Doomwatch – DVD now due for release April 2016

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Update 27/10/15 – I’m delighted to say that Doomwatch will be released on DVD by Simply Media in April 2016.  More info here.  That happily means that this post, written when a DVD release looked unlikely, is now out of date.  I’ll leave it up though, as some of the info about the archive status of the series may be of interest to some.

As you’ll see, my thoughts were that if any company was going to take a risk on the series it would have been the BFI.  I certainly wasn’t expecting Simply to do so!  But credit to Simply for taking the plunge and I hope that the sales are healthy – if so, it might encourage them to continue digging through the BBC archives.  My DVD review can be found here.

Doomwatch has long been a series that many fans of British telefantasy, and indeed fans of British archive television in general, have wished to see released on DVD.  But it remains unreleased.  Why is this so?  I thought it was worth discussing some of the possible reasons and debating whether this is likely to change in the future.

Firstly, like a great many archive BBC programmes, a major stumbling block is the BBC themselves.  BBC Worldwide (and previously 2Entertain) have tended to only release archive programmes that they expect will sell well (classic Doctor Who, comedies such as Dad’s Army, Fawlty Towers, etc).  This was highlighted a few years back when BBC America released the Douglas Wilmer Sherlock Holmes stories.  2Entertain stated that they didn’t plan to release it in the UK, as they considered it was uneconomic to do so.

BBC Worldwide’s policy is the complete opposite from a company such as Network.  Over the last decade or so, Network have released a staggering amount of titles drawn from the ITV archive.  It must be said that many of them can’t have sold in particularly large quantities (unless I’ve dramatically under-appreciated the popularly of the likes of Yus My Dear for example!).  So Network seem to be happy to make a small profit on a large number of titles, whilst BBC Worldwide appear to be interested in making a larger profit on fewer titles.

This, of course, is frustrating for those of us interested in British archive television.  One of the solutions would be for other companies to licence BBC material – and in recent years there has been a notable increase in this.  Acorn DVD (Z Cars, Dixon of Dock Green) and Simply HE (Softly Softly: Task Force) are two companies that have a growing selection of BBC DVD titles.

And after a gap of many years, the BFI have also started to release BBC titles again.  Last year they had a season of programming entitled Days of Fear and Wonder which covered not only screenings but also DVD releases such as Out of the Unknown, The Boy from Space and The Changes.  They are also planning to release the Douglas Wilmer Sherlock Holmes later this year.

Inevitably, when the BFI announced the Days of Fear and Wonder titles, it was hoped that Doomwatch would be amongst them – but sadly this was not to be.  It would have fitted in with the other programmes released, but as we’ll see, its non-appearance may be due to the amount of work required on some episodes before they could be released on DVD.  First though, let’s see exactly what remains in the archive.  Existing episodes are highlighted in bold –

Series One

The Plastic Eaters
Friday’s Child
Burial at Sea
Tomorrow, the Rat
Project Sahara
Re-Entry Forbidden
The Devil’s Sweets
The Red Sky
Spectre at the Feast
Train And De-Train
The Battery People
Hear No Evil
Survival Code

Series Two

You Killed Toby Wren
Invasion
The Islanders
No Room for Error
By the Pricking of My Thumbs…
The Iron Doctor
Flight into Yesterday
The Web of Fear
In the Dark
The Human Time Bomb
The Inquest
The Logicians
Public Enemy

Series Three

Fire and Brimstone
High Mountain
Say Knife, Fat Man
Waiting for a Knighthood
Without the Bomb
Hair Trigger
Deadly Dangerous Tomorrow
Enquiry
Flood
Cause of Death
The Killer Dolphins
Sex and Violence

Looking at the list above, the first series has a fairly decent survival rate, series two is complete whilst series three is very patchy, with only three existing episodes – although one of them (Sex and Violence) is an interesting curio since it was never transmitted.

But things start to get complicated when we look a little closer at what formats the surviving episodes exist on.  The original videotapes remain in the archives for the following episodes – The Plastic Eaters, Project Sahara, Re-Entry Forbidden, The Devil’s Sweets, The Red Sky, The Battery People, Public Enemy, Waiting for a Knighthood, Hair Trigger and Sex and Violence. So all of these stories exist in a high quality format.

The original videotapes for the other existing stories were wiped in the 1970’s, but luckily NTSC 525-line recordings were made and sold to Canada, who returned them to the BBC in the early 1980’s.  These were then converted back to PAL 625-line recordings, although by then they were already at least three generations down (i.e. the original PAL 625-line tape was convered to NTSC 525-line tape which was then converted back to PAL 625-line tape).  Each conversion would degrade the picture (motion would be blurry, for example) but whilst the picture quality wasn’t perfect, it was still pretty watchable and these copies were broadcast on UK Gold in the 1990’s.

A process called Reverse Standards Conversion (RSC) was developed several years ago and it was designed to restore something of the natural PAL videotape look to programmes like these.  All of the BBC archive holdings of converted 525 NTSC tapes were processed with RSC, but unfortunately many of the original NTSC tapes were then junked – leaving only the new, raw RSC conversions.

The RSC conversions require grading before they can be issued on DVD and this seems to be one of the major factors in preventing the release of a Doomwatch DVD.  All of the Doomwatch RSC episodes can be made ready for DVD release – but it will cost time and money.  And it appears that the amount of money required for grading is greater than the potential profit of a DVD release, so at present it seems that these stories are fated to remain in the archive.  It does seem a shame that the 525 NTSC tapes were wiped, as it would have been possible for them to be released.  They wouldn’t have looked great, but at least they would have been watchable.

The 625 PAL episodes (comprising a good selection from the first series, one episode from series two and the three existing episodes from the final series) could be released on their own though.  And there is a possibility that B&W film recordings of the stories that now only remain as raw RSC dubs are still in the archive.  Black and white copies of these episodes would be better than not having them released at all.  Of course, the best scenario is that we get a fully-restored release, along the lines of OOTU.  For that possibility, the BFI would seem to be our best hope.

Doomwatch to be released on DVD by Simply Media – April 2016

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My article about Doomwatch and its current lack of availability on DVD is one of the most read posts on this blog.  That does seem to confirm that many people are still very interested in this classic early 1970’s series.

So it’s extremely welcome news that a six disc Doomwatch set will be released by Simply in April 2016.  It will contain all the existing episodes (including the untransmitted episode Sex and Violence as well as a documentary – The Cult of Doomwatch).

In all, twenty four episodes remain in the archives.  They are as follows –

Series One

The Plastic Eaters
Tomorrow, the Rat
Project Sahara
Re-Entry Forbidden
The Devil’s Sweets
The Red Sky
Train And De-Train
The Battery People

Series Two

You Killed Toby Wren
Invasion
The Islanders
No Room for Error
By the Pricking of My Thumbs…
The Iron Doctor
Flight into Yesterday
The Web of Fear
In the Dark
The Human Time Bomb
The Inquest
The Logicians
Public Enemy

Series Three

Waiting for a Knighthood
Hair Trigger
Sex and Violence

As can be seen from the above list, the archive status for series one is pretty good (eight out of the thirteen episodes exist), series two is complete whilst series three is by far the patchiest (only three of the twelve episodes remain, although it’s slightly curious that one of the survivors – Sex and Violence – was never transmitted.  You’d have assumed It would have been one of the first to be wiped).

As I discussed here, when it comes to picture quality, what we have left is something of a mixed bag.  Ten episodes exist on their original format – 625 PAL videotape and so should look pretty good (although the film inserts will no doubt have deteriorated over the past four decades).  The remaining fourteen episodes were returned to the BBC from Canada and it’ll be interesting to see what they look like.

The Canada episodes would have been converted from 625 PAL to 525 NTSC before they were sold, then converted back to 625 PAL when they were returned to the UK.  It was these converted copies that were broadcast on UK Gold in the mid 1990’s (and a couple of episodes were also released on VHS a few years prior to that).

The conversions from PAL to NTSC and back again to PAL would have degraded the picture somewhat, although a process developed several years ago called RSC (Reverse Standards Conversion) has been applied (this should restore something of the original PAL look).  Examples of RSC can be seen on various Doctor Who DVDs, although I have to confess that the results haven’t always pleasing to my eyes (especially the three episodes on The Sea Devils release).

As it’s doubtful that Simply will have a particularly large budget for restoration it’s probable that the RSC episodes will look a little rough around the edges, but if it’s a choice between having them in a less than ideal state or not at all then it’s a no-brainer.

Update 25/3/16 – My DVD review can be found here.

Doomwatch – Simply Media DVD Review

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The Series

Created by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis, Doomwatch was an unsettling programme which ran for three series during the early 1970’s.  By this time, Pedler and Davis had been collaborators for several years – ever since Davis, working as script-editor on Doctor Who during the mid sixties, brought Pedler on board as a scientific advisor.  Although a scientist himself, Dr Christopher Magnus Howard Pedler had deep concerns about the way certain scientific advances were impacting on the world.  In Doctor Who this was given voice when Pedler and Davis created the Cybermen – today just another monster, but in their debut story – The Tenth Planet – there was room for debate about the morality of spare part surgery and where it might possibly end (would we all become emotionless Cybermen?).

Moving forward a few years, Pedler continued to be appalled by certain scientific and ecological stories which he was reading about in the newspapers and also in various scientific journals.  Like Davis, he was concerned that mankind was slowly destroying their planet and both of them wanted to raise the public’s consciousness – and so Doomwatch was born.

Always keen that they should base their stories on science fact rather than science fiction, the pair quickly drafted a raft of story outlines.  These were then passed over to a team of writers who would flesh out Pedler and Davis’ concepts into complete scripts.  Appointed as producer was Terence Dudley, who also crafted one of the series’ most memorable early episodes – Tomorrow, The Rat.  As is well known, Dudley enjoyed an uneasy working relationship with both Pedler and Davis and eventually the creators of Doomwatch were eased out as Dudley took creative control during the third and final series.  History would repeat itself a few years later, when Dudley ousted series creator Terry Nation from Survivors and recreated that show to his own tastes.

Whilst later behind-the-scenes squabbling might have affected the show, cracks were beginning to appear as early as the second series (when one of the regulars, Simon Oates, announced he wanted to leave).  Since so little of series three remans it’s hard to really pass judgement on Dudley’s sole stewardship (although some light can shed via the book Deadly Dangerous Tomorrow which contains a number of scripts from wiped Doomwatch episodes, most of which are drawn from the final series). It currently seems to be out of print, so it’s worth keeping an eye on the publishers website (Miwk) to see if there’s a reprint in the future.

In the opening story, The Plastic Eaters, it’s explained that the Department for the Observation and Measurement of Scientific Work, nicknamed “Doomwatch”, was created by the government in response to overwhelming public concern about the dangerous side-effects of modern scientific research (such as pollution and other environmental hazards).  We’re told that the Doomwatch organisation was one of the chief reasons why the government was re-elected, but it’ll come as no surprise to learn that the Minster (John Barron) distrusts the small band of scientists and is keen to close them down.  Doomwatch are frequently seen to come into conflict with both the government and private companies, who are keen to ensure that this independent organisation doesn’t reveal inconvenient truths.

Doowatch is headed by Dr Spencer Quist (John Paul) a nobel-winning scientist who remains haunted that his research work was responsible – in part – for the creation of the atomic bomb.  John Ridge (Simon Oates) is his polar opposite, as whilst Quist is methodical and stern (although with the occasional glimmer of humour) Ridge is younger, much more flippant and very much the ladies man.  Resplendent in a series of impressive cravats, Ridge is used on occasions as Doomwatch’s secret weapon.  If there’s a lady scientist to be seduced, then Quist has no compunction in letting Ridge loose!

Colin Bradley (Joby Blanshard) tended to be stuck in the office during the early episodes, sometimes fretting over his computer (also called Doomwatch).  Doomwatch’s secretary, Pat Hunnisett (Wendy Hall) remained the most undeveloped character during series one.  Presumably created to provide the series with a little bit of glamour, she spends most of her time standing around looking pretty, stating the patently obvious or beating off the unsubtle advances of John Ridge.  She does have at least one episode that allows her to shine a little though – The Devil’s Sweets – where she’s central to the conclusion of the story.

These then are the characters who Tobias “Toby” Wren (Robert Powell) meets when he enters the office early in episode one for a job interview.  Toby is young and idealistic and neatly acts as a buffer between Ridge and Quist – he’s not as playful as Ridge but he’s also not as driven as Quist.

This line-up would remain in place for series one, but there would be several changes before Doomwatch returned for a second series.  Powell had decided to leave, as he didn’t want to get tied down to a long running show, and Hall, no doubt tiring of having little to do, also departed.  Geoff Hardcastle (John Nolan) was introduced as something of a Toby Wren clone, although he didn’t have much of a character and therefore remained a fairly secondary figure.  More interesting was Dr Fay Chantry (Jean Trend) who became a fully fledged member of the Doomwatch team.

I’ll go into more detail about the existing episodes when I start an episode by episode rewatch shortly, but there’s plenty of interest in what remains (with, it’s fair to say, a few undeniable duffers).  From series one, Tomorrow, The RatProject Sahara and The Devil’s Sweets have all long been favourites.  You Killed Toby Wren (a great performance from John Paul) and Invasion are early highlights from series two and whilst series three only exists in very reduced circumstances it’s good to have a decent copy of the untransmitted Sex and Violence.

The DVD

Doomwatch has been a desired release of many for a considerable time, but until Simply announced that they’d licenced it late last year it seemed doomed (as it were) to remain out of reach.  Four episodes were released on VHS in the early 1990’s and two of these were ported over to DVD during the early days of the DVD format.  There was also a single repeat run on UK Gold in the mid 1990’s, but after that everything went quiet.

A total of thirty eight episodes were made (thirteen episodes apiece for the first two series and twelve for the final run).  Eight from series one, all thirteen from series two but only three from the third series remain in the archives.  Ten episodes (six from series one, one from series two and all three from the third series) exist in their original PAL format whilst the remainder are now only available as NTSC conversions (the PAL tapes were converted to the NTSC picture format for sale to Canada and then back again to PAL when they were returned to the UK).

The quality of the NTSC episodes will be the main point of interest for many and it’s fair to say that they’re a mixed bag.  Although it was believed that the BBC had processed all the NTSC tapes they held in their archives with a process called Reverse Standards Conversion (RSC) and then dumped the original tapes – thereby only retaining the raw RSC output – looking at the varying quality of the NTSC episodes on this release I wonder if that was the case.

Some – like Tomorrow, The Rat – look very nice indeed, not too far removed from the original PAL master, whilst others – such as You Killed Toby Wren and Invasion – seem to be very noisy, raw RSC conversions.  But later series two episodes – The Iron Doctor, Flight Into Yesterday – might possibly be the original NTSC tapes which therefore lack the RSC process.  If so, then I find this preferable to the raw RSC look – these episodes may look a little blurry but for me that’s better than the heavy picture noise.

My main fear was that all the NTSC episodes would look like You Killed Toby Wren, luckily that’s not the case.  In an ideal world the episodes would have had extensive restoration, but it seems that little or no work was carried out.  That’s not a criticism of Simply – it’s more than likely that restoration and picture grading would have pushed the RRP to a point where the release wouldn’t have been economic.  So although some episodes do look poor in places it shouldn’t detract from the fact that we now have Doomwatch on DVD – better to have it looking a little rough around the edges than not at all.  It also has to be understood that there’s only a finite amount of work that can be done anyway – several Jon Pertwee Doctor Who DVDs include RSC episodes which have undergone a great deal of restoration work, and even those don’t look perfect.

The extras are the untransmitted episode Sex and Violence and the thirty minute documentary The Cult of Doomwatch.  Narrated by Robert Llewellyn, it’s a decent little programme which is chiefly of interest due to the interviews with Robert Powell and the late Simon Oates.

One puzzling thing about the DVD is why Simply haven’t included the episode titles, either on the packaging or on the DVD menu screens.  So if you want to watch, say, In The Dark, then it might take a little trial and error to select the right disc and then find the correct episode.  Hopefully in future Simply can provide an episode listing somewhere, it’ll make things much easier!

But apart from that minor niggle, this is an excellent release at a very decent price.  Simply’s catalogue of archive BBC releases continues to grow and this is a very worthy addition.  Highly recommended.

Doomwatch is released by Simply Media on the 4th of April 2016.  RRP £39.99.

Doomwatch – The Plastic Eaters

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Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis use an old story-telling trick to introduce the audience to the Doomwatch team – we meet them through the eyes of a new recruit, Toby Wren (Robert Powell).  Wren, young, keen and eager, first meets Dr John Ridge (Simon Oates) and Pat Hunnisett (Wendy Hall).  Ridge is a non-conformist and something of a lady-killer, which is confirmed when he confides to Toby that Pat would have introduced them, but she’s still upset as he pinched her bottom earlier on!  The nattily dressed Ridge screams early seventies, and whilst his behaviour can be a little eyebrow raising at times, it’s usually rescued by Simon Oates’ spot-on comic timing.  And as we’ll see as the series progresses, he’s also no slouch when it comes to playing the dramatic scenes.

Pat has little to do except stand around and look attractive, which is pretty much par for the course for all the stories she appears in.  Colin Bradley (Joby Blanshard) is the technical expert, and comes across as somewhat blunt and absorbed in his work.  He’s also not very well developed here, mainly existing as a line-feed for Quist.

That just leaves the head of Doomwatch, Dr Spencer Quist (John Paul).  It’s made clear early on that he’s a celebrated scientist – a Nobel Prize winner, no less – but it’s also established that he’s battling demons from his past.  It was Quist’s mathematical genius that was, in part, responsible for the creation of the atomic bomb.  This is something that continues to haunt him (and Ridge, knowing this, can’t resist mildly taunting him about it).  The Quist/Ridge dynamic is key to the series.  Both respect the others abilities, but there’s often no love lost between them (and they rarely see eye to eye about how to achieve their goals).  The first law of decent drama is that you have to have conflict and Quist and Ridge will certainly deliver this.

If Quist sometimes has trouble from his subordinates, that’s nothing to the problems he encounters from the Minister (John Barron).  The Minister regards Quist and the Doomwatch organisation as a major irritation and aims to close them down at the first opportunity.

Toby is dispatched to investigate why a plane crashed, whilst the others work on the same problem at the office.  With the Minister so keen to clip Doomwatch’s wings, it’s rather a coincidence that the trail leads to his office, but there you go.  Ridge suggests that they burgle the Minister’s office to find the information they need and Quist, after a brief struggle with his conscience, agrees.  As a former intelligence operative, Ridge is happy to work outside of the law.  Quist prefers to play things by the book, but when he feels that information is being withheld (and lives could be at risk) he’s prepared to put his finer feelings to one side.

A top-secret formula which can break down plastic is found to be responsible for the destruction of the aircraft.  The increasing proliferation of plastic was a major concern at the time and whilst this formula could eventually be of immense use, it should never have been let out into the open.  This only happened due to carelessness at the Minister’s office (something which Quist can later use as a lever to guarantee the Minster’s cooperation).

Additional drama is generated when the plane that Toby’s travelling back on is infected by the same plastic virus – although to be honest the drama level is fairly low.  It would have been unusual (although not impossible) for Toby to be killed off in the first story, so we can be fairly sure that he’ll be safe.  And if he’s safe, then so are the rest of the passengers and crew, which makes the various attempts to generate tension slightly futile.

So although the ending is something of a damp squib (and the pre-credits sequence, showing the original plane crash is also less than effective, thanks to the too-obvious stock footage of crash-test dummies) The Plastic Eaters is still a decent opening episode thanks to the efficient way it introduces the main characters.

Doomwatch – Tomorrow, The Rat

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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.

Doomwatch – Project Sahara

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Scripted by N.J. Crisp, although it was heavilly rewritten which made him ask for his name to be taken off the credits, the Project Sahara of the title is something of a McGuffin.  The Doomwatch team are investigating a new defoliant, Sahara, and have been joined by Dr Stella Robson (Hildegard Neil) who is an expert in this field.  Her presence has certainly ruffled some feathers (Pat dislikes her desk being covered in plants) but it’s not surprising that John Ridge is more than happy to have another pretty face around the office.

The results of the tests on Sahara seem to be conclusive – it’s deadly to any form of plant life and Stella is also concerned about the effect Sahara would have on the soil – she posits that it could take years to recover.  It’s been designed as a weapon, but a horrified Robson insists it should never be used. A normal Doomwatch episode (even this early in the run) would then develop this theme, but Sahara is merely a means to an end, as the main plot now comes into view.

Quist calls Stella and Toby into his office and tells them they have both been suspended on the orders of the Minster.  The reasons why are far from clear and Toby takes it particularly badly.  Both Stella and Toby have a few drinks to drown their sorrows and after Stella leaves the bar Toby has a few more.  He is joined by Commander Keeping (Nigel Stock).  We’ve already seen Keeping at the start of the episode – he works for the National Security Section, department XJ7.  Keeping opened the episode by reviewing the files of the Domwatch personnel via computer and waited for the computer to pass judgement on each team member.

Toby, of course, is completely unaware of this and in his increasingly befuddled state finds Keeping a sympathetic shoulder to lean on.  Toby proposes a toast. “Here’s to false hopes, false dreams, naive idealism and pure fantasy”.  Whilst Toby and his new friend leave the bar to find another place that’s still serving drinks, Quist asks Ridge to find out exactly who’s behind the suspensions.

Ridge discovers department XJ7 and Quist has a meeting with Keeping where they have a lively exchange of views.  Quist believes Toby and Stella have been suspended as part of a witch-hunt, whilst Keeping maintains there are vital national security considerations.  Quist wants to know where the information about Toby and Stella came from. He’s clearly perturbed to discover that it came from a computer and is far from impressed with its findings.  “Wren has occasional drinking bouts during which his reliability cannot be guaranteed.  Stella Robson is considered unreliable because of her Arab background and her assumed antipathy to Israel.”

He maintains that even the most sophisticated computer is no match for human understanding and dismisses its recommendations.  The fears concerning the power that computers could wield were just beginning in the early 1970’s and it’s a debate that continues to this day.  The computer seen in Project Sahara is naturally large and unwieldy, but the basic themes expressed in the story are still valid today. Quist’s vision is of a nightmare future, where computers hold a vast store of information on every person that can be accessed at the click of a button. And worse than that, it would be computers who were charged with making decisions about people.

Quist, naturally, favours human interaction and intuition.  And it’s interesting that ultimately Keeping is also of the same opinion.  He’s eventually able to confirm that Stella was a security risk (her boyfriend attempted to steal information about Project Sahara) but Keeping discovered this by good old-fashioned police work.  After talking to her, he become convinced she was hiding something, “I felt she was lying.  Her manner. I’ve seen women like her before. My trade, Doctor. Thirty years experience.”

So although the computer was right about Stella, it was for the wrong reasons as it didn’t know about her boyfriend.  Toby is reinstated and Stella’s time at Doomwatch comes to an end.  The message of the story is clear – computers will come to play an increasing part in many areas of society, but human judgement must always have the last word.  If not, then as Quist says, “God help us all.”

This is an episode where science very much takes a back seat as the team dynamics are brought to the fore.  Both Hildergard Neil and Nigel Stock are very effective guest stars.  Neil could have easily slotted into the Domwatch setup (we’d have to wait until series two for a female scientist to join the team) and Stock gives his usual efficient performance.  Stock’s character initially seems to be unsympathetic (he works for a shadowy department that can make, in employment terms, life or death decisions) although in the end his suspicions are seen to be sound.  Robert Powell gets a decent share of the story and is able to demonstrate his drunk acting, which is entertaining.

One of my favourite episodes from the first series, if there had been problems with the script (which necessitated Gerry Davis’ rewrite) then it didn’t show in the finished product.

Doomwatch – Re-Entry Forbidden

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Re-Entry Forbidden was yet another story which was very much of its time.  During the late 1960’s and early 1970’s NASA’s numerous space missions had extensive television coverage and Re-Entry Forbidden taps into this by having Michael Aspel and James Burke play themselves at the start of the story.

The story was transmitted in March 1970, and the real-life problems encountered by Apollo 13 happened only a month later.  Although this could be seen as an example of prescient writing on behalf of the production team, it’s fair to say that space stories did seem to be popular at the time.  The Doctor Who story The Ambassadors of Death was also in production and has a solid connection to Re-Entry Forbidden since both productions agreed to split the cost of the space capsule and re-use it in both series.

Dick Larch (Michael McGovern) is the first British astronaut to journey into space.  He’s part of a three man crew piloting the NASA module Sunfire 1, along with American colleagues Bill Edwards (Craig Hunter) and Max Freedman (Noel Sheldon).  During re-entry, Larch is given the task of punching the co-ordinates into the computer.  He makes an error, unnoticed by his colleagues and Mission Control, which causes the module to drift off course.  Corrected co-ordinates are fed to Sunfire 1, but the last minute adjustments could make their return to Earth something of a “a hot ride down.”

Quist and the rest of the Doomwatch team are following the events on television.  Quist is concerned that there would be enough radioactive fuel on-board the module to create a major disaster, although James Burke reassures anxious viewers at home that there would be no danger of radioactive fall out.  The capsule splashes down safely and while Quist is happy there wasn’t any radioactive contamination he seems disinterested about the fate of the astronauts.  This puzzles Ridge, especially since Dick Larch was a student of Quist’s and Quist was responsible for providing Larch with a reference when he applied to join the space programme.

Although all three astronauts are unharmed, Larch seems to be in a slightly odd mood.  He snaps at his wife Carol (Veronica Larch) and doesn’t respond well to the questions of NASA psychologist Doctor Charles Goldsworthy (Joseph Fürst). Goldsworthy visits Quist and suggests he conducts some tests on Larch to see if he can identify any problem areas. Quist isn’t keen as he believes that Goldsworthy is organising a witch-hunt to find somebody to blame for the re-entry error.  “Scapegoat without reason, draped in the Union Jack” as Quist says. But eventually he agrees and Larch is invited to the Doomwatch office.

The tests are inconclusive, but Quist can console himself with the fact that Larch won’t be part of the next mission. Several months pass and Carol visits the Doomwatch office. She’s come to thank Quist for apparently giving her husband a clean bill of health. During the conversation Quist is concerned to learn that the same crew on Sunfire 1 will also be piloting Sunfire 2, due for blast-off shortly.

Toby chats with Carol and wonders whether being the first British astronaut put an extra strain on her husband.  Carol agrees and ponders if this was the reason why he was so edgy.  Toby asks her to elaborate and apparently he blamed everybody else for the error – even her.  This example of his behaviour concerns Quist and he, Ridge and Carol travel to the tracking station.  Once there, Quist is quite blunt. “We have evidence that Larch is a schizophrenic paranoiac and could endanger the mission. Over.”

Disastrously, this message is accidentally broadcast to the capsule and the astronauts sit in stunned silence, just as the re-entry co-ordinates are read out to them.  Larch attempts to leave his seat to input the co-ordinates, there’s something of a struggle and the window to input the data is lost.  The capsule seems doomed and Command Pilot Bill Edwards broadcasts a final message to Houston.

We have missed the corridor due to my error and my error alone. … What you may have seen just now on your screen… Dick Larch is a friend of mine. We are not judged by how we die, but by how we have lived…

Re-Entry Forbidden is a human drama where the Doomwatch team have to take something a back seat.  Dick Larch is the central character here and the whole story revolves around him.  What’s captured very well is the national and political tensions that the original re-entry creates.  Whilst there may be some suspicion that Larch was responsible for the error, there’s no proof and the Americans are well aware of the potential political fall-out if they accuse, without solid evidence, the only British member of the team.

It does stretch credibility to breaking point that nobody spoke to Carol about her husband and also that she didn’t discuss her concerns with anyone.  Had this happened then it’s probable the tragedy would have been avoided. Quist should also shoulder some of the blame – he was fairly detached throughout the story, much more concerned with the problems that would arise from radioactive fallout than with the possible physiological stresses encountered by the astronauts.

Because it never feels like a  Doomwatch story, there’s something a little unsatisfying about Re-Entry Forbidden.  It’s not really possible to feel any empathy with Dick Larch and the catalogue of blunders that lead to the fatal error – did nobody spot that he might not be A1? – feels a little contrived.

Doomwatch – The Devil’s Sweets

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The episode opens with four young women, dressed in checkerboard miniskirts, who are offering samples of sweets.  A group of businessmen are eager to sample them and Pat Hunnisett, who’s a bit pressed for time, also grabs one.

In the Doomwatch office, Quist is interested in a computer report that smoking has increased by 49% in the local London area.  There’s been no new brands launched, so why the staggering change in the figures?  Ridge is sent to buy sample cigarettes from various shops whilst Wren visits Checkerboard cigarettes.

Checkerboard certainly seems to be the common factor – Ridge discovers that the majority of the increased sales are for their products.  The trail leads to Shiptons, an advertising agency who have the Checkerboard contract.  The company is run by Peter Shipton (Maurice Roëves) who clearly has something to hide, as well as a very natty dress sense.

After numerous tests, the incredible truth comes out – the chocolates are laced with a drug that over time generates a craving for Checkerboard cigarettes.  Since Pat has eaten a chocolate, she’s an ideal guinea pig for the team to test, but she becomes increasingly ill and is rushed to hospital.

Ridge is still attempting to get the truth from Shipton and Pegg (the owner of the chocolate factory) when he receives a devastating call – Pat is dead and his anger is enough to force the whole story out of them.  Ridge remains angry though, especially when he learns that Pat is fine – Quist had arranged for the call to be made stating that she’d died in order to force Shipton and Pegg’s hand.

RIDGE: Are you telling me that she’s alive and you knew it?

QUIST: Sitting up in bed… and cheeky.

RIDGE: You bastard.

The Devil’s Sweets is a story about manipulation.  The pretty young women are used to manipulate people into taking the chocolates and then the chocolates themselves manipulate the people who have eaten them.  Shipton is the one pulling the strings as he’s able to convince the cigarette manufacturers that it’s his advertising that’s increased their sales (they don’t know about the doctored chocolates).  And finally Quist is able to manipulate Ridge into extracting the truth when he believes Pat has died.

This is a key moment between the two of them and the bald transcript, reproduced above, can’t really do the moment justice.  Given the episodic nature of the series, the needle between Quist and Ridge tended to wax and wane but this is still a powerful scene.

The episode allows Wendy Hall a larger than regular role as Pat.  Normally confined to answering the phone, line-feeding the others or simply standing around looking glamorous, this is a welcome change from the norm. Sadly this was to be pretty much a one-off, so it’s no particular surprise that she quit at the end of the first series.  Maybe in retrospect, given how underused she was, it might have been a good idea to kill her off anyway?

Maurice Roëves is the stand out performer from the guest cast – he’s very good as the unscrupulous Shipton, keen to get ahead in advertising by any means necessary.  And like Ridge he dresses in a way that just screams early seventies.

Unlike most of the previous stories, this isn’t a Government conspiracy – instead it’s private enterprise (courtesy of Shipton and Dr Benson, who developed the drug).  And the fact that one of the Doomwatch team is affected adds a little more frisson to their efforts to bring things under control and prevent any deaths.

Doomwatch – The Red Sky

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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.”

Doomwatch – Train and De-Train

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Train and De-Train opens with John Ridge investigating several hundred wildlife deaths in Somerset.  The evidence suggests that some form of pesticide has been used, so Quist asks Toby to contact all pesticide manufacturers in the area and obtain samples.

Rather conveniently a container is found near the dead animals marked “AC” which suggests that Alminster Chemicals are involved (that’ll save Toby a lot of running about).  It’s also a coincidence that the chief chemist at Alminster is Mr Ellis (David Markham) who was Toby’s old tutor.

One of the main themes of the story concerns Toby’s rashness and way he acts without considering the consequences.  This sets him apart from the others, even Ridge, who all favour a more rigid, analytical approach.  In science, you have to be sure of your facts – something which Toby has trouble with (although it’s ironic that his information is what finally saves the day).

It seems likely that Alminster are responsible for the animal deaths.  They’re developing a new pesticide called AC3051, for export use in counties which have seen vast areas devastated by locusts, and it’s probable that they’ve tested it in Somerset, hence the animal deaths, but there’s no proof.  Toby’s first mistake occurs when he meets Alminster’s managing director John Mitchell (George Baker).

Toby’s delight in meeting his old tutor is tempered when he realises how badly he’s being treated by Alminster.  Ellis has been the victim of a creeping campaign by Mitchell which is designed to break his morale and force him to resign.  First Ellis’ carpet from his office went, then his parking space was reassigned, next his phone was taken away and the ultimate insult is when he finds somebody else in his office.  After demanding an explanation from Mitchell, he receives a blunt answer.  “Oh for god’s sake, do you not see that you’re no use to us anymore?”

Ellis is fifty one and therefore is regarded as over the hill.  As Ridge later explains, it’s the American way of business – if you can’t force the person to resign with these sort of methods then you “de-train” them – make them take a more lowly position in the company.

Mitchell is quite clear – they have to export and it has to be in considerable numbers.  If not, the company has no future.  This touches upon a similar argument to the one expressed in The Red Sky, where commercial interests are seen to be (in some people’s eyes) the most important thing.  George Baker is splendidly controlled and arrogant as Mitchell, which makes his eventual comeuppance at the end of the episode (his mishandling of matters sees him replaced) even more satisfying.

So Toby’s not only appalled at Mitchell’s off-hand manner, he’s also angry at the way Ellis has been treated.  This eventually makes him launch into a tirade against Mitchell, which is tape-recorded and forwarded onto Quist.  Quist has no compunction in (temporarily) firing Toby  because, irrespective of the rights and wrongs, he’s proved not to have the objectivity that a scientist requires.

Although Train and De-Train revolves as much around office politics at Alminster as it does about the pesticide issue, it’s still another strong series one entry.  With Quist largely absent, it’s Toby who’s the focus of the story, meaning that for once Ridge has to play the voice of reason.  David Markham seems a little distracted as Ellis, but that may be as scripted.  Ellis is portrayed as the sort of compromised scientist that any of the Doomwatch team may become – if they let their standards slip.

Ellis knew that 3051 was dangerous, but went ahead with the tests in Somerset anyway.  Following his resignation he commits suicide, but beforehand he writes a letter to Mitchell.  Mitchell treats the letter with contempt – using it to light a cigar – but a copy was sent to Toby and it’s this piece of evidence that sinks Alminster, as it links them to the pesticide tests.

Given that 3051 was designed for use against locusts I’ve never really understood why they decided to test it in Somerset (not many locusts about there).  Mitchell does make the very good point to Quist that although 3051 could be dangerous in an environment with varied wildlife, that won’t be an issue in the places where it’ll be used.  So the tests only serve to draw attention to Alminster.

Mitchell also mentions that the locusts are responsible for deaths now – so they have to press the pesticide into service straight away.  Yes, there may be some ecological side-effects, but they can be worked on in due course (to delay would be to cause more deaths).  Mitchell’s undeniably motivated by the profit margin, but there’s a certain logic in what he says.

The shades of grey that make up Don Shaw’s script are fascinating.  It would have been easier to make Alminster and Mitchell “evil”, but although George Baker relishes the ruthless side of Mitchell’s character things are not as straightforward as they seem at first.

Doomwatch – The Battery People

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Quist is called to a meeting with the new Minister (David Davies).  Although the Minister is full of Welsh bonhomie, he makes it clear that he finds both Quist and Doomwatch to be something of a problem.  He’d much prefer it if they didn’t do anything controversial – but Doomwatch exists to stir up controversy and Quist isn’t prepared to sacrifice their independence.

Returning to the office, Quist is intrigued to learn of some interesting statistics from a small Welsh village that forms part of the Minister’s constituency.  The divorce rate is much higher than the national average, the ex-miners prefer to drink gin rather than beer and there’s been several reports of cock fighting.  All  of this is enough to make him send Ridge down unofficially (posting as a journalist) to do some digging.

The decline of the coal industry in the 1970’s and 1980’s hit the Welsh valleys hard – whole communities who had relied on the mines for employment found it difficult to find alternative employment.  The Battery People takes this as a starting point and depicts a typical Welsh village where the ex-miners have been fortunate enough to find new jobs – in the battery farm run by Colonel Archibald Smithson (Emrys Jones).

It’s undeniable that the Welsh here feel a little stereotyped, boyo – which might have something to do with the fact that several of the actors, such as Jeremy Young (born in Liverpool) and Ray Mort (born in Lancashire), had to put on Welsh accents.  With a fairly small cast it’s surprising that they didn’t try and recruit more Welsh actors, presumably the likes of Talfryn Thomas were busy that week!

But although Young might not be Welsh-born, he’s still very good as Vincent Llewellyn, the foreman at the Colonel’s farm.  Llewellyn has recently broken up with his wife and although it’s not explicitly stated, his impotence was the main reason.  Eliza Ward, as his wife Elizabeth, also gives a powerful performance – she sounds like she was Welsh-born, although with only two acting credits to her name it’s difficult to be sure.

The Battery People was one of Emrys Jones’ final television appearances.  In the few years prior to this he’d had several notable credits, including the Master (not that one) in the Doctor Who story The Mind Robber and Dr Roger Full in the Out of the Unknown episode The Little Black Bag.  He’s equally as good here – Colonel Smithson appears to be a generous benefactor, bringing wealth and prosperity to what would otherwise be a deprived area, but there’s naturally a catch.

His battery farming methods cause sterility and impotence among his workers.  This is one of the reasons why he insists that the majority of them are over forty (although he claimed this was because he wanted a stable labour force).  That nobody’s put two and two together before Doomwatch start poking around seems slightly remarkable, as the high breakup of marriages would indicate that Llewellyn isn’t the only one to have suffered from performance issues.  And the reason why the ex-miners now favour gin over beer remains unexplained!

The Colonel seems to be a totally ruthless man, who knew (but didn’t care) about the problems he was inflicting on his workforce, but there is room for a slightly different reading.  At the start of the story we hear him ask Llewellyn to make sure all the men wear gloves when handling the fish (it’s the fluid in the fishtank which is the major problem).  Llewellyn and the others put the gloves on, but take them off again when the Colonel leaves.  It’s difficult to handle the fish when wearing gloves and Llewellyn seems to believe that the Colonel knows this and is simply going through the motions by asking them to wear gloves at all times.

Was this the case?  Or was the Colonel simply slack in ensuring that his orders were carried out?  At another point in the story it’s strongly implied that he rarely ventures onto the factory floor, so it’s not quite cut and dried.  But whether he’s incompetent or uncaring, he suffers a fairly grisly fate, which Quist seems to regard as poetic justice.

A thought provoking tale (the stock footage of battery chickens is enough to turn anyone vegetarian) The Battery People, the last surviving series one episode, is another strong story.

Doomwatch – You Killed Toby Wren

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Whilst it’s more than a little irritating that the final episode of series one – Survival Code – is missing, it’s some consolation that the last few minutes do exist (it was recycled as the pre-credits sequence for this episode).  If you want more info about Survival Code, then Doomwatch.org has a detailed synopsis here.  There’s also a fan-made audio reconstruction which can be found here.

Back in the VHS days of course, we just had to get on with it – as the second tape jumped from The Red Sky to this episode.  But it’s quite possible to watch You Killed Toby Wren without having detailed knowledge of the previous story – the pre-credits tell us that Toby was killed attempting to diffuse a bomb and that Quist looks to be culpable (which is essentially what this episode is about).

The Minster (John Baron) is absolutely delighted.  “Not only did he interfere, he obstructed the police.”  It’s his chance to nail Quist once and for all and he’s going to relish every moment.  The Minister claims to have respect for Doomwatch, but he also regards it as a dog that needs to come to heel, which he’s convinced will happen once Quist is removed.  Incidentally, it’s never stated where the Minister we saw in The Battery People has gone and why Barron’s character (not seen since the debut episode The Plastic Eaters) has returned.  Unless there were several snap general elections?  Given the events of 1974 that’s not impossible.

Barbara Mason (Vivien Sherrard) has a baptism of fire as Doomwatch’s new secretary.  She first meets Colin, who’s pleasant enough, ironically referring to himself as Doomwatch’s chief cook and bottle washer!  Ridge of course, is his usual charming self.  “Hello darling, may I help?”  When she introduces herself as the temp, his reply is classic.  “I’m John Ridge, tempt me”!

Although Ridge is jocular with Barbara he’s still in a foul mood and it’s all directed at Quist.  He’s got a large photograph of Toby which he pins on the noticeboard – and is clearly waiting for Quist’s reaction when he sees it.  When Quist enters he doesn’t say a word, but John Paul is still able to express considerable pain and suffering non-verbally.  It’s interesting that Quist soaks up Ridge’s early scornful attacks and doesn’t respond – at this point Quist looks like a broken, weary man.

Geoff Hardcastle (John Nolan) is something of a Toby Wren substitute (like Toby he finds it difficult to get through to Quist to begin with).  Although there’s a slight wrinkle in that Geoff isn’t looking to join Doomwatch – he just wants Quist’s help.  His tale – the first animal/human hybrid has been created by Professor Eric Hayland (Graham Leaman) – is an eye-raiser, which he relates to Ridge over a drink at the pub.  A chicken with a human head …….

This is very much a subplot, as the main thrust of the story revolves around Quist’s crisis of confidence and the political maneuvering in the corridors of power.  The discussion of the hybrid does lead to a classic confrontation between Quist and Ridge though – Quist believes the hybrid is an inevitable development whilst Ridge finds it disgusting and abhorrent.  We can tell that Ridge is at breaking point when he pushes over a chair in Quist’s office (yes it’s a fairly low-key display of anger).  Quist fires him but Ridge isn’t prepared to go quietly.

Quist’s relationship with the atomic bomb has been touched on before.  Ridge tells him that he enjoys wallowing in guilt about it.  “You haven’t got an honest feeling in your body. You’re an emotional hypocrite. You’re a self-indulgent bloody murderer. What’s more you’re finished, bust, kaput!”  It’s brilliant stuff and both John Paul and Simon Oates clearly relish these highly dramatic scenes.

John Paul is in impressive form throughout.  He has several key monologues, including this one.  “It was a long time ago that I realised the most important thing in life is life. Not science, not technology, politics, religion, riches, power, none of these were sacred. Only life. Sum total of man’s knowledge written down for all to read. What is it amount to? Better to be a live idiot than a dead genius.”

Quist is packed off to speak to a psychiatrist, Dr Anne Tarrant (Elizabeth Weaver).  She begins by enquiring about his sex life (he doesn’t have one) and later asks him if they can talk about the bomb.  Which one? he replies.  The Manhattan Project is the one that’s remained on his mind for the last twenty five years.  He tells Anne that he never believed it would be used.  All one hundred and thirty scientists who worked on its development wrote to the White House, requesting that it be tested in the ocean – that, he believed, would be enough to convince Japan to surrender.  But instead, two bombs were dropped on Japan and Quist has lived with the guilt ever since.

If Quist is going through the wringer then so is Ridge.  He’s romanced Dr Judith Lennox (Shirley Dixon) in order to gain access to Professor Hayland’s lab.  Once there, he’s disgusted at what he finds (not the most impressive animal mock-ups, it must be said, but never mind) and lashes out at the nearest person – breaking the jaw of one of Hayland’s assistants.  Dr Lennox is equally disguisted with him.  “You’re not only a narcissistic, nasty thug, you’re a hypocrite. A sick hypocrite. I don’t think you’re capable of any genuine feeling. You came here knowing exactly what you find and yet you’re shocked, aren’t you? But you enjoy it, don’t you? You enjoy it. You’re wallowing in morbidity up to here. You make me sick.”  Like Quist earlier on, Ridge has no answer – he just stands there and has to take it.

The evidence given to the enquiry seems stacked against Quist, with the Air Commodore (Donald Morley) especially vociferous in his criticisms of his handling of the crisis.  But then Ridge is called and unexpectedly backs his ex-boss.  “He has the sharpest, most elegant mind I know, he is also the most morally courageous. Without him there would be no Doomwatch. So if you want Doomwatch, you’re stuck with him.”  It’s quite a reversal from his previous position, presumably brought about by his confrontation with Dr Lennox.  Quist is impressive when he presents his evidence.  His earlier hesitancy has gone and it becomes clear that he will be totally exonerated.  The Minister’s insincere delight when he meets Quist afterwards is a lovely moment!

Human drama was always key to Terence Dudley’s scripts and You Killed Toby Wren has it in spades.  John Paul and Simon Oates dominate and it’s just a pity that when Quist and Ridge reconcile at the end it signals that from now on they’ll enjoy a more settled working relationship.  This is understandable – there’s no way they could have gone on sniping at each other – and the story does work well as a cathartic experience for both of them, but it’s a shame that we never see them so combative again.

Doomwatch – Invasion

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Ridge and Geoff Hardcastle (who now seems to have become a member of the Doomwatch team) are in the Yorkshire Dales, testing the nitrate levels in the local water, which is reported to be higher than average.

They’ve hired two young potholers, Reggie and Dave, to go down into the cave system and obtain the samples they need.  But when they don’t return, a major search is launched.  A map of the caves suggests they might have surfaced close to Wensdale Grange, a country house which has been in government hands since WW2.  The building is surrounded by an electrified fence and patrolled by armed soldiers, which instantly piques Ridge’s interest.

They’re able to get inside for a brief meeting with Major Sims (Geoffrey Palmer) but he’s unwilling to explain exactly what goes on there.  So it’s no surprise that Ridge decides to return later and break in.

Ridge’s attempt at a clandestine entry didn’t get him very far, but he’s not held captive for long.  After he’s released, he tells Geoff that he was stripped and sprayed with disinfectant and then goes on to explain that nothing is happening at the house now.  “But they did do something once, something that went bad on them. And it’s still in there. Waiting to get out.”

The mystery is soon revealed – the house was the location for germ warfare experiments.  Although all research was concluded five years ago the house remains totally off-limits and will remain so for decades.  Although Duncan, the Minister’s secretary, tells Quist that the bug was developed purely for defence purposes, Quist treats this statement with an ironic retort.  Exactly what’s defensive about a bug that can wipe out a city like London within six weeks?  Germ warfare appalls Quist, not only the research itself but also that it leaves an area “where no one can live for the next half century because of a wartime government experiment. Do they have any idea in the Dales what they have in their midst?”

The way the story will develop seems pretty clear. Major Sims is adamant that there’s no danger – nobody ever goes into the house and if any animals ever break into the grounds they’re shot (which explains the armed soldiers) and examined straightaway.  Quist makes it clear that it’ll only take one slip – an infected animal, contaminated water – to bring down a catastrophe on everyone.  And when Reggie and Dave turn up, seemingly none the worse for wear, it doesn’t take long before it’s established they were at the Grange and are now carriers.

It goes without saying that the fact Reggie and Dave were able to enter the Grange, pinch some antique pistols and leave again without anybody noticing doesn’t reflect very well on Major Sims.  Geoffrey Palmer is characteristically excellent as Sims, arrogant and superior.  It’s only a shame that he doesn’t feature more and we never really see his reaction to the news that his security measures have been well and truly breached.

Invasion has a major location shoot, which has (presumably) the locals acting as extras.  Because there’s so many people milling about at the end it does help to create the sense of scale that the story demands.  Quist has bad news for the villagers – although they’ve been inoculated and should be fine, they have to leave the village.  When the landlord of the local pub asks when they’ll be able to return, Quist doesn’t answer – an unspoken confirmation that it won’t be within any of their lifetimes.

After the buses pull away there’s a brief moment of silence, which is broken when a number of army vehicles pull up to the village square.  The soldiers, wearing protective gear, get to work – spraying the houses and shooting any animals they find.  There’s an eerie juxtaposition at work here – the faceless armed soldiers and the English village – which creates a powerful, unsettling image.  And the final shot of the episode – a Ministry of Defence sign reading “Extreme Danger Keep Out” – provides the episode with a stark conclusion.

Prophets of Doom – The Unauthorised History of Doomwatch to be reprinted

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Originally published in 2012, Prophets of Doom by Michael Seely is an invaluable guide to Doomwatch.  It contains new interviews with surviving cast and crew members as well as an episode by episode guide (with a wealth of production information and background detail on each story).

The book drifted out of print a while back, but the recent DVD release has prompted a reprint which should be ready by the end of May.  It can be ordered directly from the publishers, Miwk, here.

Because Miwk are something of a niche publisher, their books don’t tend to have especially large print runs, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see this book go out of print again in the future.  Therefore I’d recommend putting an order in sooner rather than later.  Below is the book’s blurb –

In February 1970, one of the most important television drama programmes from the 1970s was broadcast on BBC1. Not only did it introduce a new word to the English language, it also brought to a mainstream audience of ten million viewers each week the new, emerging idea of the scientists’ moral and ethical responsibility in society. This was Doomwatch, a visionary science fiction series which took scientific research and technological advances and imagined where they could go disastrously wrong if greed, politics or simple ambition won over caution. This was drama with a message. And it was heard.  The fears of the Sixties: over-population, test-tube babies, super-sonic aircraft, DDT, the Bomb, all found expression in Doomwatch.

Launching the career of actor Robert Powell, Doomwatch entertained and thrilled its audience with concepts such as a plastic eating virus, animal hearts transplanted into children, toxic chemical dumps, cannibal rats, the surveillance state, noise that can kill, food poisoned by drugs and chemicals, and by the end of its first successful series, the ultimate horror: a nuclear bomb washed up underneath a seaside pier, its countdown ticking down to claim the life of one of the celebrated Doomwatch team.

It was conceived by a research scientist and a television dramatist, Dr. Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis, who had previously devised the Cybermen for Doctor Who. With Doomwatch, they soon became famous for creating seemingly prophetic storylines in which the media eagerly found parallels in real life.  Were the writers of Doomwatch prophets of doom or simply scaremongering popularists?

The programme divided the scientific and political establishment into those who thought the programme was a much needed and timely warning and tried to do something about it, and those who thought it was a naive, reactionary piece of trivial, and ignorant television. Dr. Kit Pedler actively tried to create a real-life Doomwatch, and was at the beginnings of the alternative technology movement in Britain and did his own experiments on creating ecologically sound housing and develop a new way of living in a modern society without destroying the habitat or regressing back to the stone age.

With contributions from the family of Dr. Kit Pedler, Darrol Blake, Jean Trend, Glyn Edwards, Martin Worth, Adele Winston, Eric Hills, and others, this book will tell the proper story of Doomwatch both on and off the screen, how it was made, the true story behind the stories, the controversies, the back stage bust-ups, and how the programme inspired those who looked around the world in which they had been conditioned to accept, and begin to question.

Doomwatch – The Islanders

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Six months ago, the two hundred inhabitants of the tiny Pacific island of St Simon were evacuated back to the UK (the British government believed that they were at risk from heavy earth tremors).  Because they’ve been a totally closed community for some 150 years Quist sees them as an excellent source of research material.  By studying them and contrasting (both physically and genetically) with a group of volunteers drawn from towns and cities, Quist and the others will be able to evaluate how the environment and the presence of other people affects human evolution.

Although The Islanders was an early series two entry, it clearly points ahead to the direction Doomwatch would take during its third and final series (after producer Terence Dudley had wrested creative control from creators Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis).  Louis Marks’ script is a human drama first, with the environmental problem (mercury poisoning) somewhat secondary.

The social impact of the islanders reintegration into society concerns Quist.  They’re currently living in a camp, which looks uncomfortably like the sort of place used to house prisoners of war during WW2.  The man from the government, Mullery (Geoffrey Chater), doesn’t seem at all concerned and he tells Quist that they’re free to leave and go anywhere they want at any time.  Since they come from a British protectorate they have the same rights and freedoms as any other British citizen.

But Quist knows they’re not the same.  “They come from a place where there’s no cars, no telephones, no televisions.”  The islanders lack the necessary tools and knowledge to live in a modern, technological world – in time they can learn, but it appears Mullery is keen to pass the buck.  Chater is perfect casting as the dispassionate, disinterested official (he’d later pop up as a semi-regular in Callan playing a not dissimilar figure)

When the islanders lived on St Simon, they formed a perfect unit – everybody knew their place and were content to work hard – but exposure to wider civilisation has begun to fracture this unity.  This is demonstrated by the differing viewpoints of Thomas Prentice (a strong performance from George A. Cooper) and his son Isaac (David Buck).  Thomas, the headman of the community, wants to keep everybody together, but this seems impossible when there’s no work for them.  A few people have already begun to seek employment elsewhere and one of them is Isaac.  He’s found a job at Craxton’s Bakeries and is keen to press ahead.  He’s not surprised when Quist tells him that the ministry have no plans for them and he’s not bothered either – he believes they need to make their own way.

Thomas falls ill and dies from what appears to be a bad case of flu.  The observant viewer should have picked up very early on that John Ridge, who’s been working closely with the islanders for some time, has had the sniffles.  Although the eventual reveal is somewhat laboured, Quist eventually confirms that as none of the islanders have ever had flu they have no resistance and therefore it could be fatal to them.

Isaac’s brave new world at Craxton’s quickly turns into a nightmare.  Director Jonathan Alwyn creates an interesting, albeit brief, sequence on the factory floor – shots of the cake making machines (which had previously filled Isaac with wonder) now take on a sinister and disorientating air.  After he angrily resigns, he emerges into a busy London street and is confronted by the noise and traffic.  Alwyn then closes up on Buck’s anguished face.

The doctor’s report confirms that Thomas died of liver failure – the flu just finished him off.  Quist and Isaac, together with a small survey team, return to St Simon where Quist is able to confirm that the islanders have been slowly suffering from mercury poisoning for decades – a case of the flu would simply have speed up the process.  Isaac is appalled.  “Why did this have to happen to us? Never had any wars, never had any quarrel with anyone. Just wanted to live our own lives.”

Although there’s quite a community of islanders, there’s essentially only four speaking roles – Thomas, Thomas’ wife Joan (Shelagh Fraser), Isaac and Alice (Geraldine Sherman).  George A. Cooper is excellent, but his role is fairly small since Thomas quickly succumbs to the mysterious illness.  Shelagh Fraser and Geraldine Sherman are both fairly peripheral characters, which leaves David Buck as the main voice of the islanders.

We follow his journey as he changes his opinion about the benefits of modern society from positive to negative.  Although part of the issue I have with Louis Marks’ script is that since Isaac’s point of view changes so rapidly (and it’s also problematic that he’s only islander we follow in any detail) it doesn’t really convince.  He’s portrayed as something of an innocent – easily manipulated by the factory owner – but the script doesn’t really serve him that well.  And what of the others?   What do they think of this brave new world?  We never really find out, which reduces them from an active, living community to nothing more than a collection of colourful extras.

In the end, Isaac is content to return to St Simon (as do the others).  Quist can’t recommend this, since the poison there will shorten all their lives, but Joan counters that there are just as many hazards here.  “They judged us and found us wanting” mutters Quist.

The Islanders never quite seems to come together.  The themes are interesting, but in the end it’s slightly unsatisfying.  We’re told that several other islanders, in addition to Thomas, have fallen ill, but since we never know them, the question of whether they live or die doesn’t have any impact.  The concept of a group of people totally unsuited to life in a modern technological society is a good one, but apart from a few scenes isn’t developed in any great detail.

John Paul has some decent moments (especially playing opposite the cold-hearted government official expertly portrayed by Geoffrey Chater) but Simon Oates is pretty poorly served by the script and barely contributes.  It’s not a disaster, but it’s fairly unmemorable stuff.

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.

Doomwatch – By The Pricking of my Thumbs

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Professor Ensor (Olaf Pooley) has been granted time and space at Doomwatch to conduct experiments into the extra Y chromosome, much to Quist’s disdain, who doesn’t believe a word of it.  “Only yesterday I was reading an article by a colleague of yours, Ensor, in The Lancet. Once again he cast grave and honest doubt on the theory that the extra Y chromosome predisposes one to criminal behaviour.”

Ensor has been conducting tests at a local school, asking the pupils to fill out questionnaires, as well as taking blood samples (hence the pun in the episode’s title).  This is an early indication that Ensor’s methods are suspect in the extreme – Fay has been assigned to work with him and she’s under the impression that the samples they’re studying have been taken from criminals (totally unaware that later samples have come from the school).

If this is an example of the casual way he treats his scientific research, then worse is to come.  The school’s headmaster, Botting (Colin Jeavons) has a problem – a boy was badly injured in the chemistry lab after three other pupils (MacPherson, Jenkins and Franklin) tampered with his experiment.  Botting is convinced that one of them must be the ringleader, but which one?  He discusses the matter with Ensor and, after learning that Stephen Franklin (Barry Stokes) is taller than normal for a boy of his age (he’s seventeen), the Professor decides he must be guilty.  Carriers of the extra Y chromosome are known to be taller than average, Stephen is taller than average, QED.

It’s an astonishingly thin amount of evidence, but Botting is convinced and expels Stephen, which leaves us unsure as to who’s the most culpable – Botting or Ensor.  It’s plain that Botting lacks judgement, as whilst he’s portrayed as a progressive headmaster – keen to encourage his pupils to express themselves – he’s blinded by Ensor’s apparent scientific credibility (allowing the true culprits, MacPherson and Jenkins to get off scot free).  Ensor’s reasons for picking Stephen seem very vague.  Apart from his height, the other major factor seems to be that he was adopted.  Bad blood …..

Stephen’s father, Oscar (Bernard Hepton), is appalled by the way his son’s been treated and after he gets nowhere with Botting he heads off to speak to Quist.  They know each other, but Quist can barely tolerate the man.  Oscar is a freelance journalist, working in the science field, and Quist has a poor opinion of his skills as a writer.  The always watchable Hepton gives a fine performance. Oscar is full of bluff and bluster, but he’s a fundamentally decent man who obviously cares for his son, which makes the way Quist treats him even harder to take.  He’s curt and dismissive and it’s only after Oscar leaves, and Ridge piques Quist’s interest with information about Ensor’s school experiments, that he begins to get interested.

Stephen attempts to kill himself in a rather unexpected way (by walking onto the runway at Gatwick).  He’s obviously in a confused state as before this he was heading for a plane which was flying to Jersey.  Geoff Hardcastle pops up again briefly to talk the boy down and luckily he comes away unscathed.

Everything’s built up for the big confrontation between Quist and Ensor.  It’s been stated on several occasions that Quist can’t stand him and also has little respect for him as a scientist.  Ensor attempts to defend his knowledge, but Quist simply steamrollers on.  “Your knowledge that condemns a child unheard, that drives him to risk death on an airport runway at night.”  It’s possibly not as powerful a diatribe as it could have been (it’s interesting that Quist seemed more angry at Oscar than he does at Ensor) but it’s still a nicely played scene by John Paul.

After a couple of indifferent episodes, By The Pricking of My Thumbs gets Doomwatch back on track.  Bernard Hepton and Olaf Pooley are both excellent, although Ensor isn’t as central to the plot as you might expect.  In many ways he’s more of a catalyst for the drama that’s triggered once he makes his disastrous prognosis.  Patsy Byrne, Sally Thomsett and Colin Jeavons are more familiar faces who help to enliven the story.  Byrne is good value as Stephen’s mother whilst a young Thomsett is his (slightly irritating) younger sister.

This was Robin Chapman’s sole Doomwatch script.  He was the creator and/or writer of a number  of popular series made by ITV during the mid to late sixties (The Man in Room 17, The Fellows, Spindoe, Big Breadwinner Hog) so he would have been something of a “name” writer at the time.  It’s a pity he didn’t write more for the series as this is a sharply defined character piece.

Doomwatch – The Iron Doctor

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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.

Doomwatch – Flight into Yesterday

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Flight into Yesterday has an arresting pre-credits sequence – the Minister (John Barron) and his assistant Duncan (Michael Elwyn) are at Number 10, anxiously awaiting the arrival of Quist.  Quist has just stepped off a flight from Los Angeles and has been rushed in a ministerial car to an urgent meeting with the prime minister.

But when he enters the room he appears to be disorientated – his speech is slurred and he staggers against the wall.  “He’s drunk” says the Minister, shocked.  But it only takes a second before he realises this is just the excuse he needs to get rid of Quist once and for all ….

This was John Barron’s third Doomwatch appearance and it’s an episode that puts him front and centre.  There’s so much to enjoy in his performance – the Minister’s initial shock at Quist’s appearance followed by his delight just a few beats later for example, or his wordless horror when Ridge enters his office for a meeting, dressed in his usual unconventional attire!

Martin Worth’s script centres around the Whitehall intrigue we’d previously seen in You Killed Toby Wren.  With the Minister having placed Quist on sick leave, he’s keen to groom Ridge as Doomwatch’s next boss (as was hinted in the series two opener).  The meeting between the Minister and Ridge is a fascinating one, played very well by both Barron and Oates.  Quist was in Los Angeles to deliver a speech about a proposed American Doomwatch.  The Minister is convinced that Quist planned to say that all the major threats to the environment could be laid at the door of governments.  He then casually admits that Quist is right of course, but it’s not the sort of thing you can say in public.  It gives us a brief but fascinating glimpse into the Minister’s true opinions – political expediency means that he has to be circumspect when making on the record remarks.  The clear inference is that if Ridge is prepared to be malleable then he’ll have a promising future.  It’s ironic that Quist’s speech said no such thing, but that almost becomes an irrelevance.

You Killed Toby Wren presented us with a Ridge whose motives and loyalties weren’t always clear and here that ambiguity has affected his colleagues.  It’s jarring to see Ridge sitting in Quist’s office, neatly dressed and issuing orders and Geoff seems certain that Ridge is only looking out for number one.  “The Minister’s out to nail Quist.  And if you ask me, Ridge has agreed to be the hammer.”

Fay believes that both Quist and Barbara (who was also on the flight) are suffering from nothing worse than a bad case of jet lag, but the Minister is disdainful.  So Ridge is able to manipulate him into travelling to Los Angeles to deliver Quist’s speech and if the Minister is at all disorientated when he arrives he’ll have no choice but to reinstate Quist.  But Quist is keen to protect the Minister’s reputation – he tells Ridge in no uncertain terms to ensure that the Minister rests for twenty four hours if he seems at all unwell when the plane touches down.

But there was more than just jet lag at play. Jim Ainsile (Robert Urquhart) is a charming Scottish PR man working for an American firm.  He entertained both Quist and Barbara, but he also took advantage of the long flight to use brainwashing techniques to manipulate Quist.  It didn’t quite work on him, but the Minister is a more susceptible candidate.

Also on the same flight as the Minister are Fay, Ridge and the Minister’s press secretary Thompson (Desmond Llewellyn).  Fay becomes increasingly anxious as Ainsile encourages the Minister to eat and drink heavily, whilst it’s notable that Ridge does nothing.  All of Fay’s entreaties to the Minister to take some rest before they arrive fall on deaf ears, so it seems inevitable there’s a disaster in the offing.

A totally studio-bound story, America is presented via stock footage and music.  This just about works, although the shot of Fay CSO’d into film of an American airport isn’t terribly convincing (although luckily it’s quite brief).  There’s more CSO later, as the Minister is badgered by American journalists into commenting on the usefulness of Doomwatch.  During this scene there’s also an interesting use of incidental music. The music continues up to the point where the Minister collapses (presumably from a heart attack) and then it cuts out.  It’s a slightly unusual moment, but a memorable one.

Right at the end there’s a faint rekindling of the Quist/Ridge battles of old.  Ridge tells him that he was well aware what Ainsile was doing to the Minister, but was content to let him continue as Doomwatch could only be strengthened if the Minister was removed (although there’s no suggestion that he was cold-hearted enough to know he would collapse).  Quist takes the opposite view – Doomwatch’s best chance of survival would be if the current Minister remains (better the devil you know maybe?)

If Ainsile’s brainwashing  tricks seem both a little far-fetched and overplayed, it doesn’t detract too much from another tightly written and well acted script.  John Barron is excellent throughout and even Vivien Sherrard (in that most thankless of roles – Doomwatch’s secretary) has a few nice scenes.  Science may take a back seat in this one, but the character dynamics are strong enough to ensure that’s it’s not a problem.

Doomwatch – The Web of Fear

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The Minister of Health (John Savident) and Duncan are ensconced on a health farm, located on a remote island.  Quist is anxious to speak to the Minister as he needs an answer about the urgent flood problem, so isn’t best pleased to learn that the island has been placed in strict quarantine due to a suspected case of yellow fever.

Quist isn’t particularly interested in the yellow fever case, but it provides him with an excuse to travel over to the island with Fay to discuss the flood issue.  The Minister’s a wily old bird though and he agrees to read Quist’s paper – as long as he helps the island’s doctors with the yellow fever outbreak.  And it’s maybe just as well, as things aren’t as straightforward as they seem at first ….

Since this is a Gerry Davis script, it’s no surprise that it feels a little more like series one Doomwatch episode.  Something happens for which there seems to be an obvious solution, but scientific detective work is able to prove otherwise.

En-route to the island, Quist and Fay bump into the scientist Griffiths (Glyn Owen) and his wife Janine (Stephanie Bidmead).  Quist knows Griffiths very well (as we’ll discuss in a minute) but Fay has never heard of him.  Griffiths is keen to get to the island but is refused permission (although that doesn’t stop him, as both he and his wife charter a boat).  One major weakness with the script is that Quist never seems to stop and wonder why a notable scientist like Griffiths is so keen to get to the island .  Therefore it becomes clear to the audience much earlier than it does to Quist and the others that Griffiths unwittingly holds the key to the mystery.

Griffiths is a fascinating character, played with typical bluffness and spiky humour by Owen.  Quist explains to Fay a little about his history.  “He presented a paper at 2.00 pm at the Stockholm conference in ’65. By five o’clock it had been completely demolished. An elegant, almost perfect concept, ruined by inattention to detail.”  Three scientists were responsible for pointing out several flaws which invalidated his paper (which had taken him fifteen years to prepare) and one of them was Quist.  It’s a remarkable coincidence that they should now bump into each other again, but that’s television for you.

Although his life’s work was destroyed over the course of a few hours, Griffiths still doesn’t accept his research was flawed in any way, instead he still blames Quist and the others.  This is why he’s kept his latest work under wraps and this secrecy will be the death of him (and others).  It’s another sign that his researches are flawed – Quist tells Fay that a good scientist welcomes challenges to their theories (it helps them to refine and redraft) but the trauma of 1965 proved too much for Griffiths.

And what of Janine?  Stephanie Bidmead and Glyn Owen share several well-crafted scenes that do nothing to advance the plot, but help enormously to bring their characters into focus.  Janine shared Griffiths’ disappointment in 1965, but she’s been able to see that his paper was at fault and now she mourns less for him as she’s more concerned about the family they never had or the various other opportunities that passed them by, all because he was driven to chase something that always remained just out of his grasp.

The Web of Fear is a fairly bleak story although there are a few lighter moments.  Ridge’s description of Janine always seems to move chestwards (“and she has a nice pair of …..”) whilst John Savident has a couple of comic moments.  But the Minister, once he understands the gravity of the situation, is all business and is happy to back Quist once a solution is found.

What seems obvious from very early on is eventually confirmed.  Griffiths’ latest work (a man-made virus designed to combat the moths which attack the island’s apple crops) is proved to be responsible for the apparent yellow fever attacks.  Although the virus prepared by Griffiths only attacks moths, it can also trigger another virus in a new host.  So the moth is ingested by a spider and the spider then becomes deadly.  The attentive viewer would probably also have twigged this, as several times we hear different people commenting on how many spiders there seem to be –  a good indication that this is an important plot point for later.

Griffiths is stuck down a tunnel and faces danger from both the spiders and their webs.  Ridge elects to get him out and this forms the climax of the story, although it’s a little too drawn out for my tastes.  Plus the over dramatic stock music saps the tension a little.

Another problem with this scene is that Griffiths dies off camera a few minutes later, which makes all the effort to rescue him something of a waste of time.  But his death does allow Quist to give him a good eulogy.  After Janine sadly reflects that her husband wasted twenty five years of his life and ended up with nothing – not even a decent reputation, Quist begs to differ.  “He was a brilliant, intuitive scientist of the stamp of Pasteur, Einstein. The measure of the man is not that he failed, but that he so nearly brought it off. Twice.”

Although the story somewhat runs out of steam during the last twenty minutes or so, it’s still not a total write-off.  Glyn Owen and Stephanie Bidmead both have well-written parts and the core team of Quist, Ridge and Fay work well together.