Originally broadcast in 1979, The fourth Quatermass serial was received by many critics as something a bit late in coming. They were not wrong in many respects, as this adventure had been due to be made back in 1973, and possibly earlier than that. Following the success of Hammer`s 1968 cinematic adaptation of Quatermass and the Pit, speculation arose as to whether there would be further Quatermass films, given that Hammer had no remaining TV serials to draw on. In 1969, the magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland announced Hammer were preparing a fourth Quatermass film. Close but no cigar.
The Quatermass writer, Nigel Kneale, did propose a storyline for Hammer which was informed, among other things, by the contemporary hippie cult craze. It progressed no further than that. Four years later, the BBC approached Kneale about possibly remaking one of the original Quatermass serials. Kneale dug out his unused Hammer storyline, suggesting they proceed with that instead. A four part serial was commissioned.
The new story took place in a dystopia future where a now elderly Quatermass comes down from Scotland to a desolate, crime ridden London to find his missing grand daughter. Society has broken down. Gangs rule the streets, governments squander vital resources on the space program while nomadic youths known as the Planet People travel to sacred gathering sites, hoping to be transported to a more utopian world. Taken they are, by unseen aliens more interested in human protein than providing a promised land. With society's youth proving a let down, Quatermass turns to a group of elderly scientists to help him defeat the alien predator. In the end, he stings it with a nuclear bomb. And Quatermass is right in the middle when it goes off.
The Beeb instructed Kneal that they wanted the new serial to have higher production values than the originals, and had secured co funding from the American PBS network. Entitled Quatermass 4, the new serial was to include extensive model effects work. Indeed, BBC effects wizards Ian Scoones and Bernard Wilkie filmed several effects shots, including a Skylab style space station breaking up in space. That is about all of Quatermass 4 that did get filmed.
After production was announced in 1973, Kneale began to come up against increasing indifference among BBC executives as to whether it should continue. The American co producers were concerned about the script featuring Hippies as heroes and the National Trust refused permission to film at Stonehenge. It was the latter factor that the BBC used as an excuse to cancel the project altogether. Kneale was furious. He had only used Stonehenge because it happened to be there and pointed out any stone circle will do. But it was too late. The Beeb made it clear that they considered Quatermass 4 as having come and gone, and even turned down a later approach by Hammer for a possible co production.
Enter, later, Euston Films. This was the subsidiary company of Thames TV and had been formed to produce all film dramas and occasional foray into the cinema. Euston had gained a reputation for gritty cop shows like Special Branch and The Sweeny. When learning that there was an unmade Quatermass serial going begging, Euston sensed opportunity knocking and snapped up the rights.
Euston's first instruction to Kneale was to restructure his scripts not only to incorporate greater location filming (the original scripts had been written as a largely studio bound production, recorded on videotape) but also to allow for a two hour feature film to be fashioned out of the four hour serial; Euston had its eye on the American market. The Stonehenge problem was also easily eliminated by staging much of the action at the fictional Ringstone Round, which Euston's art department had no trouble in mocking up.
Euston cast the bankable John Mills as a more elderly Quatermass. While Sir John delivered his customary professional performance, he lacked the presence of his predecessors, partly due to his own comparative smaller stature. There are also moments in the serial when the actor seems uncomfortable with the proceedings. One gets the impression that sci fi was simply not his cup of tea.
Quatermass (as Quatermass 4 was now simply known) also suffered in stature. While it had a higher budget and lavish production values in comparison with its predecessors, it still remains in their shadow. The plot was basically a rehash of Quatermass and the Pit and the decision to set it against an unfamiliar background of total urban degeneration may also have reduced its effectiveness, even if it was integral to the story. The strength of the first three stories partly lay in the idea of an alien threat to cosy middle England as we knew it. By relocating to the unfamiliar, the immediacy of the threat is lost.
Quatermass met with a mixed reception upon initial broadcast. Many critics thought it dated, pointing to the use of hippies. At least Kneale had the last laugh on that one: just check out the Planet People and compare them to the New Age Travellers that were to emerge during the late 1980s. But it was not the hit with the public that was hoped. The original serials had cast a reputation that the new adventure simply could not live up to; though the serial did have the misfortune to be broadcast straight after ITV had been off air a couple of months due to industrial action. In fact, it headlined the network's re opening night.
The abridged movie edition, entitled The Quatermass Conclusion, fared little better. Though it played at Cannes and found some markets, it failed to get distribution in the USA, despite the fact that Hammer's Quatermass and the Pit was still a cult film out there. In the end, Euston simply offered the serial version for syndication on US television, hoping to capitalise the success Doctor Who was enjoying out there. It didn't.
Quatermass, then, remains a curiosity piece. Unlike its predeccessors, it appears largely forgotten in the annals of TV history. There is still much to commend it, but it remains a drama best taken on its own terms and not part of the original canon.