Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis use an old story-telling trick to introduce the audience to the Doomwatch team – we meet them through the eyes of a new recruit, Toby Wren (Robert Powell). Wren, young, keen and eager, first meets Dr John Ridge (Simon Oates) and Pat Hunnisett (Wendy Hall). Ridge is a non-conformist and something of a lady-killer, which is confirmed when he confides to Toby that Pat would have introduced them, but she’s still upset as he pinched her bottom earlier on! The nattily dressed Ridge screams early seventies, and whilst his behaviour can be a little eyebrow raising at times, it’s usually rescued by Simon Oates’ spot-on comic timing. And as we’ll see as the series progresses, he’s also no slouch when it comes to playing the dramatic scenes.
Pat has little to do except stand around and look attractive, which is pretty much par for the course for all the stories she appears in. Colin Bradley (Joby Blanshard) is the technical expert, and comes across as somewhat blunt and absorbed in his work. He’s also not very well developed here, mainly existing as a line-feed for Quist.
That just leaves the head of Doomwatch, Dr Spencer Quist (John Paul). It’s made clear early on that he’s a celebrated scientist – a Nobel Prize winner, no less – but it’s also established that he’s battling demons from his past. It was Quist’s mathematical genius that was, in part, responsible for the creation of the atomic bomb. This is something that continues to haunt him (and Ridge, knowing this, can’t resist mildly taunting him about it). The Quist/Ridge dynamic is key to the series. Both respect the others abilities, but there’s often no love lost between them (and they rarely see eye to eye about how to achieve their goals). The first law of decent drama is that you have to have conflict and Quist and Ridge will certainly deliver this.
If Quist sometimes has trouble from his subordinates, that’s nothing to the problems he encounters from the Minister (John Barron). The Minister regards Quist and the Doomwatch organisation as a major irritation and aims to close them down at the first opportunity.
Toby is dispatched to investigate why a plane crashed, whilst the others work on the same problem at the office. With the Minister so keen to clip Doomwatch’s wings, it’s rather a coincidence that the trail leads to his office, but there you go. Ridge suggests that they burgle the Minister’s office to find the information they need and Quist, after a brief struggle with his conscience, agrees. As a former intelligence operative, Ridge is happy to work outside of the law. Quist prefers to play things by the book, but when he feels that information is being withheld (and lives could be at risk) he’s prepared to put his finer feelings to one side.
A top-secret formula which can break down plastic is found to be responsible for the destruction of the aircraft. The increasing proliferation of plastic was a major concern at the time and whilst this formula could eventually be of immense use, it should never have been let out into the open. This only happened due to carelessness at the Minister’s office (something which Quist can later use as a lever to guarantee the Minster’s cooperation).
Additional drama is generated when the plane that Toby’s travelling back on is infected by the same plastic virus – although to be honest the drama level is fairly low. It would have been unusual (although not impossible) for Toby to be killed off in the first story, so we can be fairly sure that he’ll be safe. And if he’s safe, then so are the rest of the passengers and crew, which makes the various attempts to generate tension slightly futile.
So although the ending is something of a damp squib (and the pre-credits sequence, showing the original plane crash is also less than effective, thanks to the too-obvious stock footage of crash-test dummies) The Plastic Eaters is still a decent opening episode thanks to the efficient way it introduces the main characters.