The Creeping Unknown

By sizemore Last edited 164 months ago
The Creeping Unknown

Londonist missed the live broadcast of BBC4's Quatermass Experiment remake, but we made a point to stay in this evening and catch the repeat. Expectations were high as was the worry factor of whether the Beeb could pull this off - their first jab at live television for twenty years... The result was a pretty mixed bag although overall we are sad to say that the thing kind of fell flat.

Good things first. The attempt itself was a bold move and we are all for the Beeb (and the other television companies) taking more risks rather than chasing the ratings with lowest-common-denominator TV and filling the rest of the schedule with bad American programming. The new Quatermass Experiment had some great casting and it gave us a chance to watch the probable new Doctor Who go through his sci-fi paces (although David Tennant still looks too baby-faced to play a Time Lord he was pretty good in this) and Mark Gatiss was obviously having a lot of fun. Nigel Kneale himself was brought in to act as consultant which was a nice touch. The aerial shots of London (inserted along with BBC news footage to give the actors a chance to dash from set to set) were great, especially the busy roads tinted arterial red...

The bad points are easier to spot. Jason Flemyng as Quatermass was horribly miscast - his drained skull like features would have been much more suited to the 'surviving' astronaut Carroon. His acting wasn't too shabby, but not for a moment did he strike the right note as the overly focussed scientist. The script hadn't been changed too much (until the end, which we'll get to - stop reading now if you hate spoilers!), but the couple of references to terrorists and celebrity makeovers were jarring. The problem here was the decision to update the action but still try and retain a feel of the fifties - the whole thing fell badly between the two concepts. We were treated to a very modern London and yet the Experimental Rocket Group itself, the press and the politicians were terribly dated.

The original six hour series had been abridged into two hours and you could feel that the pacing was rushed (something that was somehow avoided in the 1955 remake). The special effects were non existent - probably an over-reaction to the worry of it looking like a typical low budget BBC mess - and the use of shaky-cam perspective shots filmed around London were dire. That single child actor in the production was on screen for maybe five minutes total, but damn that was a long five minutes. And then there was the ending...

Of course the majority of the original live broadcast is lost and so we are much more familiar with the remake, but the idea of this alien entity creeping inside the guts of Westminster Abbey and us finally seeing the horrific thing always seemed to us nothing short of inspired. By the time the dodgy special effects come into play the audience should be so deep into the reality of the production (thanks chiefly to the character driven plot) that disbelief is totally suspended. We always knew that this would be tricky to pull off, but BBC4 showed a true lack of vision by simply sidestepping the scene completely.

First off they switched the action from Westminster Abbey to the Tate Modern. Now we love the Tate Modern, but as soon as you start filming in the turbine hall with the lights off all the grandeur of the place is lost and it resembles what it really is - a disused power station. Even then though we were optimistic. 'Aha' we thought, 'it may look like an art gallery, but Quatermass knows it's a power station and what better place to electrocute the space beastie...' but no. He simply talked it to death. And we never even got to see the bloody thing. Crap.

We'd love to see more of Quatermass on TV. We'd even welcome Jason Flemyng back as long he was given the time to grow into the roll, but it really needs to be done properly. Live dramatic TV is a throwback and as good a gimmick as it is there's no real place for it anymore. Give the Professor a decent time slot and the same care that has gone into bringing Doctor Who back to our screens and we could once again be giving the rest of the world a run for its money when it came to quality TV. The Quatermass II and Quatermass and the Pit scripts are just as viable for reviving, and can you imagine how much fun a Martian spaceship disrupting the tube would be?

We think the professor himself would agree with us in saying that just because an experiment fails it isn't reason enough not to press on...

Note: BBC4 viewers reactions so far have been quite mixed. Londonist would be surprised if this doesn't receive a repeat showing on BBC2 and a DVD release in the very near future.

Last Updated 07 April 2005