It’s new (old) to me: Quatermass and the Pit

I hate to lose my geek cred in admitting that I had never seen the original BBC production of Quatermass and the Pit, but honestly I never even knew it existed. Let me emphasize, however, that I have seen the Hammer movie, released in 1967 and titled in the U.S. as Five Million Years to Earth, and have long admired it as one of the all-time great science fiction movies, with still believable special effects and a perfect mixture of historical details and slightly ahead of their time technological ploys.

There are many, many spoilers below and I’ll try to give you a heads up as you encounter them.

But I never even knew that the movie was first produced as a mix of live action and filmed segments shown over five nights from December 1958 to January 1959 until I stumbled across it on YouTube. Bored for something to watch and curious what the original might be like, I thought I’d spent an hour to see what the original would be like, guessing it could never be as good as the 1967 movie.

Was I ever wrong. First, I spent 140 minutes watching the five installments (a total of 19 YouTube segments) and second, I was never bored for a minute and the special effects for the time were phenomenal. But before I continue to gush, let me give you a plot description that will serve both productions.

Excavators building a new housing development (or extending an Underground line in the 1967 movie) find human remains and paleontologist Doctor Matthew Roney is summoned who announces that the fossilized remains are proof that upright human ancestors existed millions of years earlier than ever thought possible — five millions years earlier, in fact.

Naturally enough, strange things start to happen at the excavation at Hobb’s Lane (or Hob’s Lane, an earlier street sign proclaims). Workers report strange sensations and soon a curved shape is exposed below the remains. A little panic sets in when it’s suggested the shape is a German bomb dropped in World War II and a bomb disposal unit is called to investigate.

Getting into spoiler territory. But bomb expert Captain Potter is puzzled by the bomb’s super slick nonmetallic surface and its dissimilarity to any known German weapons. Roney, eager to continue his work, asks his friend Professor Bernard Quatermass to help in identifying the object, hopefully as something other than a bomb.

Quatermass’ task is complicated by the officious Colonel Breen, who believes the object is a German weapon. But as the dirt continues to be removed, it is obvious to the viewer that the object is not a bomb, especially when human remains are found inside the object.

A quick note about Quatermass: two previous Quatermass serials were shown on the BBC to good ratings and writer Nigel Keane’s third serial also did quite well. And Quatermass productions continue to the present day with a BBC remake of the Quatermass Experiment in 2005. It’s tempting to call Quatermass a forerunner to Doctor Who, but he’s far too solid and serious despite being involved in the weird and extraordinary. OK, back to plot.

As these events are taking place, further spooky things are happening: soldiers who suddenly see horrible figures apparently walking through solid objects; drills that generate eerie sounds when used to penetrate an interior bulkhead of what is now obviously a space ship; and levitating objects that dance around very convincingly in the movie, less so in the television production. Also Roney’s assistant, Barbara Judd, has done a little research and finds that Hobb’s Lane has long been know for ghost stories and in fact the house directly over the excavation has been deserted because of ghostly apparitions tied to other disturbances to the earth like repairs to water mains. It’s also mentioned that the original name of the street, Hob’s Lane, is a reference to the devil.

Big spoilers now! But the spookiness goes up to eleven when grasshopper-like creatures are found behind the bulkheads and Quatermass and Roney surmise the insects are the crew of the ship and that they are responsible for the advanced evolution of the hominids found around the spaceship.

By this point in watching the original, I was amazed at how faithfully the movie followed the original. The movie seemed even more amazing with its superior production values, but the original charmed with its long format and special effects that while inferior to the movie, were disguised by the relatively poor quality of the original footage and further masked by the digitization for YouTube. (There are some bizarre audio problems that will appear around the eleventh segment but will eventually go away. Just treat it as a silent movie for about ten minutes.)

Oh, and both productions share the same slightly ahead of its time gizmo: the opto-encephalogram that will show on a television monitor what the subject is seeing in their mind’s eye. It’s a crucial piece of technology that confirms Quatermass’ suspicions.

And watching the original, you realize how truly groundbreaking it is, introducing a lot of the techniques that will be copied by Doctor Who and film directors and novelists, especially the drip, drip, drip of historical investigations that makes Hobb’s Lane such an eerie place. And I was further impressed by the daring of the science fiction concepts, especially compared to Syfy’s monster of the week movies. To have created such an amazing story for such a small amount of money, even adjusted to today’s prices, is incredible.

And to have done it twice! The remake makes the original look so good while the original begged for the Hammer touch and tight editing that a live production could not attempt. The movie ship is way cooler than the original, but the 1958 ship is still an amazing prop, a presumably fiberglass design that looks unlike the V2 inspired rocket ships of the 1950s. The climax of the 1967 movie is much superior but both versions do an excellent job of building the tension before the final sacrifice that saves mankind. Both productions also do a great job of downplaying the obligatory romance between the paleontologist’s assistant Barbara and the bomb expert Captain Potter.

GIANT FREAKING SPOILER! And the climax is amazing with a character’s sacrifice, the replay of what we now know is a “wild hunt,” a race memory of a Martian genetic cleansing. The last spoiler, and I remember how cool an idea I thought this was when I watched the movie as a kid, is the revelation that the grasshoppers came from a dying Mars to recreate their culture on Earth, genetically altering hominids and implanting their biological imperative deep into the human consciousness, and only released when their ship — a biological ship — is awakened by the excavation. How cool is that! If you haven’t seen either of these productions, waste no time.

I’m sorry to say that Five Million Years to Earth is not available from NetFlix, although it can be found on YouTube with (Japanese?) subtitles. And Wikipedia has excellent articles on both Quatermass and the Pit and Five Million Years to Earth.

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