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The Quatermass Effect

By David Ronayne

'I wish Bernard was here.'
'The British Rocket Group has its own problems.'
- Remembrance of the Daleks by Ben Aaronovitch p.89

One of the enduring games played by Doctor Who fans is 'spot the source of a given story'. With the vast amount of stories recorded, comparisons can be made with works of television or literature which may only be incidentally similar.

Ten years before Doctor Who first aired, the BBC began a series which pioneered British telefantasy. Nigel Kneale's Quatermass stories would influence science fiction and establish ideas and themes which are common today.

Quatermass has influenced Doctor Who through the years, especially the Earth-bound stories of the seventies. A form of homage was paid to the series in Remembrance of the Daleks with the above quote, which seems to indicate that the Doctor and Professor Quatermass share the same universe. The New Adventures novelist Mark Gatiss, himself a Quatermass fan, took this interesting idea a step further in his book Nightshade, by creating a television series of that name within the Doctor Who universe remarkably similar to the Quatermass serials.

All four Quatermass serials were written by Nigel Kneale, who got the name of his creation from a London telephone directory. The first three - The Quatermass Experiment, Quatermass II and Quatermass and the Pit - were produced in the 1950s by Rudolph Cartier for the BBC, comprising six half-hour episodes each. Hammer Films also produced cinema versions of these first three serials. The fourth adventure, simply titled Quatermass, was produced in 1979 by Ted Childs (producer), Verity Lambert (executive producer) and Piers Haggard (director) for Thames Television, as four, hour-long episodes (There were later edited down to movie-length theatrical release retitled The Quatermass Conclusion).

Like the Doctor, Professor Quatermass has been played by a number of different actors - in fact a different one for each of the TV stories, who were, in story order, Reginald Tate, John Robinson, Andre Morell and John Mills. In the movie versions, Brian Donlevy portrayed the Professor in the first two films, and Andrew Keir in the third. Other actors who appeared in the TV show who have figured prominently in Doctor Who include Roger Delgado, playing a reporter in the second story.

The Quatermass Experiment was broadcast live from Alexandra Palace using a few pre-filmed sequences and the oldest operational television cameras in the world at the time. As a result of a BBC strike, only the first two episodes were recorded - all were broadcast live. Quatermass II was technically an improvement on the first story, this serial was recorded at the BBC's Lime Grove Studios, where the first season of Doctor Who was made. The episodes of this and later Quatermass stories all still exist in the BBC's archives. Quatermass and the Pit is the most popular Quatermass story, was also one of the most expensive of its time. The story gained a massive following, with an estimated 29% of the adult population of Britain watching the final episode. The story has since been repeated on television and released on video. The fourth and final Quatermass story aired on Independent TV twenty years later. Initially set up by the BBC in 1973, it was shelved due to budgetary problems, and Thames Television acquired it a few years later.

The three fifties serials were published in script form in 1959-60 by Penguin Books, and reprinted by Arrow Books in 1979 at the same time as Arrow published a novelisation by Nigel Kneale of the fourth serial.

The Quatermass Experiment

(July - August 1953)

Story: Professor Bernard Quatermass and his British Rocket Group team have lost contact with the three man crew of a test rocket. It has drifted off course, and crash lands in London. When the capsule is opened, only one crew member, Victor Caroon, can be found and he is on the verge of collapse. Quatermass realises that Caroon has somehow absorbed the characteristics of the other crewmen, and arranges to return him to the crash site. Whilst listening to the rocket's 'black box' recording, Caroon has a fit and whilst resting is kidnapped by agents of an unknown government. Beginning a metamorphosis, he kills his captors and escapes. Quatermass concludes that an alien force entered the rocket and Caroon's body, and theorises that the entity feeds on the energy produced by accelerated organic decay. Caroon takes on a plant like form and reaches the end of his mutation at Westminster Abbey as a monstrous mass of tendrils and undulating fronds, ready to release spores which would spread and infect the entire planet. Quatermass reasons with the humans trapped in the creature's core, and to save the planet they will themselves to die, killing the creature with them.

Doctor Who Links: The influence of this story on Doctor Who can be seen quite clearly. The most obvious being the mutation of man to plant. There is a strong similarity with The Seeds of Doom, and man/plant hybrids were also touched on in Meglos and Terror of the Vervoids. The Green Man pub frequented by the Nightshade cast in Mark Gatiss's DWM Prelude would appear to be an in-joke on this theme.

The idea of a missing space crew and the race to find them appears in The Ambassadors of Death, whilst the concept of an energy parasite feeding off organic breakdown also occurred in The Claws of Axos and again in Nightshade. In fact much of the Prelude printed in DWM suggests similarities between the Nightshade story in production at that time and the first Quatermass one, even down to the gimbal system providing Quatermass with a clue to the fate of the missing crew, although Nightshade's popularity at that point would suggest that it wasn't that show's debut story.

The principal character in Gatiss' Nightshade, Trevithick himself seems to bear more than a passing resemblance to Reginald Tate's Quatermass on the book's cover, and the script he reads (Nightshade p.52) contains dialogue similar in tone to that of the second episode, with Carson substituted for Caroon, although the meteorites found by Barclay did not appear in this first story - they would turn up three years later.

Quatermass II

(October - November 1955)

Story: Quatermass is intrigued by the discovery of several meteorite fragments, and also learns about some mysterious goings-on at Winnerden Flats a secret government project, officially a revolutionary food synthesis plant and shrouded in secrecy. The project organisers and guards have been infected by something contained with the meteorites which leaves a mark on their faces. The source of the meteorites is discovered to be an asteroid hidden in the Earth's shadow, and Quatermass theorises that people infected by the meteorites are linked to a collective mind controlled from the asteroid. Quatermass breaks into Winnerden Flats and finds a vast, indefinable creature inside one of the domes, which is destroyed when the project workers revolt. Taking off in a rocket, Quatermass intercepts and destroys the asteroid, which frees the infected people from alien control.

Doctor Who Links: A small community being isolated by an alien force is a theme appearing in The Dæmons, The Awakening and Nightshade. The possession of prominent government and military officials is similar to the systematic replica replacement used by the Autons in Spearhead from Space - which, like this Quatermass story, also featured a shower of hollow meteorites containing alien intelligences. The Android Invasion also featured hollow meteorites. The possession theme occurs in a number of Doctor Who stories, notably The Web of Fear and Fury from the Deep.

Links can also be made between Paula Quatermass, daughter of, and assistant to Professor Quatermass, and Liz Shaw (and possibly even earlier with Anne Travers) - both professional physicists and both slightly outclassed by their associates. Paula also shared the unfortunate fate of many of the Doctor's companions by having to have important information explained to her so for the audience's benefit.

Trevithick's nightmare (Nightshade, p.177) is set in a plant similar to the one in Quatermass II, and there are several other links between it and the second Quatermass story, notably the urgency of the rocket launch and the black acid that killed Barclay.

Quatermass and the Pit

(December 1958 - January 1959)

Story: Excavations on a London building site uncover the skeleton of what appears to be a genetically altered Neanderthal man. Quatermass is called in when a strange capsule is found in the excavations, and realises that the object must be over five million years old. The capsule is entered and the preserved corpses of three insectoid aliens are found in a compartment. Quatermass theorises that the aliens were Martians who experimented on prehistoric humans, and had instilled their destructive urges into the human subconscious. Colonel Breen of the army is sure that it is all a hoax, and plans to expose it during a television broadcast from the pit. The capsule siphons off energy from the TV equipment and kills members of the crew with a heat ray, and takes control of others. A Martian energy form, shaped like a horned demon, forms over the pit, towering above London. The image is shorted out using iron chain, and the control is broken.

Doctor Who Links: Of all the Quatermass serials, this one probably had the greatest influence on Doctor Who. Kneale's neighbour, Derrick Sherwin was script editor on Doctor Who in 1968 and wished to inject the reality he saw in Quatermass and the Pit into the flagging series by bringing the threat closer to home. The trend towards Earth-bound modern day adventures began with The Web of Fear, a story which bears several similarities to the film version of Quatermass and the Pit, which screened only the previous year. Both were set in the London Underground, with a disembodied force capable of mind control providing the main threat. The military appeared in both stories, both with a Colonel in charge - Doctor Who's colonel was of course soon to be promoted to the Brigadier. In fact it is hardly surprising that the Brigadier and UNIT emerged, as Quatermass had always featured a strong military presence to counterpoint the pacifist ideas of the lead.

Season Seven adopted the Quatermass formula of alien invasion directed against modern day Earth, giving the show Sherwin's more realistic edge. Doctor Who and the Silurians featured another prehistoric race known to mankind subconsciously through race memory. In Inferno humans were also reduced to a primal state of violence. Planet of the Spiders a few years later featured a device similar to a brain scanner seen in Quatermass and the Pit. Philip Hinchcliffe's 'gothic horror' style strongly reflects the science fiction/horror mix established by the Quatermass stories.

Of all the Doctor's adventures, there are two which seem particularly entrenched in this story; The Dæmons and Image of the Fendahl. These stories examine the roots of horror, the reasons behind superstitions buried in the subconscious. The Dæmons tells the story of an ancient alien intelligence trapped in a ship uncovered by an archaeological dig. Azal's race had experimented on mankind during its formative stages, and the conversation between the Doctor and Miss Hawthorne about the significance of horns and power is similar to one between Quatermass and the archaeologist Professor Roney in Quatermass and the Pit.

Image of the Fendahl on the other hand has other references, but still within the same basic story concept of an ancient force manipulating mankind through the ages, and using what would be regarded as 'supernatural science' to reassert itself into the real world. Fetchborough, with the 'fetch' derived from ghost, is similar to the 'devilish' implication of 'hob' in Hobbs Lane, the location of the pit. Both stories look at the importance of superstitions, like the use of salt and iron to ward off evil, and both revolve around the discovery of a skull and the powerful psychic collective mind that the force involved produces. Mars also appears in both stories - and in each case the planet is devastated.

The Nightshade aliens bear a remarkable similarity to the ones in Quatermass and the Pit, although they seem much larger and more alive, and reference is made to a story where Nightshade once 'found one of those things in the ground' (p.54). Again the story revolves around an ancient force feeding on human psychic energy, and is based on a site which over the ages has been noted for accounts of paranormal activity.


(October - November 1979)

Story: Many years have passed since Quatermass's retirement, and anarchy has gripped the world. He returns to London in search of his missing granddaughter and appears on a television show covering a space station link-up. The station is destroyed by unknown forces and Quatermass is offered sanctuary by radio astronomer Joe Kapp, whose telescope is located near the old stone circle Ringstone Round, where a group of Planet People (travellers and hippies) are gathering, believing that they are going to be transported to a new world. A beam of light from space obliterates everyone within the circle, and this is soon discovered to be occurring throughout the world. Quatermass realises that the blast is actually an alien probe, harvesting the humans. He forms a team of elderly scientists to recreate the effects of a large human gathering near Kapp's radio telescope, and when the beam strikes, a thermo-nuclear bomb will be detonated to drive it off. A group of Planet People turn up, and Quatermass suffers a heart attack just as he discovers his granddaughter among them. She helps him to detonate the bomb as the harvesting begins.

Doctor Who Links: Due to the fact that by the time this series was produced, Doctor Who was midway through its seventeenth season, this story has much less potential influence than its predecessors. The radio telescope reappears in both Logopolis and Nightshade. Several themes from previous stories resurfaced, such as recurring alien visitations since early in our prehistory (the stone circles marked out previous harvest sites), and absorption of energy. The harvests were thought to be focussed on beacons buried deep in the ground, similar to the buried Sentience in Gatiss's book. The most striking similarity to come out of this story are the links between Quatermass and Trevithick - both have a 'dicky ticker', both have lost their daughters in autobahn accidents, and both have had their only granddaughter run off with a hippy cult. Quatermass's character can also be seen to have contributed to the Doctor's own; a driven scientist, with a dislike of authority, with sometimes an almost tragic air, his curiosity often getting him into more trouble than expected.

So ends the adventures of Professor Bernard Quatermass, pioneer in science fact and fiction.

This item appeared in TSV 33 (April 1993).