Quatermass and the Noughties

It was a very strange thing, the BBC4 live remake of Quatermass. The script was barely updated, and yet it was not a period piece otherwise. Instead it lived in a low budget parallel universe where the Tate Modern was a storage unit outside white City (p’raps) and man had never been in space. Did that matter? Oddly not, the fact that the science on the show was bobbins did not matter a jot. The fact that the scientists did not use scientific method, the police ignored procedure and medics were grossly incompetent seemed to matter more. Television loves procedure, and we know how things are done, if not what it means or why. Here the ill, possibly alien infected returned astronaut manages to escape next to no custody easily. Why not? Why – because that is not the way it would be done in versimilitous television any more. Indeed even the BBC TV news inserts seemed badly done: though not as bad as Quatermass’s apology to the world for destroying it (cue panic on ver streets of London).

It was an odd project, to retell a story whose premise is now implausible. Those bits could have been updated, other bits could have been tweaked. But that seemed to hit the money problem too. So instead we had an impressive cast doing stirling work on something that itself seemed below their combined powers. Especially the ending, which seemed to deviate from what I remember of the original and stumble into some vague form of spiritualism. Cheap, perhaps, but poor.

Quatermass is a wonderful British character (even when being played as an American in the films). Arrogant, irrational, imbecilic on occasions and yet magnetically personable. A scientist who over-reaches, then causes disaster he is remarkable in his contriteness, his ability to accept blame. This article suggests that he displays a real British ambivalence about science, which might be true (the article also sees him as an analogue for the end of Empire amongst other stuff). He is certainly not the kind of character you would name a television series after now. He is not a traditional hero, or even a traditional scientist sidekick. But then Quatermass was not traditional television, it existed before even those ideas were settled. Which makes this version odd, it resembles television in many ways, but gets so much else wrong. But a case in point on how far a decent cast, good planning and a half decent script can get you. Probably about 60% of a decent show.

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