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The rocket is at first thought to be lost, having dramatically overshot its planned orbit, but eventually it is detected by radar and returns to Earth, crash-landing in Wimbledon, London.
When Quatermass and his team reach the crash area and succeed in opening the rocket, they discover that only one of the three crewmen, Victor Carroon, remains inside.
It is clear that there is something critically wrong: he appears to have absorbed the consciousness of the other two crew members, and is slowly mutating into a plant-like alien organism.
As the police chase the rapidly transforming Carroon across London, Quatermass analyses samples of the mutated creature in a laboratory, and realises that it has the ability to end all life on Earth if it spores.
A television crew working on an architectural programme locates the monster in Westminster Abbey, and Quatermass and troops of the British Army rush in to destroy it in the hour before it brings about doomsday.
Quatermass convinces the consciousness of the three crewmen buried deep inside the creature to turn against it and destroy it; this appeal to the last remains of their humanity succeeds in defeating the organism.
As well as spawning various remakes and sequels, The Quatermass Experiment inspired much of the television science fiction that succeeded it, particularly in the United Kingdom, where it influenced successful series such as Doctor Who and Sapphire and Steel. The project originated when a gap formed in the BBC's schedules for a six-week serial to run on Saturday nights during the summer of 1953, and Kneale's idea was to fill it with "a mystifying, rather than horrific" storyline.