THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT By Nigel Kneale (1959, Penguin Books)
“#4: The Quatermass Experiment. A BBC teleplay concerning the terrifying results of the first manned space flight. The first of four Quatermass television serials. The film version was titled The Creeping Unknown.”
-Karl Edward Wagner, “13 Best Science Fiction Horror Novels” (Twilight Zone Magazine, 1983)
I scored a major victory in my quest to complete the KEW list the other day when I walked into a local bookstore and discovered all three of the Quatermass teleplays published by Penguin from 1959 to 1960 on display. Among the rarest books on Wagner’s list, they fetch high prices on book auctions. I thank the saints of science fiction for putting all three of them at a reasonable price in my field of vision. I’ll be giving this awesome bookstore a plug in the future.
Publishing The Quatermass Experiment as a teleplay as opposed to its novelization was a great idea. You can sit down and watch the two surviving episodes of the 6 episode series (broadcast in 30 minute sequences in 1953) with the book. Or you can watch the 2005 BBC version and note how carefully it follows the teleplay. The book includes direction, type of music to be used, etc. There’s also stills from the serial in the center of the book, which is all that remains of the final episodes.
The first section, “Contact Has Been Established”, begins in the control room where Professor Bernard Quatermass is trying to establish contact with the occupants of the rocket his British Experimental Rocket Group has launched from Tarooma Station in Australia. The rocket was supposed to orbit the earth, make some observations, then return. But for reasons unknown, contact was lost with the three-man crew shortly after launch and there has been no communication with them for the past 57 hours. Suddenly, the team has re-establishes contact with the rocket, but none of the crew is responding. Complicating the situation is Judith, one of the scientists on the ground team is married to one of the rocket crew. The action then swerves to the countryside in England when Quatermass is able to bring the manned portion of the rocket down by remote.
In the second section, “Persons Reported Missing”, it is established only one of the three-man crew has emerged from the rocket. The other two crew members are nowhere to be found. Furthermore, the on-board instruments indicate the doors to the capsule have not been opened since the initial launch. The only survivor of the mission, Victor Carroon, cannot communicate and seems to have gone mad. The police suspect foul play and have him secretly fingerprinted. Meanwhile, Quatermass and his colleges have discovered a jelly like substance all through the interior of the capsule.
Moving on to “Special Knowledge”, we get a better look at Victor Carroon. He’s unable to converse much with the doctors who are studying his condition. All he can manage to say is “cold” when asked how he feels. But the team discovers he can speak German, a language he’s never spoken before. However, one of missing crew members, Dr. Ludwig Reichenheim, was German. Furthermore, Carroon has knowledge which only Reichenheim knew. Before any more can be found out about what really happened on board the rocket, Carroon is kidnapped by enemy agents and spirited away.
The fourth part, “Believed To Be Suffering”, intercuts between Quatermass’ attempts to find Carroon and Carroon’s own adventures outside the compound. Carroon escapes from his kidnappers (by draining the life out of one!) and takes shelter in a bombed-out building (this was only a few years after WW2). He’s discovered by a young boy who leads Carroon into a movie theater. In a truly bizarre scene, the boy is apprehended by a theater usherette who accuses him of sneaking into the theater without paying. She fails to notice Carroon, the subject of a massive manhunt. While the kid struggles with the usherette, a 3D movie about spacemen and dragons plays on the screen! Carroon manages to stagger out of the theater, already starting to change into something not quite human.
The fifth part, “An Unknown Species”, Carroon begins to turn into an amalgamated mass. By the time he reaches an isolated island in the Thames, he’s little more than a protoplasmic rug. By now, Quatermass’ Rocket Group has figured out what happened on the space voyage by analyzing the recordings and film taken from the rocket capsule. A new life form has taken over the body of Carroon. And it’s growing. The few samples they have to experiment on can be killed, but the alien mass will start to spore very soon.
The final episode “State Of Emergency” has Quatermass facing down the alien mass as it swarms over Westminister Abbey. The teleplay conclusion is far different from the “fry the monster” ending of the Creeping Unknown movie. The 2005 BBC version is much closer to what Kneale had in mind. It’s a bit anticlimactic; too bad we may never see the original BBC 1953 production, unless more footage turns up.
The script is an amazing bit of tight writing. Kneale understood his budget limitations and was able to write an excellent script around them.