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Quatermass 1979 May 14, 2016

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.

Another cultural artefact from the 1970s. Having worked my way through the original BBC Quatermass television series and now just seen the remastered version of the 1979 Quatermass series I’ve got to recant my views aired some while ago when I saw it on YouTube.

I wasn’t quite as impressed then as now – but I think I was mostly wrong.

For a start on the large screen and in good definition the series breathes. The acting is variable but generally good – including a young Brenda Fricker amongst others. And there’s something about the pace of it. Yes there’s too much info dumping – would Quatermass be quite so unaware of the social collapse of the UK even if he did indeed live beside a remote lough in Scotland? Perhaps but it seems a bit unlikely. But overall it has a certain grandeur as it sweeps through four episodes.

What I like particularly is the sense that this is part of a broader series where alien intervention is something that happens, that the past reaches into the present, that humans may be of marginal importance.

Sure, the effects are bockety, curiously so for those associated with the late great Derek Meddings, at least the ‘special’ effects of a US/Soviet space station in orbit encountering something unusual. But the desolate roads, the urban chaos, the sense of disintegration are well realised, with some surprisingly astute commentary on oil, the commercialisation of policing and so on. And there’s a snappy tone throughout – every one is depicted at being more or less at the end of their tether.

Urban conflict between Badders (after Bader Meinhof, and all middle class consequently, and Blue Brigades, obviously fascists, – ‘the worst’ says one character). Some sort of unexplained ‘games’ at Wembley Stadium involving human bloodshed and this before the main narrative kicks off.

This is a future where there are no social media, computers are very much restricted to installations, international telephony appears to have gone the way of the dodo, the pay police have South African accents, the military vehicles are 1960s and 1970s vintage, it is in fact the concerns of 1979 writ larger.

Even the trope of a generational war, albeit one that is prosecuted by aversion and avoidance, is well realised in the broader context. Eamonncork said some time ago that the Planet People, hippyish in their ways and much criticised for not being punks were oddly enough more prescient than punks ever would have been – given youth cultural movements in the late 1980s and 1990s. And I think there’s that. Also, and this is crucial, their passivity makes sense in the context of the narrative where outright and perpetual belligerence would not. The planet people want to escape, not to dominate. There’s also a curious and interesting Jewish subtext.

That said it is clear that Kneale had a remarkably bitter view of matters – and yet, I kind of like the overturning of the usual tropes of television (then and to a somewhat lesser extent now) of young people being in the vanguard. Indeed the concentration on the not just old but positively elderly is oddly refreshing. And it’s worth noting that the ‘young’ appears to include people into their forties. Which may be reassuring or not.

There’s certainly an unevenness of tone across the four episodes. The first is – for want of a better word, more realistic, the second somewhat less so, the third has a hallucinatory quality and the fourth an odd matter of factness despite the sheer weirdness of the events unfolding. Quatermass himself moves across those four episodes from bewildered victim, to observer and then finally to action, albeit – and tellingly – in a very collegiate fashion. Just on that it is notable how many women have positions of authority, albeit refracted through some rather antiquated notions of emotion in some instances.

I think it loses it a bit in the last five minutes – reaching levels of melodrama that other parts hint at but never quite achieve (though they come close – the Regional Commissioner, Kickalong etc). Yet the last shot with a voice over is oddly affecting given all that has come before. And overall it is at least true to the bleakness of the underlying concept. Humans are irrelevant, beneath the attention of aliens whose powers are incalculable and whose needs might just see us as a… diversion, perhaps… well, the plot doesn’t expand on it and all for the best.

There are one or two major plot holes, for example did the aliens plant devices on Earth in the distant past, and if so why all the fussing with gathering people at certain locations rather than just… well, I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen it yet. But I’m tempted to say this was the pinnacle – gloominess, not particularly brilliant special effects and all else accepted – of 1970s disaster tales… at least on television.


1. gendjinn - May 14, 2016

I like this series because the interpretation can flip entirely depending on if you trust Quatermass to be an honest narrator (ignorance of social decay?) and that the Planet People are being murdered.

What if instead of being killed they are being scanned and ascending into the godhead? That Fermi’s paradox is law and unless you get help bootstrapping all industrialized species destroy their habitat. So when the aliens leave, they haven’t saved humanity, they’ve doomed it.

Maybe I’m not a big fan of the olds being right because they can’t perceive something the youngs can. Well, at least not until I’m an old too 🙂


WorldbyStorm - May 14, 2016

Hmmm… that’s an interesting theory. 🙂

In way though that’s a two edged sword. The young can perceive something, Quatermass himself says that, but it’s a greater sensitivity that the old mostly don’t have.


gendjinn - May 15, 2016

Aliens as stand in for cold war adversary and the youth rejecting their parents culture are themes that crop up over and over in that period. Wonder what was going on?


WorldbyStorm - May 15, 2016

There’s a lot in that, I think though that Kneale wasn’t entirely unaware of that. He seems to have been extremely reflective as to his work and its meanings. Of course in a way form follows function. Here there’s an effort to show a declining human civilisation – there’s only so many ways to generate conflicts there etc. And youth culture had become a massive thing in the preceding twenty years. So it made sense in a way. Of course we/I would be much more sympathetic to that youth culture because we are or have been or are still kind of connected to it and value it. Another aspect that is interesting is is how antagonistic he was to the US as well as the USSR and to the ruling elites in Britain.


2. Starkadder - May 15, 2016

Not the best Q outing, but still interesting. I do sort of see a parallel between Kneale’s negative view of youth culture and the similar views Kingsley Amis and Anthony Burgess had (the thugs in Q4 could have come straight out of “A Clockwork Orange”).


WorldbyStorm - May 15, 2016

In fairness to them it was a massive generational and cultural shift and something they were desperately unprepared for. It led to a lot of reactionary guff by them, Amis and Burgess in particular but I do have a little bit of sympathy for them. Kneale was a lot more sympathetic than the other two.


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