Quatermass (1979) | The final chapter in Nigel Kneale’s iconic sci-fi serial stuns again on Blu-ray
Leh! Leh! Leh!… In space, the US and the Russians continue to squander billions on pointless projects, while on Earth there is anarchy. In Britain, fuel and food shortages have made the population desperate, and the streets have become a battlefield for the Badders and the Blue Brigade gangs.
Appalled by the state of the world, former space pioneer Professor Bernard Quartermass (John Mills) is on a mission to find his granddaughter. He fears she has joined the fanatical Planet People who, guided by the forces emitted from prehistoric monuments, are gathering in large numbers where they wait to be taken to another world.
At Ringstone Round, Quatermass and fellow scientist Joe Kapp (Simon MacCorkindale) witness a powerful alien beam reducing the mass gathering to dust. With the help of all the old people he can muster, Quatermass then sets out to destroy the life-sucking machine…
A VERY BRITISH HERO
Author Nigel Kneale’s intelligent and forthright British scientist, Professor Bernard Quatermass first made his TV appearance in July 1953, where he was played by Reginald Tate in the BBC serial The Quatermass Experiment. He was back in October 1955 in Quatermass II, but with John Robinson filling in as Tate suffered a heart attack that same year. And in December 1958, the Andre Morell took over for Quatermass and the Pit. After a 20-year retirement, the sleuthing boffin returned to British TV screens for a four-part final chapter with veteran star John Mills headlining. But rather than it being a BBC production, as was intended, it ended up being produced by Euston Films for ITV.
Quatermass was originally written in 1973 when hippies were still around, Skylab was being launched and an oil crisis was a reality. But it was never realised by the BBC due to costs, but mainly over the use of Stonehenge, which was big business and was too expensive to build as a replica.
The best thing about the 1979 serial is that it shares its DNA with its classic 1950s predecessors, and the underlying theme of possession remains crucial. In The Quatermass Experiment, it was a mindless organism floating in space which possessed an astronaut, in Quatermass II, slug-like creatures exploding out of projectiles infected the population, and in Quatermass and the Pit, Londoners fell under the control of a long dead race of Martians. And in the final chapter, it’s an alien machine that’s being used to cull the entire human race.
There are actually three versions of Kneale’s final story. Euston created two; the four-part serial for UK TV and a 100-minute film, The Quatermass Conclusion, which Kneale felt was the ‘shortest and meagrest telling of the story’. But the author also released a book at the same time that the series went out, which allowed him to delve further into Quatermass’ back-story. It’s well-worth seeking out, and so are the other three novelisations released in 1979 based on the earlier serials.
John Mills makes for a twinkly-eyed Quatermass and while Kneale felt the veteran actor didn’t the authority to make the character work, it’s great to watch how his Quatermass evolves as the story develops. He starts off like a dotty, angry Victor Meldrew, but when he gets his sense of purpose back, he’s a true British hero (with just a touch of a certain Time Lord).
If you put the sci-fi aside, Kneale’s dystopian tale is actually about age versus youth, making just as relevant in today’s digital age as it did when Kneale was venting his anger at where the world was heading in the early 1970s, and the best scenes are when Quatermass works with a bunch of old-timers to beat the malign power that only affects the young.
And who best to direct a film about youngsters possessed by forces unknown than Piers Haggard, who had to deal with Satan himself in the British folk horror classic Blood on Satan’s Claw. Quatermass may not be perfect, and those Planet People in their Starlight Express costumes a bit on the daft side, but this 1979 serial is a fitting ending to an iconic and very British TV character.
THE NETWORK RELEASE
Shot on 35mm, the original negatives have been used for the new High Definition restoration of The Quatermass Conclusion, which is presented in its original 1.33:1 theatrical aspect ratio, and for the four-part episodic version a new 5.1 mix from original triple-track audio elements is presented alongside the original mono soundtrack.
While I was hugely impressed by the quality of this restoration, the extras are disappointing, mainly due to the lack of audio on the trailer and one of the episode recaps. The image gallery is a bonus, however.
DID YOU KNOW?
The two giant radio dishes and the 18th-century observatory used in the series were mocked up by Euston’s art department.
Posted on July 23, 2015, in British Film, Must See, Sci-Fi and tagged 1970s British sci-fi, John Mills, Must See, Network Distributing, Piers Haggard, Quatermass, Sci-Fi, Simon MacCorkindale, The Quatermass Conclusion. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.