Cult Movie: Sci-fi miniseries bleaker than originals

John Mills's Quatermass is tired, world weary and sick to the back teeth of society
Ralph McLean

SCREENWRITER Nigel Kneale changed the face of television sci-fi forever when he penned his trilogy of Quatermass stories for the BBC in the 1950s.

Stark, gripping and delivered in neat episodic format, Kneale’s thoughtful and oddly prescient tales of Professor Bernard Quatermass and his battles to save the Earth from alien invasion pulled massive TV audiences at the time.

The story goes pubs emptied and streets cleared as punters piled home to soak up the latest science fiction shocks and revelations that Kneale’s pen spilled forth. All three of those era-defining serials subsequently made their way to the big screen. All three came courtesy of Hammer films and by the time the House Of Horror had delivered their final film in the series – the superlative Quatermass And The Pit in 1967 – it was a brand firmly established in the public consciousness.

Fast forward a decade, though, and the Professor was little more than a distant memory for most. By 1979 mainstream sci-fi was all about Close Encounters and Aliens and the homegrown horrors uncovered by an elderly man of science held little appeal. It was into that atmosphere of apathy that ITV relaunched Quatermass.

Made by Euston Films, most famous for The Sweeney, this miniseries was a gritty and downbeat return that promised much but failed to re-establish Kneale’s Professor in the hearts of the TV-watching public. Viewing the full series again thanks to Network’s superbly restored Blu-ray, it’s easy to see why.

Directed by Piers Haggard, who’d given us one of the greatest folk horror films ever in Blood On Satan’s Claw earlier in the decade, and starring John Mills as Quatermass, it’s set in a near-future Britain where society has pretty much broken down. Now living in the wilds of Scotland, our one-time pioneering Professor is forced to make a trip into the war zone of London when his granddaughter goes missing.

He believes she’s joined up with the Planet People, a gang of New Age hippies who believe they are about to be transported by alien forces to a mystical utopian land in the sky. What’s really happening, though, is the kids are all about to harvested by the ruthless alien overlords.

Much of the hippie ideology feels badly outmoded for something made in 1979 – Kneale had apparently written it much earlier but failed to get it into production. That said, it does dish up a certain period charm.

Over the course of the full original miniseries – there’s also a truncated film version here retitled The Quatermass Conclusion that ran briefly in cinemas – action is hard to find and the downbeat tone overbearing at times.

The casting of John Mills doesn’t help either. His Quatermass is tired, world weary and sick to the back teeth of society and all it has to offer. Fans of Kneale's work will be delighted this is available again but everyone else is well advised to stick to the 50s and 60s interpretations. At least there's some sense of hope there.


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