In a cinematic landscape where gun-toting raccoons and laser swords are the norm, it almost seems unlikely that mere book smarts alone would be enough to save the world from threats that come from beyond the stars.
Yet, in the 1950s, acclaimed screenwriter Nigel Kneale introduced a character that would singlehandedly redefine science fiction and forever cement the notion that intellect is the most valuable commodity in the fight for survival.
Though presented as a humble man of science, the character in question, Bernard Quatermass, would fundamentally reinvent how audiences related to genre-oriented material.
Initially created for a BBC serial in 1953 (which would subsequently garner two sequel series that decade and another in 1979), Quatermass was presented as a moral and earnest scientist who was faced with the shocking realization that an extraterrestrial entity had made its way to Earth…thanks in large part to a project funded by his own research.
Suddenly tasked with saving the world from alien incursion, the sense of morality and personal responsibility that the character imbued struck a chord with viewing audiences. Hailed by the BBC as “Britain’s First Television Hero,” Quatermass was a game changer not just in the landscape of British television, but also the science fiction genre as a whole.
“Quatermass changed everything,” says Neil Snowdon, editor of We Are the Martians: The Legacy of Nigel Kneale. “…they brought a pace, intensity and cinematic style into the living room. It was the first TV drama to be a cultural EVENT.”
…and for as much impact as Quatermass’s TV adventures had domestically in the UK, it would be the professor’s transition to the silver screen that would ultimately secure his place as a global icon.
Seeing the cinematic potential in Quatermass, Hammer Films, who had a working relationship with Kneale (he would also go on to pen The Abominable Snowman), crafted cinematic adaptations of each of the serials from the 50s. By bringing the Quatermass stories to the big screen, Hammer effectively introduced the world to a formative science fiction trilogy almost two decades before George Lucas conceived of Star Wars.
With 1955’s The Quatermass Experiment (released in the US as The Creeping Unknown), audiences were served a story of science fiction horror that contained strong ethical and moral implications. More than mere drive-in fare centered around giant monsters and rubber robots, The Quatermass Experiment presented itself as a piece to ponder, challenging viewers to question what they knew about a traditional “creature feature.”
More so, at the center of the story was an everyman who, despite his immense knowledge, had his own sense of doubt and uncertainty. Though as steadfast in his resolve as Sherlock Holmes, there nonetheless was a vulnerable element to Quatermass, who had to put on a stoic front in the face of increasing dread. Though Quatermass’s vast intellect may have seemed intangible to some audience members, his humanity was universal.
As the Hammer film and its subsequent sequels reached audiences, the impact of Kneale’s creation began to manifest itself in the work of others. The creative team behind cultural phenomenon Doctor Who have never shied away from the fact that Quatermass was a direct influence on the titular Doctor. Quatermass’s commitment to learning and his sense of pathos unquestionably served as an early model for The Doctor’s characterization. More so, many themes from the Quatermass stories were echoed in early Doctor Who serials, most noticeably reflected in Troughton/Pertwee-era tales like The Invasion and Spearhead from Space.
Naturally, it should come as no surprise that the character once hailed as Britain’s first TV hero would serve as direct influence for the UK’s most synonymous.
But, for all the hope Quatermass represents, there’s also little doubt that the character did his part to similarly influence dystopian themes in science fiction. The films’ curation of increasing dread and listless anxiety would impact the work of future horror luminaries like Gremlins creator Joe Dante and Halloween’s John Carpenter (who also famously once used Quatermass’s surname as a nom de plume on the screenplay for Prince of Darkness), leaving a trademark stamp across multiple genres.
Furthermore, the ongoing thread of Quatermass’s struggles with bureaucracy would put on display the concept of intellectualism frequently being at odds with authority. Within the Quatermass stories is the hidden revelation that often the only thing we should fear more than the unknown is the willfully ignorant.
According to Snowdon, the social and creative relevance of Quatermass should come as no surprise, as the prescient nature of the character served as a reflection of the man who created him.
“Kneale’s ideas spread like wildfire and continue to influence today,” Snowdon says, “His Wine of India and The Year of the Sex Olympics play like episodes of Black Mirror written before Charlie Brooker was even born.”
More than anything, Quatermass, and by proxy Kneale (and vice versa), challenged the science fiction and horror genres to rise up and become a better version of themselves. Through the creation of a character whose desire to learn was only matched by his innate humanness, Kneale reflected the best of what storytelling can be. Though Quatermass’s world is full of aliens and creatures from beyond, we get the sense that the true otherness is most often the world around us.
Quatermass caused audiences to take a step back and realize that maybe the most unknown thing is ourselves…and that’s okay.
Bernard Quatermass knew that sometimes to save the universe, you don’t need lasers or warp drives, but merely a question…and the pursuit of an answer. And in that way, the creeping unknown might just become a little less scary…
…and a whole lot more exciting.