The Quatermass Experiment opening screen

Seventy years ago BBC TV script editor Nigel Kneale was commissioned to write a six-part serial to fill a gap in the summer schedule. The story he submitted, The Quatermass Experiment, was the BBC’s first attempt at an original science-fiction/horror thriller.

The first episode was broadcast on 18 July 1953 and proved to be an enormous popular success, firmly rooted in the anxieties of the time. In the summer of 1953 Britain was still dominated by war-time shortages. Stalinist Russia had exploded its first H-Bomb and the Korean War was coming to an end with five million dead.

The bright hope of the post-war Labour government had vanished and the Tories were back in power. The Cold War dominated everything. At the same time, Kneale would later insist, “1953 was an over-confident year. Rationing was coming to an end. Everest had just been climbed, the Queen crowned, and our first Comet jets were being deceptively successful. A sour note seemed indicated.”

A “sour note” was what Kneale delivered in, what he admitted 40 years later, “was a rush job, in fact. I hadn’t even finished writing it before it started transmitting.”

So what did those who ignored the BBC’s warning—that those of a “nervous disposition” should avoid the show—see?

The British Experimental Rocket Group led by Professor Bernard Quatermass sends the first manned spaceship into orbit crewed by three men—Caroon, Green and Reichenheim.

But when it eventually returns to Earth, their sealed capsule contains only Caroon. Over the next few days the catatonic Caroon displays some of the characteristics of his missing colleagues. He calls Greene’s wife by a nick-name only the couple used. He displays Reichenheim’s specific technical knowledge and speaks newly acquired fluent German.

Quatermass eventually realises that the surviving astronaut is actually a collective organism made up of aspects of all three men, possessed by an alien form of life.

When Russian agents bungle an attempt to kidnap “Carroon”, the creature escapes the authorities and wanders through London. It gradually mutates into a huge mass of tissues absorbed from the various animals and plants it encounters. It develops seed pods and the last episode centres on whether it can be destroyed before it germinates.

The mystery that drove The Quatermass Experiment was what had happened to the missing astronauts.

But its horror came from the prospect of an enforced, universal collectively in which everything—organic and social—became part of an indistinguishable, grey, protoplasmic mass.

The monster in The Quatermass Experiment represented the bourgeois fear that “under socialism we’d all be the same”. 

Victory is achieved by re-asserting individuality. Quatermass beats the monster by repeating the names of the amalgamated astronauts over and over. He asks them to separate themselves from the monster—giving dramatic life to the McCarthyite slogan of the time, “Better Dead than Red”.

But The Quatermass Experiment wasn’t simply, or even primarily an anti-socialist allegory.

Kneale was one of the first authors to write for television as a medium in itself, not a poor relation of the cinema or the theatre. His choice of producer—Viennese film director Rudolph Cartier—also understood the “hypnotic power emanating from the TV screen to the viewer, sitting isolated in his darkened room”.

And Quatermass’s world was clearly caught between Washington and Moscow.

Kneale clearly had no time for Moscow, yet he didn’t seem that keen on Washington either. In the series’ fourth episode, Believed to Be Suffering, Caroon finds temporary sanctuary in a cinema showing an absurd American science fiction film.

In this film-within-a-film, Kneale allows a space lieutenant to articulate a vision of the future where US imperialism and cultural hegemony achieves cosmic proportions. It’s a vision of a homogeneity of a different order than that threatened by the monster. But it’s one Kneale seemed to find only a little less distasteful.

Kneale clearly wasn’t a cold warrior. The two Quatermass serials which followed were surprisingly radical. He died in 2006—a pioneer of mass, quality drama.

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