Director: Sam Miller
Screenplay: Richard Fell (adapting the screenplay of Nigel Kneale)
Cast: Jason Flemyng (as Professor Bernard Quatermass); Mark Gatiss (as John Paterson); Andrew Tiernan (as Victor Carroon); Indira Varma (as Judith Carroon); David Tennant (as Doctor Gordon Briscoe)
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Shows) #2
The first Quatermass story, the original version of The Quatermass Experiment, was a six episode series broadcast in 1953 on the BBC. Sadly only the first two episodes survive, but it was successful and led to two sequels that have survived. As those sequels were being created in the late fifties Hammer started to readapt Quatermass for the theatrical screen with their own version of The Quatermass Experiment in 1955. Decades later BBC4, building from the original scripts of Quatermass creator and legendary screenwriter Nigel Kneale, decided to create a production of The Quatermass Experiment that would be performed live on television on 2 April 2005. Once allusive for me to find, but now with only the 1979 series Quatermass and its compilation theatrical film left to see, this 2005 version presented an interesting viewing experience of the character of Professor Bernard Quatermass being readapted for the new Millennium.
The story is the same as the other version of this story; the first spaceship launched into space by Britain by itself - headed by Quatermass (Jason Flemyng, who is good but sadly in the shadow of Andrew Keir, John Robinson and André Morell in the same role) - crashes to Earth with only one of the astronauts, Victor Carroon (Andrew Tiernan), surviving. However its apparent, as the other two have disappeared completely and Victor shows bodily changes in his near catatonic state, that something horrible has been brought back to Earth. The live nature of the broadcast doesn't necessarily stand out especially as the first original mini-series of Quatermass in the fifties were also recorded live, and especially as watched eleven years afterwards some of the mistakes in the live version in the performances and production were replaced for the DVD release with retakes. Instead the minimalistic style of doing this like the original series is of more interest, in terms of emphasising the dialogue and performances in the centre of the special, the stage bound nature forcing alongside the actors to have to perform as they would do in theatre the technical side to having to be economic in production style as well. There are cutaways to imagery too for style, of rockets in space and cells dividing under a microscope, which offer a more dreamlike nature to the show in contrast to even the Hammer version.
Sadly The Quatermass Experiment feels merely perfunctory. Alright and an accomplished task but ultimately, despite one version almost entirely lost, inferior to its previous adaptations. The transition to the (then) modern 2000s feels strange, in a strange nebulous time period, which doesn't feel fleshed out; the closest attempt is having the exposition being depicted through news broadcasts, but consisting of only the same person (real broadcaster Jane Hill), it causes the production to feel limited in materials rather than economic. It doesn't take risks with the plot by modernising it either, which isn't inherently an issue especially with the calibre of actors involved (Mark Gatiss, who I know more for his horror documentaries, Indira Varma, David Tennant etc.), but it lacks a key trait of Nigel Kneale's work that appears especially with the six episode shows in how he, alongside his incredible ideas, was also a great dramatist who created memorable characters and even went to depicting fun and eccentric side characters for added depth. Attempts at drama in this version, the conflicted relation of Varama's Judith Carroon as the wife of Victor adapted from the first versions, or Gatiss' scientist becoming frustrated at the failed project and spreading his opinion through newspapers, don't work in this special very well, limited in time between the main plot to a detriment. It's also a lot more serious in tone compared to all the other version of the Quatermass stories I've seen, serious in their own tones but not as severely serious as this. This is especially the case as the dialogue takes a turn into more esoteric turns as the nature of Victor's form not being necessarily human questions the characters' original scientific beliefs, a great idea for giving this version its own character but undermined by the lack of lightness and vagueness of the dialogue's hinting.
The style is mainly like the fifties television stories, static but filled with constant dialogue or images to focus on, only with the greatly advanced technology of modern television production and a few more camera movements. There are creative decisions however which don't work at all. Having music in scenes, unlike the original mini-series, is one such failure, a realisation for me that the silence of the originals is much more preferred than constant music in modern productions of any type. Here quite generic music is played continually which also is pointlessly expressive, the slight awkwardness of the scoreless originals working a lot more to draw me in. Also the decision, when he escapes into the London streets, to have first person from Victor as effectively a Drunk-Cam (woozy visuals, the camera constantly shaking around) was absolutely silly and irritating.
Probably the biggest disappointment is that, whilst a solid modern retelling, there's a clear attempt to strip away the obvious pulp nature of the original premise to be more serious. Honestly, Nigel Kneale's work has an inherent fifties b-movie nature to it in the first Quatermass programmes, which didn't stop him tackling some serious and idiosyncratic themes in his work. Paradoxically, this tries to be so serious or at least thoughtful about its characters, but feels hollow. Its attempts to step away from what is, frankly, a fifties monster film in premise, to the point you never see what Victor finally turns into, only a vague off-screen entity, feels like a vacuum is created. It undermines the apocalyptic threat, only hints of it killing off birds and a single fake severed hand to show its sense of threat, not enough to work with at even in the context of what is televised live theatre, where if implication is required instead of an actual visible threat, it needs greater prescience in what's said of it rather than merely shots of cell division scrutinised in a laboratory. This also applies to the ending, different in all three versions of The Quatermass Experiment, where Quatermass tries to appeal to what humanity is left in the entity, the resulting conclusion an attempt at an expressionist ending which feels obscured. Altogether, while an admirable project, the 2005 version of The Quatermass Experiment feels like an anti-climax.