This is a review of the whole show, rather than its individual episodes. In 1979, I was a teenager besotted with science fiction and horror. The ITV network in the UK had just come out of a long period of striking (it’d been off-air for months), and when the industrial disputing was over, the channel celebrated its return with a roster of bumper TV shows – one of which was Nigel Kneale’s latest (and, as it turned out, final) instalment of his Quatermass cycle.
There were four episodes – each building on a disturbing sense of strangeness. As school kids, my pals and I waited for each week’s fix with rabid enthusiasm.
The story is set in an England of the “near future”, though recognisably influenced by the hippies of the late 1960s (when the scripts were actually written), and the punk movement that lurked strongly at the time of the show’s production. The show was edited to make a single TV movie for the US audience, but the show works best as a series, rather than as a feature film. The show is about disaffected youngsters gathering together around stone circles (and other such ancient sites), chanting “leh, leh, leh” to be transported to an unnamed planet, away from the hell of planet Earth (characterised by collapsing law and order and armoured, thuggish, armed Orwellian police officers). The chanting seems to trigger a powerful energy beam from space, which blasts the huge gatherings of kids to dust. They imagine that the beam will transport them to the planet of their dreams; in fact, it kills them.
The spookiness of the show lies in the fact that the alien force aiming the energy beam is never identified or even seen. Professor Quatermass (who is trying to find his missing grand-daughter), theorizes that the beam is actually extracting some sort of essence or scent, only available from children and not smelly adults. This notion of unidentified aliens, millions of miles away, wearing human scent as a perfume, is striking and frightening: a stunningly original SF concept. The naïve hippies are juxtaposed with the totalitarian state that England has become in this dystopia. The scripts are a science fiction response to the 1960s counter-culture, but the production (and the participation of people like Toyah Wilcox) evoke connotations of punkdom in the late 70s. It’s a striking package, and among the best science fiction TV shows the UK has produced in the last thirty years.
Anyone looking for Star Wars-style shenannigans, digital SPFX and high-definition picture quality, will be sadly disappointed. The effects here are produced in the viewer’s imagination, sparked by Kneale’s powerful ideas, and Euston Films (famous for The Sweeney and Minder) shot the show on grainy 16mm – effective only if you fancy a documentary feel.
But the whole show works beautifully and it leaves a residue in the mind and imagination long after the final episode has finished. It’s available on DVD in both the UK and US, and I strongly recommend that anyone who has not seen it grab hold of it as soon as possible.