Persons Reported Missing
Last week I mentioned that the slow pacing worked effectively to gradually build the tension. This week the slow and steady style of 1950s storytelling starts to get a bit tedious. Mainly this is because we aren’t building up to anything any more. The capsule is open, and one survivor has emerged. Instead we have a mystery: what has happened to the other two crewmembers? By the end of the episode we are a step closer to the answer, but things are still not entirely clear. Victor identifies himself as Dr Ludwig Reichenheim (one of the other crewmembers), and it’s pretty obvious that this is more than simple insanity, because he can speak German as well. So there appears to be some kind of body swap going on. But what about the physical bodies of the others? Some organic powder is found at the end of the episode, so it looks like nobody ever left the capsule after all.
Nowadays, we would of course have reached this point within a few minutes rather than half an hour, and it has to be said that the time is unfortunately filled with a lot of unnecessary padding. However, there are some moments that work really well. The video of the astronauts just before take off is a poignant scene, and it helps to put faces to the missing men and prepares us for the moment when the apparent body swap is revealed. The revelation that Judith has been having an affair also works well, and her decisions are now being ruled by guilt rather than what she wants from life.
“I felt so disloyal, almost as if I’d caused it to happen.”
But the best moments are two quiet speeches where both Fullalove and Quatermass separately muse on mankind’s helplessness. Firstly, Fullalove shrewdly identifies the purpose behind all the “technical waffle”, which is almost a meta observation on the inclusion of technobabble in sci-fi (let’s face it, the comment doesn’t quite work in terms of genuine, purposeful, scientific jargon):
“Mankind trying to sound certain of itself, because he knows that just beyond the air begins a new wilderness, pitch dark both day and night, empty and cold.”
Secondly, Quatermass acknowledges how much uncertainty there was surrounding the project, at least in his mind, and worries that he has been messing with things that are beyond the human experience:
“I’ve always been secretly afraid that some time something would happen that we can’t deal with.”
Sadly, this is the last episode we can watch from this series. The remaining four episodes were broadcast live and never recorded, and you can see clearly (well, blurrily) why the taping of live episodes was deemed a failure at this stage. This is worse than the first episode, with a fuzzy and sometimes distorted picture, and a one point I was trying to flick a fly off my screen, only to realise it was part of the picture. So what are we missing? What happened next? On the DVD set there are scripts of the remaining episodes, but you will need some determination to read through those, because they are fuzzier than the two existing episodes.
The rest of the story can easily be explained for the Doctor Who fans among us, because it’s basically The Seeds of Doom, with hints of The Ark in Space and The Lazarus Experiment. Victor isn’t actually the victim of a body swap. Instead, the three astronauts are now combined in the one body, and that body starts to change, turning into a plant-like monster. The danger levels are ramped up when Quatermass realises that the monster might spore and spread around the Earth, wiping out human life in the process. By that point, Victor has been abducted by foreign agents and has escaped, and is finally tracked down in Westminster Abbey and killed by the army. The last episode is a very sad loss, because I would love to see that final encounter. The budget didn’t stretch to filming a giant monster prop in the Abbey, but instead a photographic blow up was used, with a sort of glove puppet monster. It sounds like a lame idea, but the photos that exist make it look quite effective. But I suppose we mustn’t focus too much on what we don’t have, when we are so lucky to be able to watch the two episodes that do exist, plus the second and third seasons in their entirety. We will have to be content with that, and the monster in Westminster Abbey will just have to live in our imaginations instead. RP