Thursday, June 28, 2007

Purity Control - Quatermass and the Pit

Purity Control - Quatermass and the Pit

When mentioning space colonization, as I have done recently, it's worth noting that not everyone wants to commit their own descendants as colonists. If you can't go yourself, then your biological children are a poor substitute. If they're not you, there's no point sending them. It's faster, cheaper and easier to colonize cyberspace and forget the irritatingly intractable galaxy. Upload yourself.

Or, in the case of an early but very powerful science fiction scenario, why not find some creatures who already live on the new world – and make them into you?

I've seen Quatermass and the Pit several times in the dim and distant past. I have a persistent vague feeling that I saw the original British TV series, but that's unlikely as it was only shown the year I was born (1958) and seems not to have been disinterred from the BBC's legendary crypts until the Eighties. I most likely remember my dad talking about it so often that I have a false memory of it. Why was dad talking about it so much? Well, he was a big science fiction fan and talked about the good ones spontaneously - but he also stepped up the volume when the Hammer film came out in 1967 -- that's the version I remember seeing several times, and the one I saw again recently. Americans will remember it, if at all, under its original release name of "Five Million Years to Earth". It is, according to Wikipedia, a relatively faithful retelling of the original story.

It's one of the rare serious, well-thought out and straight science fiction movies to be produced in those dim and distant days. The movie industry was transitioning from the pie-plates-on-fishing-lines-plan-nine-style "sci-fi" to the more modern Zardoz and 2001 type of movies, which the medium achieved somewhere around 1969 (and then, as we know, coasted a bit until George Lucas decided to spend his American Graffiti money on a movie called Star Wars). The writer of the Quatermass films, Nigel Kneale, was considerably before his time in trying to address familiar human themes with a muscular science-fictiony, thriller flair, and Quatermass and the Pit is perhaps his most accessible.

The film opens in Knightsbridge, London, where Hobbs Lane Underground Station is being expanded and major excavations are underway. In the clay, the workmen find several man-ape skulls, which with gratifying rapidity and lack of spurious sub-plots, are sent to scientists who proclaim them man's ancestors and yet too old - five million years - to be in the normally accepted line of evolution.

Almost immediately, the Hobbs Lane workmen strike a piece of metal lodged in the clay and send for the bomb squad, believing it to be an unexploded bomb from World War II. Julian Glover enters as Colonel Breen, commander of the UXB squad. Breen immediately notes that the craft is not made of steel, or any kind of iron, but continues to believe it is a V2 of German origin. Quatermass and the anthropologist discover that the missile is actually a craft, and that the anthropoid bones are of creatures which were in the hold of the craft when it crashed. Cue the major sub-plot of the film, the scientists struggling with the military over access to the craft and its secrets.

Eventually, the craft is breached and the remains of giant horned locusts are found inside. As more power lines are fed into the pit for lighting and cameras, poltergeist-like activity begins to pick up. People in the area begin seeing things; things begin to move on their own; strange sounds are heard in the streets above. Plucky Research Scientist and Exposition Fairy Barbara digs up reports that evil horned goblins have been seen periodically in this area for hundreds of years, each time accompanied by major panic amongst the locals. In fact, the original name of the area, "Hob's Lane" refers to the old name for the devil. Our heroes scan the visual centers of people while they are hallucinating, which reveals that there was once a hive of horned locusts - under a different colored sky. The creatures had apparently been genetically engineering pre-human life five million years ago on a dying Mars, and were bringing some new humans back to Earth when this particular shipment crashed. Breen's meddling has re-activated a hive-cleaning circuit that makes their proxy descendents – us – kill and remove anyone not carrying the Martian genes. Breen continues to feed the Ministry of Defence a line about the excavation being safe and the missile being harmless old Nazi propaganda while Quatermass digs in for the major riot and mass killings he knows is coming. Will London survive this programmed psychic swarming?

As a Star Wars fan, I had my eye on Julian Glover (General Veers) in this movie. He has a lot of screen time and gets to act rather than recite. His role as Breen is not likeable. He's similar to Jason Isaacs in "Soldier", a handsome actor in a spiffy uniform with a terrible mustache who is there for the viewers to hate and wish someone would strangle him or otherwise have him die in an amusing accident. Kneale is too good a writer to make him one-dimensional, however, so he has a few sympathetic touches - he invites the scientist to "join me at my club" at one point, which made me wish we could just cut to another movie where we could watch all these tweedy, masculine, intelligent Brits sit around in nice leather wing-back chairs at their gentlemen's club and chew the fat for a while. But as I said above, Kneale set a fairly brisk pacing for the movie and so we never actually digress to the club.

One odd thing about re-watching it was that I realized I'd misunderstood it completely the first time. I remembered the "periodic outbreaks of racial cleansing" thing and assumed it was making a point about Nazis, as so many British productions of the fifties were prone to do. There isn't the tiniest hint of that in the film, and I'm not sure where I came up with it. Breen does mention V2s, Von Braun, Nazi propaganda and so on and so forth but his take on things is that the Germans sent the rocket filled with fakes in order to make England believe it was being invaded by aliens, and that's all he says.

Once I realized that, I was left grasping for *why* we have a racial cleansing theme. Rather late in the movie, in my opinion, Kneale has a couple of lines that suggest that the locusts were dying out on Mars and wanted "descendents by proxy" - us – and so our ancestors were shipped off for re-engineering. To stop the early humans reverting, the Martians, thinking like insects, installed their default way of keeping the hive clean. They implanted a psychic trigger in the genetically engineered apes that cause them to kill off animals that do not contain the Martian genes[1] - including other humans that are insufficiently pure.

When it comes down to storytelling basics, the purity aspect is just a plot device so that we can have scenes of masses of Londoners rioting and smashing up British institutions like pubs and bus stops in a way that's still frightening and evocative forty years after the movie came out. However, the implications of the act of engineering – my fingers keep wanting to type "making man in their own image" – are remarkably interesting. Does your culture really have continuity and any sort of "purity" when it is being carried on in bodies of an entirely different type? In what way is this survival? Then again, we all will die. Is survival of a meme a partial survival of the bearer of the meme?

With the emphasis on the alien origin of humans and purity control, and the World War II aspect backgrounded, I can see more clearly why so many critics of the X-Files said that it was ripped off wholesale from Nigel Kneale's Quatermass. I don't think that's entirely true, but it does look much more likely. It's particularly similar to the X-Files movie Fight the Future. Chris Carter, the X-Files founder, took some much more interesting detours in his version of the story, but then he had 8 years to tell it all. Quatermass and the Pit whips you through some very interesting territory and then leaves you to put it all together in your mind at your leisure.


[1] The humans in the film are both genetically *and* memetically engineered, but neither term existed in 1958, or to any real-life extent by 1967.


Mick said...

This may also be a false memory, since I must have been around ten at the time, but, as I recall, the original Quatermas and The Pit was groundbreakingly awesome, proposing as it did that insectoid hive-dwelling Martians modified prehistoric monkeys to create humanity and we were now the real Martians. Although shot in b&w, the TV series had the edge over the movie simply because it was six one-hour episodes and thus had a more developed and detailed plot.

Peromyscus said...

Although it can never have the impact it had all those years ago, I'd still like to see the original. I'm not sure if the Beeb actually has all the episodes on tape, though.

Gary Couzens said...

All the episodes of Quatermass and the Pit survive, as do all six of Quatermass II. However, only the first two of the original 1953 Quatermass Experiment exist.

All of the above is available on DVD in the UK (Region 2 and 4 PAL). I reviewed it here (plug plug).

I thought Q and the Pit stood up very well - I think it's a masterpiece of small-screen SF.

Peromyscus said...

Thanks, Gary. I will look out for it.


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