Quatermass II (1955)

In my review of Quatermass and the Pit, I wrote about the scientist Professor Quatermass, who was the hero of a trilogy of excellent British made-for-TV science fiction series. Professor Q. is a very well developed character, and if you are only slightly interested in well-written sci-fi, you should not miss the two preserved series (only two episodes of the original series, The Quatermass Experiment (1953), still exist, though all episodes were remade in 2005). In addition, Hammer films remade the entire trilogy a few years after the originals in good but somewhat different movie renditions.

The spaceship in Quatermass II (1955)

The second series was aptly named Quatermass II (episodes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6), and was originally broadcast exactly 60 years ago (the final episode was televised sixty years ago this Thursday). The title was the first time the number two was appended to the title of a sequel, though the roman numeral refers not to the series as such, but to the spaceship Quatermass II, which is an important plot object. It has been suggested that it inspired others to use similar numbering for sequels in later film series. It has even been suggested that the spaceship name was just made up as an excuse to smack the “II” label on the title, though that explanation feels a bit far-fetched.

In Quatermass II, Professor Q. battles invading aliens who are jettisoned from an asteroid orbiting earth, and upon landing take control of human bodies. This idea was not new in literature. See for example The Puppet Masters by Robert Heinlein, available (parts 1, 2, 3) from the Internet Archive. But as far as I know, it had not previously been used on screen. The following year, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers was released, which is one of the most famous examples in the movies.

This film is best enjoyed for the story (brilliant throughout) and actors (uneven, but mostly very good). Frankly, though, other aspects of the production, such as sets, special effects and camera work, feel very cheap and sometimes amateurish by modern standards. Even so, the positive aspects weigh so heavily that I can only recommend watching it.

John Robinson in Quatermass II (1955)

Quatermass II
Download links: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6
Year: 1955
Running time: 3 h 6 min
Director: Rudolph Cartier
Stars: John Robinson
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (512×384)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: Cinepack

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Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954)

As I started preparing this week’s post, I noticed that I was not the only one who made the connection between Edward Snowden and Winston Smith, the protagonist of George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four”. News editorials and political blogs are filled with Orwellian metaphors, and Amazon sales of the book apparently rose several thousand per cent in a single day after Snowden’s revelations were made public.

One of the very best filmed versions of the book was made thirty years before the year in the title. Nineteen Eighty-Four, like Quatermass and the Pit (which I wrote about last week), is a live science fiction drama produced by the BBC. The two productions even had the same writer and director, and some actors also appear in both.

Peter Cushing and Donald Pleasence in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954)

Winston Smith is played by none other than Peter Cushing. A brilliant Cushing, at that. And if possible, Donald Pleasence as his “friend” Syme is even better. In fact, the whole production is brilliant. A few slip-ups (such as the shadow of an overhead microphone visible on screen) must be accepted in a live production such as this. The dictatorial government’s total control and repression reaches for you through the screen, and you can feel the anguish, then a vague hope, and then … But I should stop here, in case you are not previously familiar with the story.

One year earlier, American CBS had made another live TV production of the same story. I have not seen that version, but it too is said to be very good, although shorter. Orwell fans may want to check it out.

We have to acknowledge that the US is not Oceania, Edward Snowden is not Winston Smith, and Barack Obama is certainly not Big Brother. But that was never the point. The point, I think, is that the book and the film Nineteen Eighty-Four still have something to offer. Real-world events can only serve to reinforce what was already there.

This film is best enjoyed as an allegory and a warning that is just as relevant today, almost sixty years after the film, sixty-four years after the book.

'Big Brother is watching YOU!' Peter Cushing in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954)

Nineteen Eighty-Four
Download link
Year: 1954
Running time: 1 h 47 min
Director: Rudolph Cartier
Stars: Peter Cushing, Donald Pleasence
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×544)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: Cinepack (1.4 G)

Quatermass and the Pit (1958)

Television in its early days was essentially a live medium. Almost everything was broadcast immediately, in the same moment it was created, and that was just as true for drama series as for news or comedy shows, for example. This had several practical implications. Techniques had to be invented for changing scenes quickly and effectively, especially if the characters had to change clothes or environment. It also meant that everything had to be extremely well rehearsed, in a sense much more closely related to the theatre than to film.

Some of the best television in the 1950s was produced in Britain by the BBC. Among other things, they broadcast a number of very good science fiction series with the somewhat unique hero Professor Quatermass.

Quatermass and the Pit (episodes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) was the third and final Quatermass series, and arguably the best (the first, The Quatermass Experiment (1953), is only partially preserved today). It had a higher budget than the previous two series, which can be clearly seen in the scenography, and it used pre-filmed material interspersed with the live action.

André Morell in Quatermass and the Pit (1958)

In Quatermass and the Pit, construction workers discover the remains of prehistoric humans in London. Later at the same site, they also find what at first is assumed to be an undetonated World War II bomb, but it appears to be made of a substance that is harder and more durable than anything previously known. Professor Q. advances the hypothesis that perhaps the artefact is not of earthly origin, but some refuse to believe that this is possible.

Quatermass and the Pit was made at a time when science fiction could not rely on cool special effects, especially not in a live TV series. Instead, it had to use aspects such as interesting characters, good dialogue and an intelligent story, things seen far too rarely in modern sci-fi. The series also delivers some interesting commentary on its contemporary society, some of which is still very relevant, for instance the gap between politics and science, and the tension between racial groups.

Professor Q. is a nicely developed character, and a type rarely seen on film. He is a scientist who, unlike Indiana Jones, relies on his brain rather than his muscles. In some moments, he reminds a bit about Sherlock Holmes, but where Holmes tends to use spectacular chains of reasoning, Quatermass relies more upon observable evidence and scientific method. Today’s popular media could use more heroes like that.

For many, Quatermass and the Pit is perhaps best known as the 1967 remake by Hammer Films, but that film has totally different qualities. The budget for special effects was higher, of course, and the whole story was condensed to about half the length, driving up the tempo and cutting out many subplots entirely. Both are good, but the original would be my first choice.

This film is best enjoyed if you want some quality science fiction with a good story and good actors.

Christine Finn and Cec Linder in Quatermass and the Pit (1958)

Quatermass and the Pit
Download links: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6
Year: 1958
Running time: 2 h 58 min
Director: Rudolph Cartier
Stars: André Morell
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (512×384)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: Cinepack