DVD Review: Quatermass (1979)








Scientists are more-often-than-not villains on American television.  They’re ‘mad scientists’ who use technology for evil purposes, or worse yet, to ‘play god.’  Britain, conversely, has some very notable hero-scientists who use their vast knowledge to save the world.  Doctor Who is the most famous example, but he had a human contemporary in the 1950s, a man named Quatermass.  After three successful serials in the ’50s and ’60s, the now-elderly Dr. Quatermass returned for one last time in 1979, to rid the world of those damned hippies.

It’s sometime in the near future, and society has collapsed.  Children are the problem.  Their violence, lack of responsibility, and disregard for societal order have left the world in a necrotic, Blade Runner-like (without the technology) state.  Old people live underground, afraid of the wrath of the adolescent; while governments persist in childish squabbling.

An interview with writer Nigel Kneale (who also wrote the previous Quatermass serials) makes him sound like the stereotypical crotchety old man complaining about those ‘kids today.’  In many ways, this Quatermass story is like a grumpy old man’s worst paranoid nightmare come-to-life.

Many of the children have formed a cult called the ‘Planet People.’  They wander the hillsides in Hippy/Mad Max outfits, chanting incoherently and attacking ‘knowledge.’  There’s a great scene early on when one of them admonishes Quatermass, saying ‘stop trying to know things!’  I think it perfectly sums up Kneale’s position; that children are ignorant, and adults know better.

The Planet People believe that they will be taken away to another planet (did the Heaven’s Gate followers watch this?), and as it turns out, they’re sort of right.  When they congregate on Stone Henge-like monolithic sites, a bright beam of light comes down from outer space, taking the kids and leaving only dust in its wake.

The basic alien plot is similar to that seen in Torchwood: Children of Earth (did Russell Davies watch this?), though it has an interesting twist of being seen entirely from the human perspective.  At one point, Quatermass suggests that we are mere insects to the alien race that is doing this, and the plot reflects that, as we never see them, or truly understand what they want.

The setting is interesting.  The degradation of society is shown in a fairly subtle way;  for instance, the bizarre television show that features people in their underwear an animal heads dancing badly to bad music is described as a ‘family show.’  But it’s a little inconsistent.  The old people live in holes and  have to bargain with gangs for food, but the rest of the world live normal lives with families and jobs.

The four-hour serial is well paced and keeps your attention.  The alien plot is one-sided, but the cast of characters have some depth to them, especially the young astronomer Joe Kapp, who suffers a breakdown when his family has a run in with the Planet People.

Quatermass (AKA Quatermass IV, or The Quatermass Conclusion) is an old-fashioned sci-fi serial with a basic plot, but well defined characters.  Quatermass himself is an interesting character, someone of once-great renown who has been rendered obsolete by a new generation who doesn’t appreciate him.  I guess that’s how Kneale himself must have felt.


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