Quist is amongst a group of interested observers who have come to view a pilot scheme at Parkway hospital. Dr Whittaker (James Maxwell) proudly shows them around a geriatric ward where the patients have been linked up to a powerful computer, designed to monitor every aspect of their treatment. In all cases, their life expectancy has been extended well beyond normal estimates and Whittaker is fulsome in his praise for the computer. “Utterly efficient, never tiring, absolutely impartial, the iron doctor.”
But Dr Carson (Barry Foster) isn’t quite so sure and when several patients die in mysterious circumstances he becomes convinced that the computer independently decided to cease treatment. This shouldn’t be able to happen – the computer is programmed only to make suggestions and the final decision always rests with the doctors. However, there is evidence to suggest that the computer has begun to think for itself …..
In some ways The Iron Doctor is a development of themes expressed in the series one story Project Sahara. Both look at the way that computers might begin to supplant human beings in the decision making process, but in The Iron Doctor it’s literally a matter of life and death, whereas in Project Sahara the computer was only concerned with people’s suitability for employment.
The fear that computers would come to dominate human beings was a common one during the sixties and seventies. There’s several key examples in Doctor Who (which also have direct links to Doomwatch). The War Machines saw an all-powerful computer called WOTAN attempt to take over the world’s computer infrastructure (this was the first Doctor Who story to feature input from Kit Pedler). In The Ice Warriors, we see a Britain in the far future which is menaced by another ice age. Leader Clent is a man who’s abdicated his personal responsibility to the computer and won’t admit that it could ever be wrong, whilst a member of his team, Penley, regards the computer as no substitute for human actions and intelligence.
Both The Ice Warriors and The Iron Doctor were written by Brian Hayles, so it’s possibly not a surprise to find there’s certain parallels in the stories. Whittaker, like Clent, remains totally convinced about the computers infallibility, although in Whittaker’s case it’s a little harder to understand why. He dismisses Carson’s fears very airly, telling him that he’d no doubt be happier returning to the days of the leeches. Whittaker is presented as the sort of misguided scientist who’s become so blinded to the possibilities of future gains (although it’s all purely for the benefit of mankind – there’s no suggestion that he’s interested in personal glory or financial rewards) that he’s not prepared to listen to any suggestions that his current research could be flawed. It’s a tricky part to play, but James Maxwell does so with aplomb – especially at the end, when he’s forced to admit his mistake and elects to take full responsibility.
Equally good is Barry Foster as Carson. Later to become a familiar television face thanks to Van Der Valk, Foster is a key figure in the story, since he’s responsible for bringing the deaths to the attention of Doomwatch. Carson is – despite Whittaker’s claims – no luddite, he knows that the computer can be a valuable tool but the evidence suggests that it’s somehow begun to think for itself. The first man to die, George Mason (Harold Blewitt), was very ill and would have died shortly anyway, but Carson’s fear is that the computer realised this and decided independently that it was useless to carry on treatment.
Events then take a slight science fiction turn (although still just within the bounds of possibility) when Carson decides to take a closer look at the computer. It detects Carson’s presence and electrocutes him. Later, when a critically ill Carson is hooked up to the computer’s life support systems, it suddenly cuts off. The computer was developed from a war games machine and like those models it has a built in defence mechanism as well as a capacity to learn. Although it’s a bit of a stretch to swallow that the computer was able to record a conversation where Carson stated that it was dangerous and then take steps to remove this threat.
The story’s a good one for most of the Doomwatch team (except Barbara, who only pops up briefly with a cup of tea). Quist is, as usual, Doomwatch’s moral centre – stating his belief that computers shouldn’t be able to act independently as well as being the one who’s finally able to convince Whittaker that the computer is flawed. Ridge goes undercover at the hospital – complete with rolled umbrella and posh accent. It gives Simon Oates a chance to inject a little bit of humour into the story (and naturally enough he gets to ogle a nurse or two!) Fay has a very decent scene with Whittaker early on, where she casts doubt over his research and even Bradley gets something to do for once – venturing out of the office to take a look at the computer. Geoff probably gets the short end of the stick again, but with an expanded regular cast it’s inevitable that not everybody will have a great deal to do.
If the story has no mystery (the computer has to be acting by itself – if the patients had simply died of natural causes then it would have been a rather uninspiring fifty minutes) The Iron Doctor is still a very watchable episode, thanks to the guest stars and the thought-provoking topic.