A Hazy Shade of Video
A revised version of this text is available in Geek Mook.
Lies, damn lies and recollections.
The cassette slinks into the mechanism with a ker-chunk. It’s a heavy duty design, the kind from the ‘80s that used to set you back $20 a throw. The kind that used to say, “I may be VHS, I may be larger of dimension and shorter of length and poorer of picture quality than my rivals, but I’m never gonna die, not in a million years.” And it might just be right.
Because here I sit, and it’s 1998 or close enough to, and it still plays. The tape caresses the picture drum, magnetic particles are read and interpreted. The machine doesn’t kick up a fuss.
Anticipation builds in those first few seconds as I watch a blank screen. Andy’s smart – he’s recorded a stretch of leader at the head of the tape. Time enough for the automatic tracking control to find an image.
Time enough for me to wonder.
Much lore is attached to the beast I’m about to screen. That it’s a magnificent example of the golden age that was live BBC television. That it’s a seminal science fiction work, establishing themes and a style that would permeate all subsequent TV SF.
Gustav Holst’s Mars, the Bringer of War warbles into life, a scratchy monotone distorted by a sudden off-lock of the video signal. If it sounded bad on its native shellac as it spiralled at 78 rpm, it sounds positively tortured now.
The picture is shabby, but this is understandable. The copy’s providence harkens back to an internal tape recording from the master film prints. A dub straight from the archive itself, never intended for public dissemination; nothing more than a viewing copy produced in the greatest of haste. Then carried uncounted tape generations downhill, enough to have brought the programme as far afield as my viewing room in Australia.
The title materialises as if from the depths of an infinite nothingness, formed of a wispy smoke that resembles the sort of dry ice technique the BBC effects boys were known for in those days. But the contrast on the picture is shot to hell and a white flare pulses through it insistently.
Nevertheless, amid the ultra-low definition, the title leaps out at me like it was designed to be seen this way.
What follows resembles nothing short of a summer snowstorm, and a seasick one at that. Static fidgets in endless layers, leaping about the screen like Mexican jumping beans. Off-locks, regular as clockwork, cause the picture to roll violently, an upheaval matched by the electronic wail the soundtrack degenerates into at these junctures.
A fully restored, lovingly remastered, digitally spruced rendering on DVD this is not. But this is 1998, or thereabouts. Such widespread home video exploitation of every last creaky monochrome drama in the vaults does not yet exist.
No, this is as good as it gets. A copy, an actual copy. Just to see it is a miracle to stand above all other miracles.
I scrutinise the introductory scene in real time. Memory is my weapon of choice – I dare not pause the tape. My relationship with Andy’s copy is strictly a one night stand. My two VCRs are tethered together, a brand new Ultra High Grade blank loaded in the second. By the end of these three hours I’ll have my own viewing copy, and Andy’s will be returned, undamaged by repeated playback.
I respect it too much to subject it to that.
For now, I get to watch it that one generation higher. To savour it in one sitting. Like a connoisseur in a gallery, I must be embraced by its every nuance before I dare abandon it.
I met Andy on the fan circuit. The naive me of bygone days discovered a Doctor Who local group, where I was quickly advised that all those rare old episodes nobody had seen in donkey’s years could be had if you knew the right people.
Andy became a godsend in this regard. He possessed copies of every Doctor Who episode then in existence, and soon I did too. The consequent growth of my own paltry collection allowed me then to join an altogether more exclusive club: the “dub circuit”.
Other rarities followed, a surprising number of which even Andy had yet to acquire. Undermind, Counterstrike, the shameful Star Maidens. Science fiction and fantasy to the last. “Telefantasy”, to those versed in such matters.
There were grails among them, in the main drafted by the reluctant godfather of telefantasy, Manx playwright Nigel Kneale. No self-respecting shelf should be without its Beasts, its Year of the Sex Olympics, even its execrable Kinvig. Yet these false grails never diminished the significance of three key titles. Kneale’s reworking of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and especially the two earliest entries in the 1950s trilogy of trilogies: the Quatermass series. Telling of a British scientist, the titular Professor Bernard Q, and his misadventures with the applications of experimental rocketry, these are held by many SF fans as unsurpassed masterpieces of the genre.
Once upon a time, there was a record store in the city that stocked an excellent array of VHS releases. From among these a cut-and-paste cover screamed its name at me in moody shades of black and green. Quatermass and the Pit. Considered the finest instalment in Kneale’s trilogy, this third serial came to epitomise all that was magnificent about British television’s golden age.
(More importantly, it was out on video, so it wasn’t any anybody’s checklist.)
A fresh question begged: could some other relic of ‘50s live broadcasting surpass this? Circumstantial evidence identified one that might. The Hammer Films adaptation of Pit was a pale shadow of that haunting original, proof positive in its 97 minutes (down from some 210) that less is sometimes less. Absent was the all-pervading atmosphere of a stark monochromatic image produced so ephemerally as only live telly can. So was the richness of detail in the script that had made so fantastical a narrative seem so genuine.
The earlier Hammer adaptation Quatermass 2 demonstrated how much the film of Pit had erred. Photographed in shadowy black-and-white it looked the part, while the story felt like a ground-up reworking to suit the abbreviated running time rather than a digest of some epic text.
Given how full and complex the televised Pit was, could 1955’s six-part Quatermass II have been the superior outing for the titular professor?
Andy had a copy. As soon as I knew, it came home with me. Episode 3 was the slightly shortened version that had been repeated on BBC2 in the age of the VCR, but this meant it was several generations up from the rest, with blacks that hadn’t faded to a pale grey and whites that were yet to bloom beyond all reasonable recognition.
Viewing Quatermass II through the veneer of this many generations of duplication is, to put it mildly, a taxing experience. Shapes and lines were probably never too clearly defined to begin with, this being a relic of the very earliest days of capturing a live telecast to the permanence of 35 mm movie film. Here, they’re a mass of jagged greys, each blurring indistinguishably into the next.
The soundtrack fares no better. Sustained notes from the score warble and wobble through multiple octaves, effects sit in a perpetual white noise, and dialogue drawls out of the sludgy soup of sound. I sit with the published script book at the ready. Following it to support my understanding of the dialogue is futile – from the off, it is clear that Kneale has thoroughly revised every line in this supposed facsimile of the teleplay. A part of me wants to scream, but if it does I might miss hearing something important.
That I haven’t gone blind from squinting for 188 minutes fails to startle me. I’ve screened rarities far worse and survived. Before digitally restored DVDs can be conceived of, before the technology demanded of them even exists, we of the dub circuit observe a fundamental truth: it’s this or nothing. To see for ourselves what “elder statesmen” fans have waxed lyrical about, to appreciate what sights and sounds thrilled them in their youth, we must accept this deterioration as inevitable.
But they lie, or misremember. A Doctor Who producer once famously told the fans, “The memory cheats.” As the tape runs out, I wonder if there’s not something in that. Crashing disappointment outweighs the distraction of an awful dub. Quatermass II is slackly written, sloppily directed, sometimes haphazardly acted. A sequence depicting the tragic fate of a picnicking family, absent in the film, is a dramatic highlight, but the condensed version is otherwise largely superior.
Still, it’s another rarity for the collection, to be traded for other rarities. There is, after all, the remaining grail to be had: the surviving episodes of The Quatermass Experiment.
And, by all accounts, the dub quality of that one is going to be a lot worse.