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The Anglicisation of Outer Space

By David Sylvester

The arrival of TV seems to have done some good for the film, if not for those with a financial interest in it. To begin with, the emergence of a rival that threatened to usurp its rule over the herd provoked it to grow some new adornments, in the form of bigger and technically better images. And now that the early battles are past, and a state of more or less peaceful coexistence prevails between the old order and the new, the old has as usual started to take over ideas from the new: we are beginning to be given films based on successful television programmes, such as Dragnet and The Long Long Trailer. Perhaps the most interesting of these films is a British one, a recent science fiction piece called The Quatermass Xperiment. This is a free adaptation by Richard Landau and Val Guest of a BBC Television serial by Nigel Kneale called The Quatermass Experiment – that is, Kneale’s first Quatermass play, the one televised in 1953, not the sequel (Quatermass II) produced at the end of last year. The Experiment presumably became an Xperiment after the film had been awarded an ‘X’ Certificate (in the language of publicity, X stands for seX and boX-office appeal). In the present article, the title Quatermass Xperiment is used to designate the film only, Quatermass Experiment the serial and also the basic story.

The monster from outer space which is the villain of The Quatermass Experiment is a kinsman of the Thing which figured in Hollywood’s The Thing from Another World. The Thing, roughly speaking, was a sort of mobile vegetable. Its cell structure and powers of reproducing itself were those of a plant; its anatomy was that of a heavyweight boxer. It threw its weight about like a tearaway looking for trouble, and its mode of attack was founded on brute force. In short, it was not so inhuman after all: it was just another monster of the King Kong kind, except that, being a plant, it did not, in approaching the human race, differentiate between the female of the species and the male.

The Quatermass monster is a far stranger and more complex creation. It is no mere member of an odd species from another world which amalgamates human and vegetable attributes; it is a creature in the process of metamorphosis from human being into plant. Moreover, its form of aggression is altogether inhuman. Above all, whereas the Thing was a free agent, this is a thing possessed. It, or be, is the only member to return of the crew of three that had manned the first rocket-ship to travel from this planet into outer space. The force and intelligence that control his body are no longer human: his body has been occupied by some impalpable, immaterial life that has got into the rocket in outer space, to destroy his colleagues’ bodies and take his over as an instrument of destruction.

His gradual metamorphosis is achieved through the absorption of foreign bodies. Whatever living organism he touches has the life ‘drained out of it,’ and that life enters and transforms him. He strikes a cactus, and his arm is transmuted into a cactoid growth. He kills two or three men, and then, as the process of change speeds up, several large birds (in the film, animals at a zoo). His size increases as he gradually loses all semblance to a human being and becomes a huge crawling mass of cactoid pulp, casting out spores which are themselves capable of multiplying and feeding on human tissue. By the time Quatermass finds a means to end its life, the pullulating monstrosity that was once a man resembles an enormous octopus with tentacles that could ooze their way like roots through solid stone.

If the Thing from another planet is a relation of this creature, it is clearly a country cousin. Nigel Kneale’s brand of fantasy compares with the general run of science fiction as the ‘psychological’ thrillers of a Graham Greene or a Simenon compare with the average detective novel. ‘Psychological’ is exact. Kneale is evidently obsessed with the idea of an invasion of the mind as a means of destroying the human race. The one thing in common between The Quatermass Experiment and its sequel, Quatermass II, is this theme, which, in the sequel, indeed, is a good deal more explicit. Whereas in the first play a strange force takes possession of an individual who thereby becomes capable of destroying all mankind by biological means, in the second play the earth is bombarded from another planet with countless pseudo-meteorites contact with which on the part of a human being induces, as the script puts it,

an instantaneous invasion of the whole nervous system … a sort of mental sting … comprehension of the victim’s faculties – his awareness – even his subconscious knowledge… Imagine a group mind: a thousand billion individuals, if you like, with one single consciousness.

One recalls that it was Kneale who did the admirable adaptation for BBC Television of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

As a matter of fact, in the earlier play the emphasis on the ‘psychological’ factor was far stronger than can be realised by those who know it only from the film. In the Xperiment, the monster is destroyed by an electric charge. No such crude weapon is used in the Experiment. Before what does happen is described, it must first be explained that, in the play, the body of Victor Carroon, the only one of the three explorers to return alive – the others having been reduced to a jelly – contains the minds of all the three men, whereas in the film the minds of the other two men have been annihilated, and secondly, that, whereas in the film the rocket was equipped with a cine-camera that has taken a silent film of what happened during the flight, in the play the rocket was equipped with a tape-recorder.

This is how the play ends. Outside Westminster Abbey, where the monster is lurking, flame-throwers are stationed - imperfect weapons, since it is imperative that no fragment of the Thing should escape destruction. With only minutes to go before zero hour, Professor Quatermass enters the Abbey. He moves towards the monster and begins to talk to it, calling the three men by their names. Then he plays back the tape-recording of what the men were saying when the unknown force got into the rocket and took possession of them. And when it is finished, Quatermass speaks:

You will overcome this evil. Without you it cannot exist upon the earth – it can only know by means of your knowledge – understand through your understanding. It can only exist through your submission. Victor Carroon – Ludwig Reichenheim – Charles Greene – you are resisting this thing. Now go further – go further! With all your power – and mine joined to yours – you must dissever from it, send it out of earthly existence. You – as men – must die. Greene! Reichenheim! Carroon!

And almost at once the Thing does die. That it is not called upon to do so in the film is an illuminating comment on what is conceived to be the difference between a cinema and a television audience.

The peculiar nature of Kneale’s contribution to science-fiction can best be seen by reverting to the comparison with The Thing from Another World. At the climax of the Hollywood film, when the sensible military are about to ambush the Thing with a high-voltage charge, the idealistic professor, dedicated to the quest for knowledge and filled with his belief in the ultimate goodness of all Things, advances towards it and, still hoping for communication with it, addresses it in civil, plaintive tones. The Thing fells and kills him with a blow, then moves menacingly onwards to its violent death.

It is tempting to think that Kneale had this episode in mind when he made his professor confront the monster and quell it with kind words, for it does seem possible that in writing the Experiment he was consciously rewriting The Thing from Another World. If this was the case, there is some irony in the transformation of the original plot which occurs in the Xperiment, where no gentle words are spoken, and the monster, like the Thing, is killed by an electric shock. The conflict between an idealistic belief in the efficacy of words and a materialistic belief in the efficacy of high-voltage fought out among the characters of The Thing might be said to have been fought out afresh between the author of the Experiment and the script-writers of the Xperiment, with the materialists, as before, having the last word.

But if, in the matter of ideological content, the Xperiment has played down the difference between Quatermass and The Thing, in its imagery the film remains as revolutionary as the play.

The iconography of The Thing was perfectly traditional: the monster was a simple hybrid. The Quatermass monster is a creature undergoing a process of metamorphosis which involves changes undreamt of by old time mythology and which might have been suggested by certain more or less surrealist paintings and sculptures. As we see it on the poster – human, save for one arm that has become a cactus – it calls to mind a well known sculpture by Germaine Richier of a human figure one of whose arms is the branch of a tree. The arm itself at this stage, a pulpy mass with spikes sticking out of it, calls to mind a particular Thorn Head by Graham Sutherland which has similar spikes and a similar pulpy mass at the centre. At the next stage in its transformation, when all we see of it is a glimpse of its face through the shrubbery and a sight of the trail of slime it leaves behind it, we are likely to be reminded of certain paintings by Francis Bacon done about six or seven years ago in which the human face and figure are translated into a kind of clotted grey protoplasm. A further suggestion of Bacon’s work arises in the lifeless heads of the monster’s victims, which are, as it were, smeared, as by the paint that Bacon smears across the features of a face. Next, when the monster reappears completely changed, it has assumed an octopoid form which, while it links up with a monster so conventional as the one that appears in It Came from Beneath the Sea, not to say hardy perennials like the giant squid in Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, also resembles the ubiquitous biomorphs of so-called abstract surrealism. Finally, the really beautiful sequence in which we see a play-back of the film taken in the rocket, a film which has been damaged, the blurring and fading and distorting of the image as we watch the men in their space-suits gliding weightlessly about has a certain correspondence with the current taste among painters for smudged impressions of photographs reproduced on spongy newsprint.

Not only do the visible forms in The Experiment have links with contemporary art, but so does the conception of space which the story implies. The malignant force that penetrates into the rocket is an immaterial form of life ‘drifting’ in space itself, “a sort of plankton of the ether,” “pure energy, without an organic structure,.” This notion of an active yet impalpable force in space is a feature of current art criticism. Andrew Ritchie, referring to Giacometti’s sculptures, writes that “The objects in this world seem not to displace space but to be sucked into it. Space, like water on a stone, seems slowly to be eating the substance of things away.” Writing in more general terms, Lawrence Alloway has lately said: “Space, now, is not nothing but – among the new people in the new decade – something.” In The Quatermass Experiment, current highbrow notions of space meet the current lowbrow obsession with outer space: the ‘space’ of ‘spatial sculpture’ and the ‘space’ of ‘space fiction’ become one and the same.

We have already seen how, in certain respects The Quatermass Xperiment plays down some of Nigel Kneale’s more outlandish ideas. The general tendency of the adaptation, in fact, is to build up human conflicts at the expense of the exposition of ideas. Thus, in the Experiment, the main source of conflict was an intellectual disagreement – involving personal jealousies, it is true – between Quatermass and a member of his research staff who does not figure at all in the film, whereas in the film the principal conflict is between Quatermass, with his devotion to science, and Judith Carroon, with her devotion to her husband’s well-being. One important consequence of this tendency in the adaptation is that the exposition of the scientific background of the story is fragmentary and confusing.

The film, in fact, jettisons much of what is most curious in the Experiment in favour of stock dramatic situations. On the other hand the piece gains enormously from the presence of one episode in the film which is absent from the play and is the only episode in either that is touched with imaginative greatness. This is the sequence at the zoo. We see the animals and birds in their cages at nightfall, hear and see in their sharp cries and anxious pacings how they sense the approach of an unseen danger, are allowed a brief glimpse of the watching monster, and then it is morning and we see the corpses of the animals. There is nothing very new about it all: the big cats pacing in their cages and the hysterical cries of animals and birds in the presence of someone they fear are both indebted, it is probably safe to say, to The Curse of the Cat People. But it is done to perfection, with camera and sound-track working in perfect concord and with consummate economy to build up an uncanny tension.

For the most part, however, the Xperiment is a scrappy and unconvincing film by comparison with Hollywood’s best essays in science-fiction. Nevertheless, it is a significant film, not only because of the originality of Kneale’s ideas, but also because of the consequences of its being a British film.

The British tradition in film-making is essentially a tradition of what might be called intimate character comedy. It is a genre found at its purest in the Ealing comedies on the one hand, the Huggett Family saga on the other, but it tends to invade almost everything we do: it can be found in The Third Man; it is what gives our war films their particular flavour. There was already something of it in the Experiment, but one of the effects of the adaptation is to introduce much more of it by making every minor character a ‘character.’ The film is infested with English eccentrics: it is, in fact, a marriage between science-fiction and British character comedy.

Its mood, therefore, is strikingly different from that of Hollywood science-fiction. It is very much less didactic: we have already observed that it is less didactic than the TV play, and even this was free of the lantern lectures and the diagrams on blackboards beloved of Hollywood science-fiction. It is much more intimate, more domestic, in scale: it is unencumbered with reporters, press photographers, and commentators; it uses the Metropolitan Police, led by Jack Warner, where the Americans would use the U.S. Army., it depicts no hurried conferences between the high-ups of the administration or the executive, it presents crowds brimming with curiosity but devoid of hysteria, crowds – groups of individuals, rather – fearful not for their lives but only for their plans for the day.

But perhaps the oddest thing of all, by American standards, is the shameless amorality of the film. Hollywood science fiction tends to have a strong moral tone, with patriotic and theological overtones. Even The War of the Worlds, as waged by Hollywood, became, in its last sequence, a Catholic tract. No earnest moralisings qualify the matter-of-fact tone with which the Xperiment relates horrors that have the most obscene implications. Even the setting of the climax in Westminster Abbey provides no occasion for religious fervour. On the contrary …

When it is all over, the Detective Inspector tells Quatermass that he’d been doing a bit of quiet praying during the last day or two. Quatermass turns and walks alone through the Abbey, the man whose lust for knowledge has brought a horrible doom to his friends and threatened the world with destruction. People question him., Quatermass walks on unheeding. The moment has come for the man of science to acknowledge a greater power and fall on his knees before God. He walks down an aisle towards the altar, deep in thought. He turns and walks out into the light. A young assistant approaches him, asks him a question. “Yes, Marsh;” he replies quietly, “I’m going to need some help.” “Help, sir?” “Yes, I’m going to start again.”


Sylvester, David. “The Anglicisation of Outer Space.” Encounter, January 1956, 69–72.