A swimmer dies off the Scottish coast. Quist doesn’t consider this to be much of a mystery – after all, people have been known to drown before. But he begins to show a little interest when Ridge reveals that the man died of mustard gas poisoning. Some twenty five years earlier, a ship commanded by Lionel McArthur (Patrick Troughton) sank nearby. Since it carried mustard gas it therefore seems likely that somehow this deadly cargo has started to pollute the area.
Although McArthur is an old friend of Quist, he elects instead to send Ridge along to investigate. But Ridge finds McArthur to be a very elusive man and even when he tracks him down he finds his answers to be rather vague. Eventually the truth is revealed – the man posing as the public face of Lionel McArthur is actually his cousin, Alan. The real Lionel McArthur exists in a vegetative state – kept alive by machines. But he doesn’t regard this in a negative way, for him it’s a positive triumph. His body became diseased, so he replaced it with machines …..
Although In The Dark has a striking pre-credits sequence showing the hapless swimmer’s death (and following the credits there’s another memorable shot of the man’s dead face in the water, overlaid with the story title) this part of the story is little more than a MacGuffin – designed to get the Doomwatch team interacting with McArthur. It’s not the first time this sort of plot device has been used, but it still feels a little clumsy.
But no matter. Once we get past the first twenty minutes the story proper can begin. Immobile in a hospital bad, with only his head visible, Patrick Troughton still manages to dominate the screen. It’s interesting that given the subject matter of the story you might have expected it to be scripted by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis, rather than John Gould. McArthur is basically a Cyberman – his body fell ill, so he cheated death by replacing it. The only part of him that remains human is his head, and he has plans to do something with that as well. He tells a horrified Quist that he wishes to remove emotions – “anger, fear, love, hate” – in order to make him function more efficiently. Anybody familiar with the first Cyberman story, The Tenth Planet, will instantly see the parallel.
The question of what existence actually means is at the heart of the story. Both Ridge and Quist regard McArthur’s half life as no real life at all. Quist asks McArthur some probing questions. “We have no bodies, no needs, no desires. What’s the purpose of existing at all?” McArthur responds he wishes “to become pure. To achieve that state that all the mystics have tried to achieve in their little futile, frustrated ways. I may not look it to you Quist, but I am perfect. I am perfect man, because I am only brain.”
Alethea Charlton, as McArthur’s daughter Flora, has a small, but telling role. She loves her father dearly, but implores Quist to try and persuade him to turn off the machines. Unlike him, she’s realised that he’s now barely human and that although he’s gained a version of immortality it’s been achieved at a terrible cost. Her husband, Andrew Seaton (Simon Lack) doesn’t share her concerns. Somewhat coincidentally he’s in charge of McArthur’s treatment, telling Fay that “we virtually abolished death for him” and clearly regarding this to be a positive thing.
As for the Doomwatch team, Geoff and Bradley once more get the short end of the stick with just a few lines apiece. It’s clear again that Quist, Ridge and Fay are the main characters and Gould’s script is tailored to all three of them. Quist faces a moral dilemma – McArthur is a leading scientist and an old friend, so he feels an obligation to stay and do what he can to help.
Ridge has a wonderful monologue directed at Quist. “You absorb all life into your own, did you know that? Everything that ever happens becomes a part of you. When you’re pre-occupied sometimes, I watch you walking. You don’t walk down ordinary, mundane streets, jostled by ordinary, mundane people. You pace the streets of a deserted village, or you tread the shattered planks of a seaside pier.” Fay now occupies the same place in the narrative that Toby did during series one – acting as something of a buffer between Quist and Ridge.
The conclusion of the story doesn’t come as a surprise, but it’s still a powerful conclusion to a tale that poses difficult questions about how technology and medical care should co-exist.