Doctor Who for grown-ups
- Quatermass and the Pit review by Count Otto Black
Without Professor Bernard Quatermass, we wouldn't have Doctor Who. The three serials he starred in back in the fifties, all written by the extraordinarily imaginative Nigel Kneale, were massively popular at the time, and all of them were adapted into movies by Hammer, the first of those films being the one that really put Hammer on the map and persuaded the studio heads that they should concentrate on horror. So despite only ever getting a fairly small amount of screen-time, Professor Quatermass had one heck of a lot of influence! This particular series even received the ultimate accolade of being parodied by the Goons, in an episode entitled "The Scarlet Capsule".
So is it still good? Actually, it is. As in the two previous series, Quatermass is up against an extraterrestrial threat which, for obvious reasons not unconnected with BBC budgets, mostly manifests itself by taking over humans and causing them to behave very oddly indeed. Having previously fought a mindless alien that was basically a disease and some very intelligent body-snatching space invaders, this time the prof is faced with ETs who are long dead, but whose partially successful prehistoric tampering with life on Earth is accidentally rebooted, threatening global disaster. This is a wildly creative tale of archaeology and witchcraft that, by way of a Martian spaceship initially mistaken for an unexploded V2, turns into occult-tinged sci-fi with profound moral implications. You've got a government cover-up of a crashed UFO, an alien autopsy, and "ancient astronauts" long before they were made up by Erich von Daniken (remember him?). And all this in 1959!
It's not perfect. In those days dramas were paced a lot slower than the frenetic speed we're used to nowadays, and there are long stretches, including almost the entire first episode, in which not a lot happens. The acting is very variable indeed, ranging from excellent bits of often semi-comic character development, including a strange lady who claims to be psychic and looks a lot like Les Dawson in drag, and a rare glimpse which Doctor Who fans will appreciate of John Scott Martin, an actor who spent most of his career inside a Dalek, playing a human being for a change, to the atrocious hamming which kicks in almost every time somebody is supposed to be terrified. And of course, you have to cut the BBC some slack for the not very special effects available almost 60 years ago, though to be fair, sometimes they look better than they did in the much more expensive Hammer movie.
But taken as a whole and bearing in mind when it was made, this is extremely intelligent and astonishingly imaginative sci-fi in which believably flawed people do the best they can in the face of an utterly bizarre threat, and some of them do it better than others. Highly recommended if you don't mind heroes not having superpowers and a complete absence of gunfights.
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