Doomwatch – No Room for Error

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Dr Fay Chanty (Jean Trend) is Doomwatch’s latest recruit, although initally she tells Quist she’s now not sure now whether she wants the job.  But her arrival is a timely one.  She formerly worked at BAP (British Associated Pharmaceuticals) helping to develop Stellamycin, a drug which can be used to combat typhoid.

A recent typhoid outbreak has seen a score of children hospitalised and fighting for their lives.  Stellamycin could be the answer – but despite Doomwatch’s cautiously favourable report the government has yet to give their approval.  So whilst Quist heads off to do battle with the ministry he sends Fay to BAP to liaise with her former colleagues.

The government grudgingly agrees to allow Stellamycin to be used, but when a child dies it sets them into a panic.  Only one group of children shows such an adverse reaction though and it’s later discovered that they all went to the same school.  A working hypothesis would be that somehow they had already been exposed to a very low level dose of the drug over an extended period.  But since it’s only just been released, how could this be so?

Like Toby Wren, the arrival of Fay Chantry allows the viewer to observe Doomwatch from the outside.  Who are these small group of scientists and what exactly do they do?  No Room for Error implies that they’re not highly regarded amongst certain parts of the scientific community.  One of Fay’s former colleagues at BAP, Nigel Waring (John Wood), has a particularly jaundiced view of them, wondering why she’d want to give up a decent job at BAP for civil service pay and a role as a government snooper …..

Although Fay Chantry was created in order introduce a woman into the Doomwatch team who wasn’t a secretary, it’s ironic that her initial storyline is somewhat sexist.  She spends most of her time rekindling her relationship with Nigel, who’s such an irritating drip that it’s therefore hard to have a great deal of respect for her judgement!

Their brief affair had been one of the factors in his recent divorce and he now suggests they marry and she returns to work at BAP.  Nigel’s boss, Professor Lewin (Angus MacKay) doesn’t think this is a good idea, telling him that the pair of them living and working together would be too much of as strain (so much better if she just became a nice little housewife).  Ridge takes the biscuit though, when he later tells Quist that because Fay’s a woman she’s likely to react emotionally.  Yes, John Ridge, a man who tends to act first and then think later (when he does think) said this!

The Nigel/Fay relationship has a soap-opera feel about it, which is reinforced when Nigel’s daughter falls ill with typhoid and he has to face an urgent dilemma – should she be treated with Stellamycin when might it prove fatal?

After extensive tests by Doomwatch, Nigel is proved to be culpable – a canister of the drug was left at a nearby farm, which in turn infected the milk at a local school.  It’s possibly an ironic touch (although maybe not) that Nigel reacts with resentment and a complete lack of personal accountability when Fay gently mentions this to him.  Earlier he was scathing about Doomwatch, not regarding them as true scientists, but when it’s revealed he was responsible for a child’s death, he turns his anger on Fay and brings their relationship to an end (a lucky escape for her, I think). He doesn’t stop to think that if it hadn’t been for those “busybodies” at Doomwatch there might have been more deaths.

After being largely anonymous during the last episode, Simon Oates has a little more to do here.  When we first see him he’s in a slightly battered state and is being attended to by Barbara Mason.  She places a plaster on a cut over his eye and is then encouraged by him to kiss it better!  Clearly some time has passed since we saw her in You Killed Toby Wren as she’s now very comfortable around him.  Possibly this was a little ad-lib worked out in rehearsals, it’s a nice moment anyway as it helps to give a touch of humour and humanity to both their characters.

Angus MacKay (a man who seemed to make a career out of playing headmasters, bank managers and the like) is suitably imposing as Professor Lewin.  It’s not much of a role but MacKay’s clipped diction is always worth listening to.  Anthony Sharp as Dr Ian Phelps (the Medical Officer of Health) is another solid performer and Anthony Ainley (as the Senior House Officer) has a couple of key scenes.  Several points off though for Norman Scase as Mr Elliott, the headmaster at the infected school.  He gives an extraordinary mannered performance which has to be seen to be believed.

Although the Nigel/Fay subplot is rather tedious (will she choose him or her career at Doomwatch?  Umm, fairly obvious really) there’s a decent mystery at the heart of the story and both Quist and Ridge are used well.  But this story is another sign that the series is changing – as character relationships are moving into the foreground whilst the science takes a little bit of a back seat.

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