lost contact with the rocket 57 hours ago and are naturally worried about its fate.

Crashed rocketWhen it suddenly reappears, there’s still no communication with the crew on board. Quatermass remotely controls it to land in the London suburbs.

Instead of crashing into Katie Johnson’s house or frightening teenagers necking in a haystack, this time the rocket interrupts a liaison between an adulterous couple in a (rhythmically rocking) parked car. All we see are some bright lights and the couple’s reactions.

This scene and the next, which introduces the cynical news reporter Fullalove and his editor, give the actors in the studio time to run outside to the “crash” set, where the rocket is already cordoned off and surrounded by police, news teams with cameras, and a curious crowd. Water is sprayed on the rocket to cool it down to a safe temperature to approach.

It’s Judith who hears thumping from inside the rocket. The hatch opens, and a single astronaut emerges–her husband Victor. He collapses in a state of shock.

Victor alive

While Victor is rushed off to receive medical attention at the Rocket Group’s facilities, Quatermass, Paterson, and Inspector Lomax–who is an MOD  official and not a Scotland Yard detective–look into the rocket. There’s no sign, living or dead, of the other two members of the crew, Charles Greene and Ludwig Reichenheim. Only a couple of empty spacesuits. Paterson says that the hatch was sealed from the inside and it was impossible for them to have left the capsule in space.

At the BRG medical lab while Judith tends to Victor, Lomax tries to question him. Did the others go out? Victor doesn’t say much, and nothing that’s a coherent answer.

Lomax also takes samples and fingerprints and asks Judith about the spacesuits. She explains the interlocking pieces of spacesuit to him; they can’t be removed from a person all in one piece.

This shakes up Quatermass when Lomax shows him one of the still-intact suits.

Before Mrs. Greene and Dr. Gordon Briscoe (Tennant) arrive from Australia, where the rocket was launched, Judith confesses to Quatermass that she and Victor weren’t happy. She’d fallen in love with Gordon and was going to leave her husband, but felt it was disloyal to do so just when he was about to make this dangerous trip into space. Now, she doesn’t know what to do. It’d be incredibly callous to think of leaving now, when he’s so ill.

I’m delighted that one bit of dialog remains intact from the original script. When Judith tells Gordon her decision, they have that same oh-so British and understated conversation: “I’m staying.” “With him?” “Yeah.” But I can’t say they show the best sense of discretion by having this exchange while standing at the foot of her husband’s hospital bed.

'I’m staying.' 'With him?' 'With him.'

Victor’s in no condition to notice or care. While examining Victor, Dr. Briscoe notes that not only is he strangely cold, but there are changes in his skin texture and bone structure.

Quatermass attempts to trigger Victor’s memory by showing him film that Gordon brought with him from Australia. The three astronauts are shown in training, riding stationary bikes, boxing, then being interviewed. Victor speaks of “bringing something back” for Judith as souvenir of his spaceflight. Reichenheim says something in German.

Victor’s response is unexpected. When Quatermass asks Gordon what it was that Reichenheim said, Victor repeats the German sentence. But Victor doesn’t speak German! Gordon Briscoe, who does, asks him a technical question or two to establish that Victor’s command of the language is more than a few basic phrases.

When Gordon asks what his name is, Victor replies, “Ludwig Reichenheim.”

Lomax and Quatermass then join Paterson to examine the rocket’s “black box” flight recorder. The sound recording is distorted and it’s hard to hear anything Black boxthe three astronauts are saying. Their voices are drowned out by a strange noise that Quatermass can’t identify. It’s nothing to do with the rocket’s engines or instruments.

Paterson’s examination of the rocket has also turned up something very odd, interesting, and disturbing. There’s what he describes as a “colloidal goop,” that’s in everything. It may be organic, and samples are sent to the  lab.

“What did it do to them?” Quatermass wonders. This question is where the second surviving episode of the original Quatermass series ends.

Meeting in a bar, Paterson tells Fullalove that the rocket crew must have been inadequate to come to the end they did. It was “wrong” for the experiment to fail.

Back at the medical lab, Victor is shouting in German and gets up out of bed to wander around the room. He continues to change. Gordon id’s the goop as “possibly dead cell tissues.” Perhaps human, but he’s never seen anything like it before.

Once the flight recorder sound has been cleaned up so the astronauts’ voices can be understood, Quatermass plays it back for Victor to once again try to help him remember what happened. This leads to a flashback to the three  astronauts; we see their faces in closeup inside their helmets as we hear their voices.  Something is aboard the rocket with them. They can’t see it, but it frightens them.

Quatermass and Judith speculate on what could have got them. This thing, whatever it is, attacks organic structure. Does it have any physical structure itself? What if it’s purely energy? Something like a cosmic ray, but alive and intelligent?

Lomax and Paterson call this nonsense. Paterson in particular is angry about Quatermass non-scientifically grounded theories, what he’ll later call the professor’s “religious tolerance of improbability.” He’ll quit over it after giving Fullalove a big story about the unprofessionalism of the Rocket Group.

But before that, there’s a press conference. The official story is that Victor Carroon, who is nationally considered a hero, has amnesia and the BRG won’t have any answers about what happened until he recovers. The reporters, Fullalove among them, are more curious about the purpose of the rocket’s trip. What kind of observations were they intending to perform in space? Could they be considered a threat to “other interests?”

Cactus

While the rest of the BRG team and Lomax field questions from the reporters, Judith remains with Victor in the medical lab. He’s wandering around again. She tries to get him to lie down, but Victor is more interested in the cactus atop a piece of equipment.

He reaches toward it.

In the conference room where the press are assembled, everyone hears Judith scream.

In a nice bit of hand-held camera work, we watch the actors run down the studio corridors from one set to the other. Tennant slips and nearly falls as he rounds a corner.

Running actors

When they get to the lab, they find Judith alone and upset. The back door is wide open and there’s a bloody smear on it.

Quatermass returns to the conference room and tells the  reporters, regarding their curiosity about outside interests. “Victor Carroon is no longer in our custody.” Which implies that he’s been kidnapped by terrorists or another government’s agents, rather than walked off by himself.

But this information places the police and news on alert. A widespread search is initiated; everyone in the country is looking for Victor. As Quatermass explains to Lomax, Victor must be found immediately.

Meanwhile, Victor wanders London. We see both aerial shots of the city by night, with red tints so the lights on the streets look like the arteries of a living creature. There are also blurry and distorted handheld shots from Victor’s point of view. These filmed segments give the actors time to move to new sets, and to change if necessary. Victor is now a sort of merged Cactus-man with a blanket thrown over his head and shoulders. We don’t get a good look at him, apart from glimpses of a prickly and misshaped hand.

He encounters a child–not a little girl with a doll who wants to play tea-party, but a boy playing spaceman. Then he enters a chemistry lab at London University, not a public chemist’s shop, and terrifies the chemist who tries to help him. Both of these people, however, survive their meeting with Cactus-Victor and live to tell the BRG staff who are tracking Victor about it.

Victor trashes the chemistry lab, though, and mixes up a potion which he drinks. From the residue left in the glass when the BRG people catch up, Gordon says it was toxic. Victor wasn’t a chemist, but Ludwig Reichenheim was. Did Cactus-Victor mean to kill himself with it, or was he trying to accelerate his transformation?

Goth couple in St. James ParkThe next people Victor encounters aren’t as lucky. This is a young Goth couple courting in St. James Park (actually, a little park just outside the studio). They’re discussing their future. She’s talking about marriage and planning how many kids they’ll have. He doesn’t see why they just can’t live like the ducks in the pond and let things go naturally.

It’s a moot point anyway. The couple–and the ducks–are doomed. When they hear someone moving around in the nearby bushes, they investigate.

A little later, the park groundskeeper finds the waterfowl all dead; he reports this to Lomax, and shows the MOD inspector one in a plastic bag, which he says looks like it’s been grotesquely turned inside out. The two then discover a severed hand on the ground under the bushes.

Eventually, Victor makes his way across the Millennium Bridge to the Tate Modern art gallery (formerly the Victorian Bankside Power Station) on the south side of the Thames. In the original series and film version, he went to Westminster Abbey, but that was beyond the current show’s abilities to do live, and Kneale felt that Art had taken the place of Religion in modern life.

A  woman reacts with horror and flees when she sees him on the bridge, but by the time he enters the Tate, Victor must have morphed into a completely unhuman state. The pretentious guide at the gallery cries out “Oh my god, what is that?” when he sees what Victor’s become. He seems to be reacting to a blob coming out of a drain on the floor.

Giant Pills sculpture in the Tate Modern gallery

Back at the BRG medical lab, Judith and Gordon have been examining some skin samples from Victor under a microscope, and have established that heat accelerates the cell growth. Quartermass uses the word “catalyst” to describe the accelerated reaction.

Then Gordon, with horror, observes “sporangia” on the sample–that is, buds in which spores are developing. If these burst, the ejected spores could be widely disseminated. The spores could latch on to, and affect, everything.

So naturally the Army want to blow Victor (and the Tate) up.

Quatermass and what’s left of the BRG–that would be Gordon and Judith–make their way to the soldiers and news crews gathered outside the Tate to try and stop the stubborn General who’s preparing to deal with the being that was Victor Carroon with firepower.

Faced with the possible end of the world, Quartermass makes a public apology for the TV news cameras, the speach I quoted at the top of this review. Then he goes inside the Tate.

The cells of what had once been Victor have transformed to the point that it’s now in the fabric of the building. So we don’t actually see anything.

This lack of a visible monster was a deliberate choice of the show’s producers, I learned from the DVD commentary. The monster in Westminster Abbey.Everyone speaks slightingly of the Hammer movie cactus-octopus monster–which I rather like–but they acknowledge that they couldn’t get away with anything like that today. Modern audiences would find it funny rather than horrifying. I also learned that on the lost final episode of the original Quatermass series, Nigel Kneale himself took the role of the monster in the abbey–his fingers in a black glove waggled through a photograph of the abbey ceiling. I really would have loved to see that.

Having no beastie to confront, Quartermass does not attempt to destroy it by any physical means. Instead, he addresses his old friends: Charles Green, Ludwig Reichenheim, and Victor Carroon. He appeals to what’s left of their humanity in the transformed being. He plays back that recording from the rocket of their final minutes of life before the energy-being got them, so they can hear their own voices and remember who they were at the moment when they gave in to it.

“Fight it now,” he implores them.

3 astronautsThis seems to work. The three astronauts appear briefly. Are they the spirits of the men, or Quatermass’s imagination? Whatever they are, they aren’t physical bodies restored. They disappear when Quatermass collapses.

But the thing is gone.

Quatermass emerges from the building to be met by his friends. Under the end credits, the cameras continue running on the scene. We see people laughing and hugging. This isn’t the BRG happy that world isn’t about to end after all; it’s the actors relieved that they got through their live TV performance without any major screw-ups. This is why everybody hugs Fullalove even through they barely know him and have no reason to like him.

As with live theater, the possibility of mistakes on live TV is part of the fun of watching. It’s part of what gives the show its energy and make it exciting. I’ve no desire to see a production crash and burn, but a flubbed line, technical hitch, or stray boom-shadow is only to be expected. I didn’t catch many of those here; the most exciting slip was David Tennant’s literal one while racing around a corner.  I’ve seen more egregious errors in my watching of early Doctor Who and Dark Shadows episodes, and those were not live programs but the next step up in the 1960s, usually single-take video recordings with few breaks or edits. The worst I can say about this is that the lighting on scenes, both indoors and out, is usually too bright, sometimes obscuring the actors standing in front of it. The best? Finally seeing a version of Kneale’s original ending acted out.

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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.