Classic Sci Fi TV: Quatermass

By | October 13, 2016

Our ongoing look back at many of the classics of science fiction and fantasy television.

quatermassWhat Is It? This was actually three separate serials that aired in Britain in the 1950’s (plus a final serial in 1979) that focused on Professor Quatermass and his investigations into alien life that has come into contact with Earth.

When Did It Air: The Quatermass Experiment – 1953, 6 Episodes; Quatermass II – 1955, 6 Episodes; Quatermass and the Pit – 1958-59, 6 Episodes; Quatermass – 1979, 4 Episodes

Starring: Reginald Tate, John Robinson, André Morell, John Mills

Created By: Nigel Kneale

Was It Must-Watch Sci Fi? Yes. This is the first series on English-speaking television that treated science fiction and alien encounters as a serious subject, a break from the juvenile space operas common in the 50’s.

The Skinny: Sadly, American audiences have not had much exposure to the Quatermass serials which is unfortunate because they represent an important evolution for science fiction on television. Kiddie space operas like Captain Video and His Video Rangers, Space Patrol, and Tom Corbett Space Cadet were the face of sci fi TV on both sides of the Atlantic until Nigel Kneale decided to give the genre a more serious treatment on the small screen. And thus he delivered Professor Quatermass, who was the focus of three serials in the 50’s (limited-run series have long been common for British television). Each serial told a self-contained story that dealt with alien life coming in contact with Earth and these delivered excellent sci fi / horror tales that stand side-by-side with the best of early classic sci fi TV. The three original serials do seem a bit dated now with their limited budgets and slow pacing (thus the need for a revival), but they still have excellent stories that anybody who appreciates vintage television should enjoy. There was a fourth and (at the time) final serial that appeared in 1979 which was decent but didn’t quite stand up to the original three serials. Only two episodes survive from the original serial because the archive tapes were destroyed and the other two never had much exposure in the States. American audiences better know the stories from their Hammer feature film adaptations: The Creeping Unknown (1955), The Enemy from Space (1957), and Five Million Years to Earth (1967).  (The final serial was also edited into a film titled The Quatermass Conclusion). But it is definitely worth seeking out the original series in all their black and white glory to get an early glimpse of science fiction growing up on television.

Essential Episodes: All three of the original serials, though only two episodes survived from The Quatermass Experiment.   A DVD set has been released with the surviving episodes from all three of the 1950’s serials.  That one was remade in 2005 as a TV movie that followed the original script very closely though set the story in contemporary Britain (and future Doctor Who David Tennant co-starred in that one). The movie adaptation of Quatermass and the Pit (known as Five Million Years to Earth in the U.S.) counts as one of the all-time classics among sci fi films.

Interesting Facts: The first serial was commissioned to fill a gap that the BBC had in its programming schedule. Nigel Kneale pulled the name Quatermass out of the London phone book.

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