Quatermass and the Pit. Teleplay by Nigel Kneale, 1960. Arrow
Books edition, 1979. Pp. 188 + 16 illustrations.
Why read the book?
Something odd has turned up in the soil of Hobbs Lane, London: 5-million-year-old
fossils of hominid ancestors with anomalously large, developed crania,
though they appear to fit into the normal sequence of hominid evolution otherwise.
An at first puzzling, and then shocking, discovery made at the same archeological
level leads to a fantastic explanation for the odd specimens and an unexpected
risk for all of the people of London, and perhaps for the whole world.
The book's history.
Penguin Books published the teleplay in 1960, soon after the 6-episode
series had been shown by the BBC over December 1958-January 1959. The series was
scripted by Quatermass-creater Kneale, following two earlier
televised adventures of rocketry expert Bernard Quatermass. According to Kneale,
the published teleplay is a slightly altered version of the one broadcast by
the BBC; the 1967 version by Hammer Films (called Five Million Years
to Earth in the USA) was faithful to the original idea though streamlined
and shortened to 98 minutes. Here I will discuss the 1960 book, though I will
have to refer occasionally to the 1967 movie: I have never seen the original
BBC broadcast, though it was temporarily available on DVD a few years ago. 16
stills from the 1959 production are included in my edition of the teleplay.
Review and discussion of book and 1967 film. Spoilers ahead.
Quatermass and the Pit (QatP) opens with excavation work
in London. A commercial block is going up, and a foundation is being laid. Workers
turn up fossilized crania and other parts of several hominids. Dr. Matthew Roney,
an anthropologist, is called in, and dates them, on the basis of comparative
anatomy with other hominid ancestors, to approximately 5 million years ago.
His reconstruction of the creatures by laying clay on the bones shows them as
knuckle-draggers with pithecoid jaws--but with 1000 cc brains! They are somehow
vastly ahead of their contemporaries. How they ended up in the soil of London
is another problem.
Roney sees that this is a discovery of the first importance, but the commercial
investors building on the site want construction to continue. While making the
rounds seeking to generate sympathy and support, Roney runs into Quatermass
at their club, and Quatermass (a rocket scientist--not a cliché in
1959), at first casually interested, becomes professionally interested when
Roney's team uncovers (at the 5 MY stratum) a strange object of unknown size. The object
is absolutely uncorroded, will not hold a magnetic microphone wielded by the
bomb squad, and is impervious to acetylene torch.
Also involved is Quatermass's colleague, the unpleasant authoritarian Col.
Breen. Breen appears at first sight to be a hastily drawn character meant to
act as a sort of antagonist (but see below), and he obtusely (or perhaps even
wilfully) develops what Quatermass calls flimsy rationalizations to explain
away what appears more and more to be an aerodynamic "ship" of sorts.
For Breen it must be--is--a German V-weapon or something like it; and a mounting
pile of evidence of its age and technological advances cannot dissuade him.
"The minister" (of defense) is only too pleased to grab this explanation
to get the PM off his back. Even radioactive traces of Thorium
(not a naturally occurring isotope) indicating something like 5 million years
of decay cannot budge the Colonel.
But Roney and Quatermass have found more skeletons actually within the "ship,"
tying the two together. They also, with the help of Roney's assistant Miss Judd
(almost always called "the girl" in Kneale's stage directions, for
some reason), begin to discover a series of strange, apparently paranormal
stories historically associated with Hobbs Lane. Indeed, Hobbs Lane is a modern
respelling of Hob's Lane--Hob being an old name for a devil.
With this plot turn Kneale achieves special interest. The old "ghost"
stories featured the (hallucinatory?) appearance of "gnomes"
or dwarves; or devils with horns. Troubling scratch marks in the walls
of a flat directly over the ship cannot be plausibly written off as vandalism
by kids. What scratched claw-like marks in the plaster, or drove a person to
do it? In fact, the flat was "haunted" so severely that it was abandoned
in the late 20s and has been ever since despite postwar housing shortages (wartime
records indicate German damage on Hobbs Lane was limited to a few incendiaries
which did no great damage). It appears that "haunting" episodes have
correlated closely with human disturbance of the soil above the site.
The ship (for all right-thinking readers will follow Quatermass and Roney against
Breen) was found with its hatch open and the skeletons spilling out. But the
interior appears blank otherwise--until Quatermass points out that green and
other stains in the earth filling the ship are possibly metal salts revealing
traces of mechanisms. But strangely, there is no perforation in the ship's body
to receive input wires or anything else.
A wall at the rear of the compartment is discovered which clearly seals off
another compartment, but there is no sign of a hatch--the hull seems to be organically
unbroken here, too. On the wall, as the last mud is scraped away, appear interlocked
circles yielding the cabalistic sign of the pentacle (reminding us of stories
of "devils" at Hob's Lane). The excavators, convinced of the necessity of getting
in to the sealed compartment, summon a "borazon drill"--the hardest
drill known to man. The bit skitters and slides on the surface, yielding nothing
but a ferocious sort of feedback, both of sound, and just maybe, some sort
of painful mental energy. It is almost as though the ship were crying
in pain. The ship rumbles, and when the drilling party have exited, several
seemingly spontaneous loud pops occur.
Though it is clear the drill did not do it directly, the bulkhead has somehow been breached,
opening its contents to the air: and putrefaction of the contents has rapidly
begun. The contents are unexpected: short grasshoppery creatures with three
legs and horn-like antennae, which also bear a striking resemblance to the demons
and horned devils seen over the centuries in Hobbs Lane. How can that be?
The answer, which I will not reveal here, takes the reader back 5 million
years to an abortive colonization effort on Earth by inhabitants from a
dying planet. One of their ships--for reasons never divulged--appears to have
crashed, though it is not dead. In fact, it appears to be alive, created with
an organic technology, and able and willing to discharge memories from the distant
past when supplied with energy.
Where the arthropods came from, and just how the hominids with large brains
fit in is the crux of the mystery; but more interesting--probably the most interesting
part of the teleplay--occurs when Roney finds a way to tap into these memories
and discovers that the aliens had an absolutely frightful way of life. And the
ship, capable of radiating these memories and more, has been absorbing power
from all of the digging and scientific activity around it . . . .
Discussion. Blatant revelations here.
Neither teleplay nor film make it unambiguously clear that the ship is alive,
though the teleplay indicates that the Martians were hooked into
a control apparatus bearing some resemblance to neural fibers, and when the ship
begins to project its image and radiate its rays over all London, it begins by revealing
"crystalline veins . . . ceramic arteries." But the noise
as Sladden drills is almost certainly a shriek of pain, and the ship pursues
him vengefully (if telekinetically) for some distance as he runs away frightened. The pounding noises
when power is suddenly cut off from the ship could be meant to be like tantrums.
It is hard to say.
What happened to the ship is also hard to say. In the teleplay it is clear that
the hatch popped, with several of the hominids found outside, several,
better preserved, inside. The teleplay suggests that the organic hull had apparatus
(now thoroughly gone) fastened to the exterior, and Kneale bolsters this clue
with the long-decayed radioactives in the soil around the pit.
Several websites devoted to the plot assert that the Martians were interbreeding
with the hominids to produce the large-cranium specimens. Roney in fact explicitly
discounts this: the hominid specimens are odd, but fully hominid. The theory
is that the Martians, seeing the imminent ecological collapse of their planet,
took the most promising specimens on Earth and began breeding them so as to
imbue them with Martian characteristics: telekinesis and clairvoyance. Somehow
the project failed, and the advanced hominids were released into the general
population, while the Martians all died.
The final act of the teleplay hinges on there being surviving, if dormant, strains
of these characteristics in the human race even at this great remove. The Martians
killed one another relentlessly in purges (presumably in competition over dwindling
resources, though Quatermass posits "ritual slaughter, to preserve a fixed society
-- to rid it of mutations"); this characteristic has run true to the extent that humankind
fights bitterly over the resources of this planet. Breen seems to me to be intended
as a specimen which has bred especially true (if you scent a bit of anti-military
sentiment here, so do I; there is actually an antimilitaristic subplot I am
not discussing here); and it is intriguing that Breen constantly seeks to divert
people from recognizing the truth about the ship--is the ship smart enough to
want to do that? Is he under the ship's sway?
Perhaps the ship is supposed to be fairly intelligent, for when it secures
enough power to influence poeple en masse, the people with strongest Martian
breeding (as it were) are driven to destroy non-Martians (again, as it were).
This is presumably on analogy (in the ship's mind) with the hive-purges the
ship recalls from Mars. The giant Martian spectre over Hobbs Lane is a bit of
stagecraft for television, it seems, though the teleplay makes an indirect
argument that looking at the image of the Martian awakens racial
The film does a good job of including all of the crucial elements in the teleplay.
It is arguably one of Hammer's finer films, though many people have complained
about the quality of the special effects. This is most notable in the laughably
light sponge boulders Quatermass and Roney dodge as the spectre appears and
Hobbs End collapses, and in the recording of the purge of the Martian hives
taken from Barbara Judd's mind's eye as she acts as a receptor for it from the
As for the featherweight boulders, there is no excuse and none needed. A documentary
grade of realism was never sought nor desired in the film. Everyone involved
appears to be clear that the film is story-, not effects-driven. But some defense
of the "recording" sequence may be made. Aside from the none-too-convincing
models of little Martian grasshoppers clumsily animated and appearing and disappearing
montage-like (to imitate the nonlinearity of memory, of course), the recording
is full of what, until I watched the movie several times in preparation for
writing this, I took to be "static" designed to mask the subpar effects.
In fact, close examination reveals--with due allowances made again for the
rudimentary effects--that the "static" is in fact meant to be telekinetically
launched rocks and other weapons as the Martians fight one another. In the teleplay Kneale makes this
unambiguously clear, and even in the film it's
made clear enough when the "Martian" human faction is set upon "non-Martians"
by the power of the ship. Their near dormant clairvoyant powers act as receivers
for the influence of the ship (Kneale portrays them as losing touch with reality
and seeing the world as in fact being Mars, with a purple sky, the other people
being Martians), and their telekinesis gives them the power to kill by stoning
enemies to death. Several victims are shown being buffeted about by telekinetic
powers and launched stones precisely as the Martians are shown fighting and
killing one another in the "recording."
Kneale appears to admit that the idea of grounding out the energy of the giant
Martian apparition (through a metal chain in the teleplay and a steel construction crane
in the film) is a bit ridiculous, but
it makes for a dramatic ending, especially in the film.
In the teleplay Kneale leaves it open at the end as to whether there might
me more Martian ships on Earth. The suggestion is that well documented hauntings
or paranormal experiences might indicate localities with Martian relics nearby--a
fun way to add a dimension to ghost stories. The film, on the other hand, leaves
all questions of this sort unanswered--and unasked, as Quatermass and Judd are
merely shown behind the end titles recovering from their "possession."
The legacy of Quatermass and the Pit.
Recalling that this teleplay was written in 1958, it is astonishing to consider
how many later works of science fiction are indebted to it. Here I will briefly
mention only 1985's Lifeforce, which is so strongly indebted as to
be a conscious homage, and not just to QatP but to the other two
Quatermass films as well (though I will not discuss those connections here).
Lifeforce is an adaptation of Colin Wilson's book The Space
Vampires. The plot basically is that a spaceship traveling in the lee
of Halley's comet is full of vampires who periodically descend to
Earth and harvest human life force through a disease-like process they initiate
with erotic attraction (they could show more in 1985 than in
1959, I can assure you). The vampire "disease" is loose
in London, and thousands of Londoners are attacking one another (as a result
of the "disease"), sending their life forces up to the ship via a
central channeling agent.
There is a Quatermass equivalent in Dr. Fallada, who studies not rocketry but
thanatology; like Quatermass, he is a victim of the forces set loose in London
(for him, fatally); and vaguely remembered legends lead the hero of the movie
to St Paul's Cathedral (by chance the focus of the life force transmission
to the ship) where he plunges an iron sword (a sort of grounding rod, I
suppose) through the breast of the alien collecting the harvest. The visual
echoes are even stronger than the similarities in plot between the two.