Quatermass, science and absurdity

A friend’s engaging with Nigel Kneale at the moment, which has left me thinking about him too. If you’ve seen any of his film or TV pieces – the Quatermass movies / TV series, ‘The Stone Tapes’, ‘Beasts’, and so on – he won’t need any introduction. If you haven’t, you’re in for a treat; he’s one of the finest screen dramatists that Britain ever produced, using the fantastic to both comment directly on both contemporary social realities and consider the broader issues implicit in being human in a scientific age.

First of all, let’s take Kneale the social realist. That’s an odd thing to call a man who filled scripts with live broadcasts from prehistoric Martian hive wars, ghost dolphins haunting abandoned sea parks, Westminster Abbey invading alien / spaceman hybrids and ghost hunts derailed by washing machine obsessed scientists; but it’s entirely accurate. Kneale consistently used the unreal to talk about the real, reflecting the public obsessions of the world that surrounded him through the lens of the fantastic.

That sense of commentary is most obvious in his masterpiece, ‘Quatermass and the Pit’. Ostensibly a tale of what happens when a spaceship full of long-dead Martians is discovered beneath a London tube station, it was in fact written out of the 1958 Notting Hill race riots and the social and cultural tensions that surrounded them.

Kneale sees racism as something alien to the values of tolerance and empathy that are fundamental to humanity at its best; he takes that perception and literalises it, defining racism as a Martian implanted value that has simultaneously infected us all and that – being alien to our original natures – can be overcome, if only inconsistently. That kind of incisive social commentary occurs again and again in his work.

Secondly, there’s Kneale the scientific writer. In the above, I’ve been very careful to position him as a fantasist; I don’t believe that he can be described as a writer of science fiction, because although his narratives contain science the literal accuracy of that science is not a key concern.

Rather, Kneale talks about human relationships with science, and by extension the limits of science. Quatermass himself is the humane scientist par excellence; but all his knowledge can only offer at best temporary solutions to the problems that his scientific skills uncover.

For example, at the end of ‘Quatermass and the Pit’, the ghosts of Mars are defeated; but the problem of mankind’s implicit Martian-ness is left unresolved, and is in fact insoluble. Science can help us to see more clearly; but all that it shows us is our own fallibility and contingency. The cosmos remains vast and inscrutable, entirely unconcerned with the trivial construct that is modern humanity.

Which sense of vastness is an implicit comment on the humane values that Kneale endorses. To be human is not to be automatically moral or right; in fact, human-ness is a construct, a set of choices about how to most constructively and sensitively engage with those around us made in the teeth of an insignificance that is planetary in scale. At their best, Kneale’s heroes achieve such humanity despite enormous suffering, and with enormous sacrifice.

Sometimes, they fail to even get that far; the protagonists of ‘The Stone Tapes’, putting their faith in the innate rightness and power of scientific inquiry, end by condemning one of their number to a bizarre and in the end entirely unexplained life-in-death. Their faith that the operating system of the universe is fundamentally benevolent is revealed as both absurd and destructive. Their failure to recognise their limits is shown up as a failure of humanity; implicit in being human is understanding how difficult that humanity is to maintain, and how unnatural a position it can be to adopt.

That’s not to say that the struggle isn’t worth it; watch the shattering end of ‘The Quatermass Conclusion’ – a complex, despairing, but nonetheless absolute affirmation of the value of human relationships – and you’ll see what I mean, or rather what Kneale means. The very futility of being truly human in the face of the void is – for Kneale – what gives such moments their rare, deep, splendid value.

And that’s all for now. One worry, tho’ – I haven’t talked about just how entertaining Kneale is. A master of narrative, he tells stories that rock very hard indeed. All the above goes on in them, but it’s buried in gripping, unstoppable narratives that grab you hard and don’t let go.

And that’s why I’m always jealous of people who haven’t seen any of the Quatermass movies, or ‘Beasts’, or his ‘1984’, or ‘The Year of the Sex Olympics’, or ‘The Stone Tapes’, or anything else he wrote – because you’ve got some great nights in of watching and discovering ahead!

8 thoughts on “Quatermass, science and absurdity

  1. I think I’m definately going to have to look up Kneale. The description of ‘Quatermass and the Pit’ for example piques my interest a lot.

    Do you recommend a particular starting point for someone who is not familier with him?

  2. Hi DD –

    He’s definitely worth checking out! I’d start with the Quatermass movies – the best of them is definitely ‘Quatermass and the Pit’, but could also be fun to watch them in order if you can get hold of them all. But if you’re only going to watch one, go for ‘Pit’ – oh, and best to leave Q Conclusion to last!

  3. It’s interesting how the original Quatermass Experiment was less morbid, but do you think he had less creative freedom for that one?

    It sounds like I have a lot of watching to do…

  4. Hi Chris –

    It’s great stuff! And to be fair to him I’m writing mostly out of ‘Quatermass and the Pit’ and ‘The Quatermass Conclusion’, which are the ones I’ve seen most recently and have the clearest sense of. Interesting to track Quatermass’ character through the films – from (presumably) the questing scientist of the early works, through disillusionment in Q and Pit (enforced military take over of his rocket group / his profoundly shell shocked state right at the end of the film) to ‘I just want to find my grand daughter’ in The Q Conclusion.

  5. Lovefilm gives me 3 versions of ‘Quatermass and the Pit’ by 3 different directors – which do I want? (or maybe Zali has it?)

  6. The film one is the 1967 Hammer production, directed by Roy Ward Baker and starring Andrew Keir. Suspect Zali will indeed have it… shame not to see you last night, it was a fun night!

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