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Quatermass: Brexit & A Warning from TV History
Alexei Monroe , August 9th, 2018 10:50

With dystopian sci-fi drama Quatermass once again on the screens, Alexei Monroe explores how the late 70s ITV version offers fictional parallels with the madness of Brexit

BBC viewers are currently getting (re)-acquainted with Professor Bernard Quatermass, one of the great figures of British science fiction, known for his mesmerising battles with alien and ancient forces. His return to the screen in the 1958 series Quatermass and The Pit is very timely, coming as it does at a time of acute crisis. Even when dealing with extra-terrestrial forces, writer Nigel Kneale always had much to say about contemporary society and, uncannily enough, about the realities of the Brexit era.

Though less celebrated than its predecessors, the final, 1979 TV outing of Quatermass is particularly relevant at this moment. It remains seared on the consciousness of many who watched it. Back then, it was seen as an excessively bleak and even reactionary near future (anti)-science fiction. It extrapolated the anarchic chaos of the period (urban terrorism, perceived social breakdown, energy shortages, anti-Enlightenment thought and more) in a way many found chillingly plausible. Although flawed, it's a visionary and extremely insightful slice of cultural (future) history that now feels disturbingly close to reality, as if Kneale foresaw what we may soon experience.

While motivated by pessimism and despair, his vision was also escapist in that he suggested that the social crisis he depicted in the programme was aggravated by an ancient, extra-terrestrial force, beyond our comprehension. We have no such alibi, the destructive power of Brexit is entirely terrestrial. Yet if it cannot give us an alibi for our rush to self-destruction, the story of Quatermass can provide very revealing insights.

What Lies Beneath

In the story, the world is in a permanent state of emergency. Bodies lie in the streets, power cuts are the norm and a corrupt, privatised police force (the 'Paycops') and the remains of the army vainly and brutally attempt to keep total chaos at bay. The remaining TV station broadcasts degraded, hyper-sexualised TV (a prediction of the spread of populist-pornographic entertainment across the media). Wembley Stadium is the site of gladiatorial combat between armed gangs. London is a battlefield contested by the Baader-Meinhof-inspired Badders ('Badders Will Rule') and the Blue Brigades.

Whilst the Badders are a Mad Max-style tribe of modern primitives, the Blue Brigades are a nationalist paramilitary gang wearing blue overalls with Union Jack helmets. The Union Jack appears again in another early scene, in which Quatermass and scientist Joe Kapp drive through an almost mediaeval street market held in the ruins of an oil refinery. We witness sellers of cat skins and magical charms, ranting preachers and an elderly accordionist in a bedraggled John Bull costume with a Union Jack top hat. Written in large letters on a wall is the slogan "KILL SCIENCE" and a market table piled with books displays the sign "Guaranteed to Burn Well".

Later, Quatermass encounters a community of the elderly who cower underground in a car scrapyard, dependent on being able to barter looted goods with the rampaging gangs. Beyond London, the situation is ostensibly calmer. The roads are filled with wandering groups of "Planet People", a cult which believes that it must reach ancient sites to be transported to 'The Planet', where a cleaner, purer life can be lived.

When Quatermass visits Ringstone Round, a pre-Stonehenge monument, he tries to reason with a group of Planet People. As their excitement reaches a frenzy, they are vapourised by a massive beam from space. In the following days, youth gatherings across the world meet the same fate. Science and the authorities are initially completely powerless to stop the carnage and even younger scientists begin to fall prey to the deadly promise of 'The Planet'. As the TV Times semi-ironically asked in a feature about the series, "Can Professor Quatermass bring society to its senses?" Equally, we perhaps need to ask ourselves if the story's prophetic power can help in some small way to bring society to its senses now.

The Quatermass Hypothesis

The generational struggle aspect of Brexit is sometimes over-emphasised and many older people voted against it. However, Brexit has sparked a strong degree of mutual incomprehension and even inter-generational hatred. Kneale's vision has come true, but in reverse. In our reality, it is primarily the older generations who are driven by 'all the rage of the world', running amok, smashing up the established order, while their bewildered younger counterparts try to devise ways to understand and combat the mayhem. The older generations seem most vulnerable to manipulation by merciless external forces.

As Quatermass and District Commissioner Annie Morgan drive towards London, they speculate on the chaos, just as commentators scramble to explain Brexit and Trump: "what got into them all?" … the "blind rage in every land". Quatermass hypothesises that the murderous youth may have been influenced by something that "could have been on its way for years… an immense power, approaching through decades." To confront it, Quatermass and his allies have to think the unthinkable and the previously inconceivable, just as we do now.

One parallel is the vast and long-term nature of the Brexit project, which has also been approaching over decades, since at least Boris Johnson's first unashamed experiments in anti-EU disinformation. Brexit leaders are reaping the bitter harvest of a long-running propaganda campaign assisted by previously unimaginable levels of technologically-enhanced psychological manipulation.

Since 2016, many have expressed the view that this is not, or is no longer, their country. Yet the tolerant, internationalist, urbane country that people felt they belonged to, was always built partly on complacency and a belief that what one side defined as inevitable progress was irreversible. Many could not conceive that it was possible for all this to be uprooted so swiftly. One of Kneale's most important warnings is the importance of knowledge and learning as our most important, yet never totally reliable, weapons against darkness. Quatermass has to acknowledge the uncanny power of forces previous generations ascribed to magic before he can defeat them with scientific methods and contemporary technology (the alien force is only halted when he lures it into a trap and detonates a nuclear weapon, sacrificing himself and others).

You won't get to The Brexit with all them facts in your head

If many could not conceive of the extent (and viral effectiveness) of the assault from disinformation and shadowy dark money that delivered Brexit, they were even less well equipped to imagine the gleefully irrationalist, fact-averse fury that animates so many of the hardcore that I call The Brexit People. Think of DexEU minister Chris Heaton-Harris clumsy attempt at gathering information on lecturers for the post-Brexit purges he and many others clearly eagerly anticipate (even if they cannot quite admit it).

This was a natural sequel to the demonisation of experts. Michael Gove may not have been completely correct when he said that the British people have had enough of experts, but he was absolutely correct in relation to The Brexit People and their disdain for inconvenient truths. The sheer tautological, anti-intellectual violence of 'Brexit Means Brexit' isn't so far from the Planet People's anti-learning zealotry.

Their feral, anti-science populism recalls Nigel Farage's allies in Italy's cult-like 5 Stars Movement. Their British equivalents know they'll get to The Brexit, they know it's a promised land and the last thing they want is for their anticipation to be spoilt by "science men" asking questions and pointing out facts. The roads of what used to be called the Information Superhighway are clogged by The Brexit People, metaphorically chanting, 'Brex, Brex, Brex'. No science or facts will ever convince the hardcore of the movement that they won't get to The Brexit. It must and will come. "Soon." New forms of counter-spells and exorcism are needed against this level of magical thinking (and we should admit that we are not totally immune to it, that it is inherent in the techno-utopianism of Silicon Valley and the economic policies of parties across the spectrum).

The Planet People's crazed ideologue, 'Kickalong' was clearly based on the numerous new-age or Maoist gurus of the 1970s. His charisma is as strong as his determination to wage total war on established knowledge. In one of the most chilling scenes, Kickalong's band encounter Kapp trying to repair the communications equipment of his observatory after it has been "touched" by a vaporisation that consumed his wife and children. Crazed by grief, Kapp believes he can communicate with the force that took them, but Kickalong mockingly tells him "There's no way science man, all these silly wires, the planet don't want none of that". They then smash the remaining equipment, satisfying their urge for anti-technological destruction.

Later, Kickalong tries not just to explain to, but to convert Kapp (a repentant scientist would be the ultimate convert for the cult). He tells Kapp "your sin is to know things". To help forget such sinful things, he attempts to re-program him to use the Planet People's reduced, primitive vocabulary and warns him "… you want to come with us, you've got to get it all out of your brain."

The Quatermass Hypothesis reveals Gove as 'Brexalong', the movement's cult leader. Here I'm reminded of David Cameron's 2012 warning about Gove's fanaticism and the fact that he's "a bit of a Maoist - he believes that the world makes progress through the process of creative destruction". Gove's shameless admission that he didn't know what Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was doing in Iran, betrays a belief that it is a sin to know anything other than Brexit. He could not allow himself to commit the sin of knowing anything that contradicts the messianic promise of getting to the Brexit (in this case by threatening his ally-enemy Johnson).

The Brexit People feel empowered to engage in a senseless orgy of intellectual violence, smashing up economic, social and cultural infrastructure at the behest of an implacable force and self-appointed cult leaders. In an especially symbolic scene, a group of Planet People wander through a firefight between The Badders and The Blue Brigades and are gunned down. Within seconds, another group moves forward undeterred, continuing their march towards oblivion. In their trance-like state, they cannot allow themselves to know that they may die. All that matters is that enough of them reach their goal (and that by their example they encourage countless others to follow). Realising that their bullets do nothing to deter the crowd and fascinated by their indifference to death, gang members from both sides drop their guns and join them.

A great Brex … stretching to infinity

Following Quatermass' first encounter with The Planet People, Kapp proclaims, "they can't explain because they don't know … I want a generation gap between me and them, I hate them because they've given up".

Kapp's contempt mirrors the reaction of many younger people to their pro-Brexit elders. Both sides are so appalled by each others' choice that they actively seek distance. The generation gap is even reassuring: some older voters resent younger voters for having given up on the possibility of a nationalist revival, while many younger voters resent pro-Brexit older voters for giving up on a future they've already lived and leaving them to their fate in the name of an alien ideal.

One character from the TV series is very relevant here. When Quatermass attends a cabinet meeting to give his scientific advice on the situation, he faces scepticism from the youngest cabinet member. When he tries to get him to take action to prevent tens of thousands converging on Wembley Stadium, which he correctly believes will be the site of a massive vapourisation, the minister responds in an increasingly crazed tone that "I'm still young enough … I can still grasp what the kids instinctively feel must be … A great beam … stretching to infinity." When Quatermass tries to confront him with the medical evidence of a survivor of a previous vapourisation, he replies "It's irrelevant … she didn't go with them."

Since she was not chosen and since the journey is more important than the fate of any one individual, her suffering and death (and those of countless others) do not matter. Here, the parallels are acute. The chaos that may be unleashed is either irrelevant or someone else's fault. If doubters could only believe in The Brexit, they too would be able to share in its transformative magic (Farage's farcical visit to Dublin to spark 'Irexit' reflected this attitude). I'm also reminded of the notorious opinion poll that revealed that many Brexit voters are prepared to see members of their family (very likely younger) lose their jobs in order to achieve complete separation from the EU. Even as the scale of actual socio-economic damage done by the prospect of Brexit becomes apparent, this attitude is hard to shift. The crazed enthusiasm of ministers like Liam Fox (a man whose medical qualifications failed to immunise him against becoming an ideological quack) is disturbingly familiar to those who know the series.

After the first vapourisation, a group of Planet People gaze up at the sky from which the beam incinerated their comrades and call out "Make the land ready till we get there", another phrase with more than a touch of Brexit about it. Witnessing mass death enhances rather than dilutes their faith that they will be taken to a promised land. Similarly, we should face the fact that the more ideologically-motivated section of pro-Brexit opinion understands the economic and social chaos as a sign of creative destruction that will bring them closer to their ideal. The old order, ironically defended primarily by the younger part of the population, must be swept away, and collateral damage is a virtuous sign that change is total and irreversible.

Besides the beam itself, the alien force Quatermass confronts is never identified or even named and its purpose remain obscure. When he tries to speculate on its motivations, he despairingly suggests that it may simply be to "enrich the lifestyle of inconceivable beings… not even that, just amusement". Those who wish to accept the evidence have more than enough information about the motivations of Brexit's main backers and more emerges each day. The links with currency speculation, disaster capitalism, tax avoidance and Russian ambitions are ever clearer. Yet besides concrete financial and political motivations, we would be mistaken to overlook the underlying obscene enjoyment motivating the Brexit elite's insatiable desire for creative destruction. The chance to laugh at and to revel in the economic disempowerment of those backing you so ardently must be irresistible, a further proof of your power.

Many pro-Remain analyses of the situation explore the way in which Brexit voters are being manipulated. These are motivated by the belief (or desperate hope) that when they understand, the scales will fall from their eyes and they will return to normality (and there is some evidence that this is starting to happen). Yet here again, we should not underestimate the pleasure principle. What a thrill it must be to be invited to metaphorically run riot, trashing the old order and taking revenge upon those who oppress them with facts and the necessity of thought. Kneale had a dark insight into the pleasures enjoyed by those who surrender to the herd instinct and join the type of "wild hunt" for the impure seen throughout human history (also depicted by Kneale in Quatermass and The Pit).

To paraphrase the Planet People slogan, unless a way is found to understand and break the archetypal, almost pre- (or post-) rational, components of the spell the Brexit People are under, then "Brexit will Rule". They desire a (for now) metaphorical future in which the unconverted young are forced to live underground, cowering in scrapyards, while they are liberated to run riot above ground, attacking expertise and the symbols of knowledge wherever they find them, while they wait to go to the Brexit that they know will transport them "out of all the bleakness of this world."