Tomorrow, The Rat is one of the best-remembered Doomwatch episodes, partly for the concept of super-intelligent rats but also for the sequence in which Robert Powell struggles with patently some fake rats which were attached to his trousers. Powell’s very successful later career inevitably meant that this clip would be a favourite to be wheeled out when discussing his early acting days. But this unintentionally hilarious scene shouldn’t detract from the quality of the story as a whole.
As Doomwatch progressed, there were two differing opinions as to how the series should proceed. In the one corner we had series creators Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis and in the other was series producer Terence Dudley. And because Dudley writes, directs and produces this episode, it offers a clear distillation of the programme he wanted Doomwatch to be.
With two missing episodes, most people go direct from Pedler and Davis’ The Plastic Eaters to this, and it’s quite a jarring transition. The Plastic Eaters was written in a fairly cold and clinical way, as although there’s a considerable loss of life (the crashed plane) we never really got to know any of the people on the plane (only indirectly, via the Minister’s secretary) and so their fate doesn’t really resonate.
Tomorrow, The Rat is quite different, as the dangers of scientific meddling are shown to have a direct impact on ordinary people (the Chambers family). And Dudley is very happy to ramp up the tension as the Chambers family are first menaced and then later attacked by the rats. There’s also a certain amount of gore as we see both a mutilated horse and then later a mutilated human, Mary Bryant (the scientist responsible for the super-rats).
As with The Plastic Eaters we see how the government has indirectly led to the crisis – a combination of penny pinching and a wish for deniability regarding Bryant’s research has ensured the rats weren’t housed in a secure facility. Instead they are placed in an ordinary London house, so it’s very easy for them to escape and terrorize the immediate neighbourhood.
Doomwatch are called in, and Quist’s investigations soon lead him to Dr Mary Bryant, who has been working for the Ministry on rodent disposal. He dispatches John Ridge to seduce and (as it were) pump her for information. Quist has clearly no qualms in using Ridge’s lady-killing skills to the benefit of the department, which is an eye-opener. In a post-coital atmosphere, Bryant outlines her ultimate aims to Ridge – rats are just the first step.
We roll in the hay, I’m less than careful, you have a chromosonic idiosyncrasy and I give birth to an abnormal child. In my view, the height of human irresponsibility. The work I do on rats will be extended to human beings. By adding and subtracting from the genetic structure you can eliminate the abnormal.
She’s not the first person to hold such views of course, a chap called Adolf Hitler also was keen on genetic engineering. As might be expected, this doesn’t go down with the Doomwatch team, but they also have the more pressing need of dealing with the rats at large in the community.
Bradley and Wren take up residence in the Chambers household and wait for the rats to appear again. This leads to the famous rat attack scene and also it allows Wren (and the audience) to appreciate just how intelligent these rats are. They managed to use spoons and forks to jam open the traps left by Wren and Bradley (although it’s probably best not to dwell too much on exactly how they could manage to extract the cutlery and manoeuvre it).
Overall, Tomorrow,The Rat is an excellent episode that manages to successfully juggle the demands of producing a story that not only has a strong scientific message but also has human characters in peril that we can identify with, plus a few scares thrown in along the way. There are a few puzzling moments though – I’ve never quite understand how Dr Bryant’s desire to remove chromosonic instabilities in human beings connects to breeding intelligent rats who have a taste for human flesh, for example.
But although the plot seems a little loose at times, it definitely was an episode that sparked debate amongst the viewing public – it was obviously fiction, but like many of the Doomwatch stories there was always the faint worry that it might all happen. And the number of times that a storyline from Doomwatch did actually come true was a vindication of how the series managed to keep its pulse firmly on the latest scientific advances.