Thursday, 11 December 2014

The Quatermass Experiment: Part 1 ("Contact Has Been Established")

"It's one of them things. They dropped one."

This is, sadly, one of only two episodes of this six part serial that I will be blogging; the others don't exist. They will never be found, whatever Philip Morris has been up to, as they were never telerecorded in the first place, which is a shame. Television in 1953 was a very ephemeral medium, all of it live aside from a few pre-recorded film sequences. For repeats, the actors would simply repeat their performances. You saw it once and it was gone.

1953 was a long time ago and looks it; the picture quality, naturally, is rubbish and the long scenes are there because it simply wasn't possible to include more than two or three different scenes. Television was very much theatre with a camera pointed at it. There's a scene break here where the picture fades to black and stays black for what seems like ages.

Nevertheless, this is a superb piece of television scripting and production, dripping with atmosphere, however limited the live performers may be, and a reminder of the brilliance of both Rudolph Cartier and the great Nigel Kneale. This is a world in which science is admirable and scientists great men, but only because science is a desperate and fragile attempt to impose order on a terrifying world in which dark things lurk at the edges, not least human nature. It's refreshing, though, to see the scientific talk isn't being dumbed down in any way. And this is an era, what perhaps we can call the Dan Dare era, when it was possible to imagine Britain as a space pioneer. Sputnik lay four years ahead. To people in 1953 the achievements of the British Experimental Rocket Group were scarcely imaginable.

The plot is simple enough- a rocket has been sent into space, gone missing, but has now returned under mysterious circumstances. There is much tension in this scenario, later to be lovingly ripped off by Doctor Who in The Ambassadors of Death. Only in future episodes will it become apparent that something else has come back with Caroon.

And yet, the real unpleasantness is very much on Earth. A useless civil servant busybody is there to annoy and to serve the plot function of being exposited at, while newspaper columnist Jimmy Fullalove (a very young Paul Whitsun-Jones) exhibits all the cynicism of today's red top tabloids. (And this angle, that of the press,would also come to be lovingly ripped off by Doctor Who in The Web of Fear.)

We also have some comedy working class characters and a dear old lady played by Katie Johnson of The Ladykillers fame. She is truly from another age; IMDb tells me she was born in 1878 and made her stage debut in 1894!

Sadly, as but one more episode exists, we won't get to consider the whole thing. We can only judge the first two episodes, but this at least is a brilliant episode. One more to go, though...

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