Quatermass and the Pit

Our furniture has stayed put over the weekend, so no worries there. However, we scared ourselves a little by watching Quatermass and the Pit, which featured lots of supernaturally flying bric-a-brac.

Quatermass and the Pit is an amazing work of television. Have any of you seen it? Probably not, because it's been mostly forgotten in the annals of television history, but it has had a considerable influence on today's television science fiction.

The Quatermass series was a set of episodic stories which ran on BBC television in the late 1950s. The best of the lot, Quatermass and the Pit, ran in 1957. We rented a copy from Generation X Videos and it is amazing to see how well this show has aged in the 45 years since it was released.

The story is built upon a rock solid premise. Excavations in Hobbs Lane in London, England, reveal skeletons of a previously unknown species of hominid. These remains are dated at more than five million years old. As the archeologists and paleontologists dig further, they uncover a missile-shaped object, which they assume is an unexploded bomb from the Second World War. But as the military (and brilliant rocket scientist Bernard Quatermass, working reluctantly with the military) investigate, they realize that the device is not a bomb. For one thing, a near complete five-million year old skeleton is discovered inside. And then the "missile" starts to do some strange things...

Echoes of Quatermass can be found in a number of television series, especially Doctor Who. Doctor Who has borrowed such things as the character dynamic of idealistic scientists working uneasily with the military, aliens manipulating the course of human evolution for their own purpose, and elements of the darker side of humanity being the result of this alien manipulation. Quatermass and the Pit itself borrows a number of elements from H.P. Lovecraft, including human race memories of the aliens provoking hysteria and madness among the local populace. And Quatermass puts forward some unique ideas that haven't been used since, like terraforming by proxy. The aliens (Martians) realized that they couldn't survive on Earth, nor could they change Earth into something they could survive on. So, rather than preserve their dying bodies, they attempt to preserve their dying civilization, by altering the most advanced species on the planet at the time, in the hopes of turning it into something that could carry on the Martian culture. Have you ever heard of an alien plan half as subtle?

The series was produced in the late 1950s on a television budget. Despite this, it works exceptionally well at getting inside your head and scaring the bejeezus out of you. A lot of the special effects are hearsay ("hey, look at what's happening on the street!"), but it's well acted hearsay. What special effects we do see are a marvel of doing much with very little. The aliens themselves are a work of art.

At three hours, the series may be a little slow for 21st century sensibilities, but if you can forgive this element of fifties storytelling, you're in for a treat. Ignore the Hammer Horror movie remake from the 1960s (although it's not bad). If you can find the television version, rent it out and watch it that evening, with the lights out, and friends.

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