Quatermass Again: The Quatermass Xperiment (1955)
I have rarely had the opportunity to write about 1950s TV here and I'm not really doing so now, since I'm writing about the Hammer film which used the original TV series as its source. This 1953 series is a legend in the world of cult TV:
Originally comprising six half-hour episodes, it was the first science fiction production to be written especially for a British adult television audience. Previous written-for-television efforts such as Stranger from Space (1951–52) were aimed at children, whereas adult entries into the genre were adapted from literary sources, such as R.U.R. (1938 and again in 1948) and The Time Machine (1949). The serial was the first of four Quatermass productions to be screened on British television between 1953 and 1979. It was transmitted live from the BBC's original television studios at Alexandra Palace in London, one of the final productions before BBC television drama moved to west London.
As well as spawning various remakes and sequels, The Quatermass Experiment inspired much of the television science fiction that succeeded it, particularly in the United Kingdom, where it influenced successful series such as Doctor Who and Sapphire and Steel. It also influenced successful Hollywood films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alien. Source: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Quatermass_Experiment
I have seen them but sadly only two episodes of the original series remain - if you buy the BBC box set of the 2000s relaunch you can see them and read the scripts of the others. You can see the remaining episodes for free at https://archive.org/details/TheQuatermassExperiment-Incomplete (for some reason the link gadget isn't working today).
Perhaps I should say that while this film used the same source material, its writer, the legendary Nigel Kneale, didn't like this film. Other works of his have appeared here on and off and one of these days I will get round to writing about The Year of the Sex Olympics. Only today I discovered that Kneale and his wife were Jewish refugees to Britain ( in the long gone days when we could play nicely with the other countries) and that he is sometimes called Manx. This is not because he had no tail, although obviously he didn't have one.
As hinted above, the Quatermass shows and films may have been turning points in the development of the attitude to science which we see in so much TV in the following couple of decades. Quatermass is a scientist pure and simple and his loyalty is to cold hard science above all. He is actually seen as the archetypal scientist, who would place the empirical scientific model above all. This is very much the model of scientists seen on succeeding decades. 'But he's a scientist!' is a recurring line in TV of this time and it means the scientist is in disinterested pursuit of the truth alone.
This approach, and the TV it influenced, juxtapose this reverence for science with a fear of science's consequences. Here it is the suggestion that space travel would bring back something dangerous to earth. More frequently in my kind of television it is the fear that some new technology will get into the hands of the wrong people, whether they be dangerous megalomaniacs or the Other Side. The film does incorporate the fear because Quatermass goes off to start the whole thing again, after going to such trouble to get rid of the Thing brought to earth.
I would say it is extraordinary that the returned astronaut's wife busts her husband out of hospital. However she didn't have the benefit of subsequent TV and film warnings to know that if your husband comes back markedly different from space travel you really should leave him in his secure hospital, so perhaps we should go easy on her. In fact my only criticism is that I think the build up is too slow, but again I may not be fairly judging this. It certainly seems to have been considered very frightening at the time.
I like an arbitrary fact about this film, which is that it was or is in the Guinness Book of Records as being the only film ever to frighten a viewer to death, after a 9 year old child in the US died of a ruptured artery while watching it. I have no idea of its rating in the US but here the film was X rated (the spelling of Experiment was deliberate to stress the rating), which at this time meant youngsters under 16 couldn't be admitted to view the film. Another thing I have learned only today is the reason the X certificate is associated with porn is because pornographers in the US hijacked the rating in the 1970s; in the US it wasn't meant to indicate porn originally. The Quatermass Xperiment isn't vaguely pornographic, I should add, not even boobs, bums and furry bits. I suspect it wouldn't even get an 18 certificate here now.
The film deals with the familiar dilemma of how much to tell the public. I like Quatermass's approach that they must be told nothing, if I'm honest. Usually I wouldn't but I like the additional detail that they must be told nothing because his hypothesis of what is happening is so fantastic that the public wouldn't believe it!
This post is strangely suitable this year and it is unfortunate that we have reached a stage where more and more people think empirical science is a matter of belief which can be ignored and other people seek out scientists whose research confirms their own bias. In other words exactly the sort of people this film and the TV shows I write about were warning of.