The sci-fi that terrified a generation

These stories also “took something that was in the atmosphere in England [at that time],” Sweet believes, “a sense of unease about the persistence of a war-time culture lasting into peace time, and what was going on in those establishments behind the fences. Kneale took that atmosphere of the post-war [period] descending into the Cold War, that feeling of growing estrangement.”

It is often the clash of the ordinary with the extraordinary that is taken as the key legacy of the Quatermass stories, in particular when it comes to their influence on the sci-fi and genre television that soon followed. “Great swathes of Doctor Who are haunted by Quatermass,” Sweet argues, “to the extent that I think Kneale thought he was really owed a cheque, at least for the early 1970s seasons. It also [has] a certain way of presenting England. You can see the influence in things like The Avengers with their villages that aren’t really villages at all, but training grounds for Communists.” Aside from Doctor Who and The Avengers, the strange atmospheres of Quatermass can be found in many other shows on both sides of the Atlantic in the decades since, from A for Andromeda to Doomwatch, Black Mirror to The X-Files. The list could go on.

Of course, it would be wrong to assume that the television shows themselves were wholly responsible for this influence. Arguably, it was Hammer’s film adaptations which brought harder, leaner versions of the Quatermass stories to a bigger audience. “Most people who have been aware of Quatermass since the 1950s are far more likely to have seen the film versions,” says Murray. “[They] have had a greater reach.” They are still, however, polished echoes of those grainy, television originals.

Ultimately, the importance of Quatermass today lies as much in it being a snapshot of those early days of the small screen as its subsequent influence. “It was perfectly attuned to the way you watched television in the 1950s,” Sweet concludes. “There was something séance-like about watching. You had to draw the curtains to see it, the television had to warm up, and then something manifested on a screen that was a bit like looking into the porthole of a Martian capsule. It captured people’s imaginations so powerfully and really haunted a whole generation.” The spirits that Quatermass summoned haunt us to this day, and Kneale’s serials are still arguably one of the most important television events in the history of the medium.

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