Most people think of YouTube as a breeding ground for bad karaoke, embarrassing wedding videos, epic skateboard fails, and cute li’l kitty cats, but it’s also a great resource for incredibly rare / otherwise impossible to find films and TV shows like Sun Ra’s Space Is The Place, the delightfully oddball Czech Western Lemonade Joe, tons of obscure Soviet / Eastern Bloc sci-fi like Ikarie XB1 (a.k.a. Voyage To The End Of The Universe), and otherwise forgotten British sci-fi anthologies & mini-series.
Quatermass is one of the seminal characters in British in TV sci-fi, a forerunner of sorts of Dr Who. The three original mini-series, broadcast live in the UK and never officially released in the US, were touted for years by British sci-fi fans as far superior to their cinematic versions. Now, thanks to YouTube, it’s possible to see what the fuss was about and, in the case of the second and third serials, compare them to their film versions.
We’ll focus on Quatermass And The Pit as that is generally regarded as the high water mark of the series.
Spoilericious After The Jump
Workmen in contemporary London uncover a hominid skeleton during their excavation. Archeologists brought in to search for more fossils find several such skeletons then what appears to be a large cylindrical object. Fearing it’s an unexploded bomb, they alert the authorities, who arrive in the form of a bomb squad and Professor Quatermass, the recently ousted head of the British space program. Quatermass soon realizes the object is not a bomb but a spaceship from Mars, buried in the clay for over five million years. Digging the ship up, however, reactivates it, and weird apparitions and events begin occurring around it. Quatermass and the archeologists soon learn
- the ship and it’s long dead Martian crew were doubtless the origin of stories about demons and witches
- the Martians were responsible for the evolutionary leap in humanity
- the Martians didn’t merely speed up human evolution but used humanity as a physical host to accept their disembodied intelligences
- we are, in fact, Martians
- the Martians were driven by a relentless pursuit of genetic purity that lead to the wholesale slaughter of all Martians who exhibited the slightest deviation from the norm.
As a result of point 5, the reactivated Martian ship begins taking over the minds of Londoners and turning them against one another in an orgy of violence.
How do mini-series and film compare?
Well, in almost every aspect, Five Million Years To Earth is the superior effort: The plot is easily compressed to feature length, the performances are better (Andrew Keir made the best Quatermass, bar none), the production values are high (though the original has a certain low budget charm)
Where Quatermass And The Pit has it all over Five Million Years To Earth, however, is in the matter of theme (or context, if you will). Five Million Years To Earth is a good, rousing, straight forward sci-fi thriller with some interesting ideas…but in the end they remain just that, ideas.
Wholly fictitious ideas…
See, there never were any Martians, humanity didn’t evolve from apes manipulated by beings from another world, demonic possession wasn’t really aliens taking over our minds. As interesting and as fun as those ideas are to explore, they ultimately are not real…
…and because they are not real, they are utterly inconsequential.
But an idea that is real is found in the mini-series (presumably it didn’t make the cut to the film version due to length).
As the Martian intelligence starts possessing human beings and turning them against one another for the most trivial of differences, it soon becomes apparent that some humans are…well…more human than others. They are impervious to Martian mind control and keep acting in a human and very humane way. In the end one of the archeologists, unaffected by the Martian intelligence, destroys it and himself in a grand sacrificial manner.
The movie ends there, with Quatermass and the surviving female archeologist stunned and in shock amid the ruins of London.
The mini-series ends with a vital coda, however: That whatever the origin of human inhumanity to other humans who are different, it has to stop. We can not as either a culture or a species continue fearing and pre-judging those who differ from us in only slight outward appearance.
And with that the mini-series is elevated from a mere thrill ride into a meaningful call to change and improvement.
It is the difference between Art and artifice.
What marks the presence of what Robert Pirsig would refer to as “value” is the take away notion of the necessity of human beings to be more tolerant of one another. It is, in effect, the medicine hidden in the spoonful of sugar; Five Million Years To Earth, by contrast, is just pure sugar.
Intellectual junk food, no matter how tasty.
This is the minimum basic level all creative work should aspire to: The communication of some vital ideal that needs to be reinforced among contemporary audiences.
And, yes, it is pretentious to start out with that goal in mind: The final result is almost always dull and pedantic.
No, each creator should cultivate in themselves a lifelong curiosity and fascination with Things That Really Matter.
Put that in your heart and it will never leave your hand.
 The last mini-series didn’t arrive until 1979, more than 20 years after the previous installments in 1958.
 Thus avoiding all the long, slow parts that plague the original, scenes where Kneale tells us what he’s going to tell us, tells us, then tells us what he told us. If you’re interested in seeing Quatermass And The Pit but don’t want to waste three hours doing it, I suggest starting with part 14 on YouTube; all the best stuff happens after that and the pace picks up considerably.
 Admittedly, a realistic ending…