Sunday, May 19, 2019

Quatermass and the Pit Blu-ray Review

The serial format, breaking down a story over multiple, distinct parts, has a very long history.  Silent film serials were followed by sound film serials, and up and until the 1950s the genre had fulfilled a need for audiences to be entertained in a weekly format.  Television's introduction led to the downfall of serials from Republic Films and other studios that specialized in narratives punctuated by cliffhangers.  The format did not generally translate well to television, where people expected a program to begin and end in one viewing.  In the 1950s there was no real ability for an average TV viewer to record programming to watch at a later time, you either saw the program or you hoped for a repeat.  This suited television broadcasters, who wanted viewers to experience a new story every week.

That was the evolution in the U.S., but the U.K. was not yet ready to abandon the classic serial format.  The British Broadcasting Corporation, a publicly-funded TV network, had to fill the same number of hours in a day but with fewer resources that its American commercial televison network counterparts.  The serial format had its advantages in cost, sets, costumes, production personnel and actors could be reused for several weeks at a cost significantly less than having to mount brand-new productions every week.  Serials were broadcast alongside series not only by the BBC but also the ITV affiliates for a solid three-decade period.  Here I am going to offer my thoughts on one of the best of the serials ever produced from this period, Quatermass and the Pit as presented in its November 2018 Blu-ray release. 

Enter Nigel Kneale and Rudolph Cartier, the first masters of the televised serial.  Kneale wrote and Cartier produced and directed The Quatermass Experiment in 1953 to favorable viewer response.  For half an hour for six weeks, the U.K. viewing public watched the story of Professor Quatermass manned rocket's mysterious return to the Earth and what was brought back in it.  Then in 1955 the pair released Quatermass II, another six-parter telling how the Professor finds and deals with an insidious alien invasion.  Hammer Film Studios saw the cinematic potential in these stories and produced film versions of both serials in 1955 and 1957, respectively. 

Episode 1 High Res Film
Episode 1 Telecine Film

Quatermass and the Pit was the final serial the produced BBC featuring Professor Quatermass.  It was broadcast in December 1958-January 1959.  Like its predecessors, it was a six-part serial written by Kneale and produced and directed by Cartier.  However, this serial had several advantages over its predecessors.  First, it survives in a complete form, unlike The Quatermass Experiment where only the first two episodes were telerecorded.  Second, the production requirements for the story did not require the BBC to stretch beyond its resources as it had for Quatermass II.  Third, the plot and the themes underlying it were more relevant than what you would typically expect to find in a science fiction film depicting an alien invasion. 

The setup is simple, in a commercial excavation site in Knightsbridge, London, fossilized skulls of a new species of prehistoric apes are discovered.  The leader of the archeological dig, Dr. Matthew Roney (Cec Linder), hypothesizes that these apes may be a missing link in the evolutionary chain and estimates their age at five million years old.  However, when he and his team discover an object buried underneath the skulls might be an unexploded bomb left over from World War II, he calls in his friend, Professor Bernard Quatermass (Andre Morell), head of the British Rocket Group. 

Quatermass had proposed to use his rockets for the peaceful exploration and colonization of the Moon and eventually Mars, but the government ministry he works for has other ideas.  The government's policy is to set up nuclear missiles on these bodies as a form of mutually-assured destruction.  In order to ensure that the current policy is implemented, the ministry assigns the reliable Col. James Breen (Anthony Bushell) to Quatermass' group as his ostensible deputy. 

Roney, Quatermass and Breen supervise the dig at the Knightsbridge pit, but they unearth a large hollow capsule instead of an unexploded bomb.  The capsule is found to have strange energy-related properties which could be related to the longstanding stories of strange occurrences, objects moving on their own and ghosts on the street, Hobbs Lane, leading to the pit.  The capsule is finally opened capsule completely only for the dig team discover the bodies of strange creatures which may not have been from this Earth.  Quatermass and Roney come to believe that these insect-like creatures  may have had an evolutionary connection with the man-like ape fossils found in the pit.  When Breen offers an less imaginative explanation easier for his government masters to accept, the government decides to open the capsule to the news media and its broadcast cameras.  The capsule seems to have a mind of its own when energized by the news cameras and mankind's long-dormant genetically engineered traits for conformity at any cost to come to the surface...

Episode 1 - 405-line Video

Television production at the BBC was fairly simplistic at the time of Quatermass and the Pit.  Episodes would be rehearsed all week and performed and broadcast on the date and time indicated in the weekly periodical Radio Times.  The BBC was still using the 405-line black and white TV system from 1936 and shot most material using video cameras that were extremely large, heavy and technically complex.  Most of the main action would be shot with these cameras with the actors on sound stages.  The action would be broadcast live, so the actors had to know their cues and their lines, the camera men had to know what the shots were and the camera had to be switched between scenes at the right times.  Typically three cameras were assigned to a single show, which had multiple sets within a single studio set.

Episode 2 - High Res Film
Episode 2 - 405-line Video

Quatermass and the Pit was broadcast at a time when videotape had just been introduced as a medium to record television programs for later broadcast.  Ampex made the first successfully commercial videotape format in 1956 and the equipment and the tapes themselves were very expensive and required skilled technicians to use.  Quatermass and the Pit was not recorded onto tape.  If it were, it may have been lost because videotape could be erased and reused and usually was. 

The other method to preserve a television broadcast was to record the image being displayed by a television monitor onto film stock.  A machine would have a small monitor tube displaying the broadcast while a film camera would be synchronized to capture each television "frame" within one film frame and the accompanying sound.  This was uncommon in the days of The Quatermass Experiment but well-established by the time of Quatermass and the Pit. 

Episode 3 - High Res Film
Episode 3 - 405-line Video

Quatermass and the Pit has two big advantages over its predecessors in terms of its amenability to high-definition.  First, whereas the previous Quatermass serials were recorded by suppressing fields, Quatermass and the Pit stored both fields.  Because 405-line video is interlaced, only half the visible scanlines (>200) of an intended frame (a field) are displayed at one time.  With the earlier suppressed field method, the other half of the frame has no representation on the film, leading to a substantial loss of vertical resolution and a great deal of detail.  Stored field manipulates the phosphor brightness of the TV monitor so that the lines from the first field decay less quickly than the lines from the second field, allowing the film frame to capture both fields.

The second difference between  Quatermass and the Pit and its predecessors is the reason why this Blu-ray exists.  While major British TV serials of the time would be shot on video, there were usually instances where scenes and sequences would be shot on film stock and inserted into the broadcast when the shooting script called for it by having a video camera pointed to the film running on a rear-projection screen.  Reasons for shooting on 35mm during this period included location footage, outdoor filming, filing in tight spaces, using rented sound stages owned by third-party stuidos, special effects work, opening titles and complexity of action called for in the script.  Quatermass and the Pit used a substantially greater amount of filmed footage than other serials of its era.  Unlike Quatermass II, almost all its original filmed inserts survives as film instead of what was shown through a video monitor's screen. 

Episode 4 - High Res Film
Episode 4 - 405-line Video

Much of the restoration work done for Quatermass and the Pit was done in 2004 for the 2005 DVD release of "The Quatermass Collection", handled by the Doctor Who Restoration Team.  This included using scans of the 35mm pre-filmed sequences and using it in place of the sequences stored on the telecine.  They used the VidFIRE process to restore the fluid look to the video camera sequences, which capture movement at 50 fields per second, lost when those sequences were preserved on film.  They also used magnetic sound tracks in place of optical sound tracks when available for higher fidelity audio.  Unfortunatetly the magnetic tracks were only kept for the film sequences.  For some of Trevor Duncan's music, they were able to use higher quality recordings than what was present on the sound tracks.  All this is explained here in much greater detail here.

For the Blu-ray, members of the Restoration Team revisited their prior work from 2004.  The film sequences are now shown in high-definition whenever possible.  And the results are night and day compared to the video camera footage.  Other footage has been upscaled to 1080p using professional grade upscaling, so it will look as good as it will ever look regardless of playback device.  In addition, the Restoration Team found a digital replica of the original fonts used in the credits, so they were able to present all titles and credits in a higher quality manner than they were presented on the original telerecordings.  This is not new for the Restoration Team, they began replacing titles and credits for Doctor Who stories not long after the release of The Quatermass Collection DVD.  Audio is now less compressed thanks to Blu-ray's support of higher bitrate codecs.

Episode 5 - High Res Film
Episode 5 - 405-line Video

I wanted to explore the Blu-ray a little deeper to answer a question "What percentage of the episodes truly and visibly benefit from the high-definition of the Blu-ray format?"  After watching each episode, I skimmed through it to write down the time when each type of sequence would begin and end.  I categorized footage into three types, 405-line Video, 35mm High-Res Scan Film and Telecine Film.  The first two categories should be self-explanatory by this point in this blog entry.  Telecine Film is that uncommon category where the footage was pre-filmed but the original film was not preserved.  All that is available that footage is what was captured on the telerecording. 

When I originally bought my copy of Quatermass and the Pit from, I estimated that maybe 20% of footage was filmed and would show the night and day improvement.  So at the end of the six episode serial, I was surprised with my calculations.  Here is the percentage of high resolution film scan viewable for each episode :

Episode 1 – The Halfmen, 34.28%
Episode 2 – The Ghosts, 23.68%
Episode 3 – Imps and Demons, 10.82%
Episode 4 – The Enchanted, 20.73%
Episode 5 – The Wild Hunt, 14.56%
Episode 6 – HOB, 38.71%

Episode 6 - High Res Film
Episode 6 - 405-line Video

The total high resolution film for the complete serial run-time is approximately 23.80%.  I did not include footage reused for the recaps in Episodes 2-6 because these sequences of approximately two minutes in length quickly intercut footage from all kinds of sources.  I also calculated the total footage for telecine film to be 2.98%.  In my calculation I included time spent displaying reconstructed title sequences (which used high resolution film scans) and end credits in the high resolution film calculations, except for two instances where the credits were not reconstructed.  

As you can see from the above, the most amount of film work occurs in the first and last episodes, which would be appropriate for establishing the scene and the final action.  The ends of each of the first five episodes were filmed to avoid the need to react these scenes at the beginning of the next episode.  So each episode is or is almost completely book-ended by film.  

VHS Quality Film Scan (courtesy of Doctor Who Restoration Team)

Although there is audible hiss from time to time, the dialogue is clear and the actors can always be understood.  The omnious music track is always suitably punchy and the sound effects are not buried under hiss, crackles and pops.  There is a commentary track which is presented chiefly by Toby Hadoke, whose commentaries on Classic Doctor Who DVDs have been praised.  

DVD Quality Film Scan (courtesy of Doctor Who Restoration Team)

The external packaging is well designed, and reminds me of the animated Power of the Daleks Steelbook Blu-ray release.  For some strange reason, it does not indicate anywhere on the packaging that this is a Region B Blu-ray.  It actually may not be a true Region B but my PlayStation 3 thinks it is because of the 25fps used throughout.  There is a booklet which discusses the significance of the program, gives notes on the restoration, identifies the participants on the commentary track and describes the special features.  Finally it strangely has quite a few paragraphs explaining why the 4:3 aspect ratio is the correct aspect ratio, even though the video is properly windowboxed on the sides.  

Blu-ray Quality Film Scan

The special features are good.  There are scans of the Radio Times listings and articles for each episode of the program as well as the previous Quatermass serials.  There are photocopies of the scripts for Quatermass and the Pit, but the quality is so variable that some portions of the scripts are impossible to read.  The photo gallery shows rare as well as more common images of the production, and there is an except with the special effects designers discussing their work on Quatermass and other Kneale/Cartier productions like Nineteen Eighty-Four.  

Original Titles
Reconstructed Titles

The last special feature shows alternate titles.  The six part serial as presented on the Blu-ray is not the episodes exactly as they were originally broadcast.  The episodes that exist had been tweaked a little by Cartier after production had ended to fix certain issues.  Then in 1960 the BBC repeated Quatermass and the Pit in two ninety minute episodes.  The titles and the recap for that version have been included.  Finally, in 1986 BBC Video issued Quatermass and the Pit on VHS in an Omnibus format where all six episodes were turned into a single movie-length feature.  The newly made titles for that version are also shown.  The Omnibus format was the exclusive way in which the BBC released episodes of serials like Doctor Who onto VHS (and Beta and Laserdisc) for most of the 1980s.  This special feature makes for a truly comprehensive record of this ground-breaking program.  

One final subject deserves some space, can this be replicated for Classic Doctor Who stories which survive only on telecine?  All First and Second Doctor Who serials which survive from the 1960s are preserved on telecine film, as is a not inconsiderable portion of the Third Doctor's era of the early 1970s.  The answer is no.  First, most of the episodes from this period were recorded onto lower quality 16mm film rather than the 35mm film used for the Quatermass serials.  Second, while Doctor Who did use pre-shot film from time to time, virtually none of the original film shot from the 1960s and first half of the 1970s still survives except as it was captured by the telerecording.  So do not expect much hope for a Quatermass-like experience when they start releasing Blu-ray season sets from the first three Doctors.  

In conclusion, do I recommend this Blu-ray?  The answer should be obvious, the answer is a high recommendation.  Even if you have the excellent 2005 DVD of The Quatermass Collection, you should add this release to your shelf because the quality of the presentation overall has improved significantly with the Blu-ray.  The screen captures I have utilized in this review really do not do the filmed sequences justice, they look so much better in motion.  I highly doubt this serial will ever look any better and this set is affordably priced these days at around £11.80.  If you need to import it to a Region A country, make sure you have a player or some other means to make a watchable copy.

Blu-ray Cover Art (courtesy of

1 comment:

  1. Have to say: this review is bloody brilliant! It puts all other so-called professional reviewers to shame. I've been a huge fan of the entire TV/film/script series ever since I was a kid, but the third Hammer film was my gateway drug. It fed my nightmares for years...