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 memories.

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 ship.

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.