What’s up here?
Something odd has turned up in the soil of Hobbs Lane, London: five-million-year-old fossils of hominid ancestors with anomalously large, developed crania (figure 2, looking like some folks I’ve worked for), though they appear to fit into the normal sequence of hominid evolution otherwise.
An at first puzzling but ultimately terrifying discovery made at the same archaeological 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. This is one of the greatest genre stories ever written and filmed.
The story’s history.
Penguin Books published Nigel Kneale’s teleplay in 1960, soon after the 6-episode series aired on the BBC over December 1958-January 1959. The series followed 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. My purpose here is to discuss the basic arc of the plot rather than to distinguish among serial, book, and film.
Review. Spoilers ahead.
Quatermass and the Pit 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 (figure 2) shows them as knuckle-draggers with pithicoid 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, at first casually interested, becomes professionally interested when Roney’s team uncovers (at the 5 MY stratum) a strange aerodynamic object of unknown size (figure 4). 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 to be a hastily drawn character meant to act as a sort of antagonist, 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 Prime Minister 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.
By now 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, 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 (figure 6).
With this plot turn Kneale achieves special interest. The old “ghost” stories featured the (hallucinatory?) appearance of “gnomes” or dwarfs; or devils with horns.
Troubling scratch marks in the walls of a flat directly over the ship seemingly betokening madness cannot be plausibly written off as vandalism by kids. What scratched the 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 transpires that “haunting” episodes have correlated closely with energetic 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 (remember, Wi-Fi was not a thing when this was written).
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 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 (figure 9): and putrefaction of the contents has rapidly begun (figure 10).
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 reveal below yet another spoiler warning, 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 the ship is not dead. In fact, it appears to be alive, created (like a Vorlon ship in Babylon 5) 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 . . . .
Here be blatant, mind-shattering spoilers!
Neither teleplay nor film make it unambiguously clear that the ship is alive, though the teleplay indicates that the Martians, as Quatermass surmises the grasshoppers to have been, 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.” (Figure 11) But the noise as Sladden, the borazon driller, works 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.
Why the ship crashed is never stated. In the teleplay it is clear that when it did, the hatch popped and several of the hominids tumbled outside, while several were better preserved because they chanced to remain 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 the script seems to favor is that the Martians, seeing the imminent ecological collapse of their planet, took the most promising specimens on Earth and began breeding them (among themselves) so as to imbue them with Martian characteristics: telekinesis and clairvoyance. Somehow the project failed, and the advanced hominids were released into the general (Earth) population, while the Martians all died.
The final act of the teleplay hinges on there being dormant strains of these characteristics in the human race even at this great remove. Roney has discovered how to tap into racial memories of the Martian homeworld electronically summoning forth subconscious images directly from the human brain; it looks like a staticky movie. He discovers that the Martians killed one another relentlessly in purges (figure 12). Quatermass posits “ritual slaughter, to preserve a fixed society—to rid it of mutations”; this characteristic has run true to the extent that humankind exhibits racism and fights bitterly over the resources of this planet.
Perhaps the ship is supposed to be fairly intelligent, for when it secures enough power to influence people en masse in the last act, the people with strongest Martian breeding (so to speak) are driven to destroy those with none. This is presumably on analogy (in the ship’s mind) with the hive-purges the ship recalls from Mars. A giant Martian spectre rises as a vision over Hobbs Lane calling to the Martian-influenced humans, starting a modern purge (figure 13: beware, the clip has a loud ad baked into the end—best to pause it when the real clip ends).
As for the featherweight boulders in the filmed versions, there is no excuse and none needed. A documentary grade of realism was never sought nor desired. Everyone involved appears to be clear that the riveting story drives the filmed versions and the effects are irrelevant.
Kneale appears to admit that the idea of grounding out the energy of the giant Martian apparition (‘it’s too simple!’) 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 (figure 14).
In the teleplay Kneale leaves it open at the end as to whether there might be 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 the 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 Quatermass and the Pit 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. 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 as they expire 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) through the breast of the alien collecting the harvest. The visual echoes are even stronger than the similarities in plot between the two.
This critical discussion is illustrated primarily with stills from the 1967 Hammer film, alternatively titled Five Million Years to Earth. I rely on a fair use justification for their use here within the context of a review and critical discussion.