At the start of The Red Sky Quist seems to be a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown. As Ridge, Wren and Bradley look on – all with varying degrees of concern – Quist snaps at Pat and isn’t able to complete a simple scientific experiment (his hand trembles so much that he drops a glass beaker). His colleagues all agree that he needs to take a break, but will the workaholic Quist agree?
Unsurprisingly it’s Ridge who’s the most outspoken. It’s often been observed that Quist’s guilt at being involved in the development of the atomic bomb was one of the main reasons why he pushed himself so hard afterwards – in order to make amends for his “crime”. Ridge has another suggestion, that he’s motivated by hate and is a control freak. “That man’s obsessed. There’s nothing worse than a paranoiac leader; he wants to know everything, he won’t listen, he’s got no confidence in anybody.”
Quist, of course, has come back into the office and has heard every word. John Paul deadpans nicely through this initial scene, as well as giving the impression that Quist really is at the end of his tether. Toby tells him that if he takes a break then all their work stops. This is a little odd, as there’s no doubt that although Quist is a key figure there’s no reason why the others can’t function without him.
What makes this scene interesting (if not slightly perplexing) is that Quist then tells them that he plans to go away for a couple of days. His trip had already been arranged before the scene in the lab, so did Quist simply engineer it in order to play power games (Ridge seems to imply so) or was he really close to breaking point?
He heads off to the countryside, for something of a busman’s holiday. His old friend Bernard Colley (Aubrey Richards) is concerned about the noise from a nearby airfield, run by the Palgon Corporation. Before Quist arrives, Colley and his daughter Dana (Jennifer Daniel), witness the death of Tommy Gort (Edward Kelsey). Tommy lived in a lighthouse directly in the airplane’s flight path and apparently committed suicide by throwing himself off the cliff (it’s obviously a dummy, but it looks quite realistic).
It’s clear that the planes are somehow responsible and not only did they drive Tommy to his death they’ve also deeply affected Colley. After spending some time at Tommy’s lighthouse, Colley is hospitalised with what Quist says is a cerebral hemorrhage. He later dies without regaining consciousness.
Quist meets with the man from Palgon, Reynolds (Paul Eddington). Unsurprisingly he brushes off Quist’s concerns and reminds him that thousands of people work for Palgon (strongly hinting that any interference with their work would have severe economic repercussions). It’s a theme that’s replayed throughout the series – if you rock the boat then innocent people’s jobs will suffer. Quist knows that innocent people are already suffering – from noise pollution – and won’t give up that easily.
The Red Sky, written by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis, is classic Doomwatch. At its heart is a solid mystery and a strong dynamic between the regulars. Quist has a personal stake as his friend has died (“he was a splendid man you know, when my wife died …”) whilst he and Ridge butt heads in a very entertaining manner. The relationship between Quist and Ridge continues to fascinate. Ridge has undeniable respect for Quist as a scientist, but as a human being? Quist’s views on Ridge remain fascinating to ponder as well.
Given that two people have died after spending time at the lighthouse it seems foolhardy in the extreme for Quist to decide to go back there alone to monitor events (and also that Ridge and Wren – who’ve now travelled down at Quist’s request – didn’t raise any objections). Visual effects were somewhat limited in the early 1970’s, but thanks to the wonders of inlay we’re able to share his nightmare vision.
After Quist collapses at Gort’s lighthouse, Ridge is content to ship him off to a nursing home and go home. For him, the work of Doomwatch is the most important thing – more important than any one man – and he also believes that fighting a battle against Palgon (who have the confidence of the minister) is pointless. They can’t win, so attacking Palgon would simply give the government the excuse they need to close Doomwatch down. It’s possible to see Ridge’s actions as something of a palace revolution – the king is dead, long live the king.
But by the merest chance Toby is at the lighthouse to witness another attack. If he hadn’t then no doubt the whole thing would have been dropped, which is a slight weakness of the story. It’s also hard to credit that Ridge dismisses the notion that there’s anything wrong at the lighthouse so quickly. Two deaths and Quist’s injuries should have hinted that something wasn’t quite right.
Eventually Toby comes up with an answer and Quist is able to manipulate both Reynolds and the man from the ministry, Richard Duncan (Michael Elwyn) very neatly. Reynolds is adamant that there’s no substance to Quist’s story, so when they all meet at the lighthouse he’s happy to remain there whilst the next jet flies overhead (as does Duncan and Ridge). Reynolds is therefore unusual, a member of the “enemy” who becomes a convert after he realises that Quist’s story was true. At the enquiry, he supports him – even though it might cost him his job. And although Duncan had been described as the Minster’s hatchet-man, that’s not actually the case. He seems a reasonable chap and is more than ready to listen to Quist’s suggestions and offer his support.
The ending is rather downbeat. They’ve convinced Reynolds, but that’s about all. The government agrees to fence off part of the coastline, purchase Tommy’s lighthouse and suspend flights for a month, but nothing more as Quist mutters that they “can’t let an isolated death stand in the way of progress.” Bradley asks what will happen when the planes start flying all over the country. Quist’s response is bleak. “We don’t know and as usual we won’t know. Until it happens.”