Doomwatch – Sex and Violence

sex

There’s a clear irony in the fact that Sex & Violence, a story which concerned itself with the question of censorship, was pulled from the schedules and was never transmitted.  Given the very depleted nature of season three Doomwatch episodes it’s odd, but welcome nonetheless, that an episode which didn’t even make it to the screen somehow managed to survive the archive purges (logic would have suggested it would have been the first to go).

One suggestion for the reason why the BBC got cold feet concerns the use of real-life Nigerian executions.  It’s certainly shocking – but this footage had already been transmitted on several occasions prior to this, so it’s reasonable to assume that for viewers at the time the shock value wouldn’t have been too great.  And had this really been a cause of concern it would have been easy to excise the section without damaging the narrative flow too greatly (we could have cut away from the clip before the shooting and simply shown the reaction of the watching committee).

It seems much more likely that the episode was pulled since several characters were thinly disguised caricatures of real people.  Both Mrs Catchpole (June Brown) and Mrs Cressy (Noel Dyson) have more than a touch of Mary Whitehouse about them.  This is made very obvious in the pre-credits sequence, which sees Mrs Catchpole holding forth at a public meeting – held in a church – and railing about the filth thrown at people like her (her audience is comprised of middle-aged, middle-class women) by the intellectual media elite.

Unlike Mrs Whitehouse, Mrs Catchpole isn’t a national figure, therefore she tends to exist around the fringes of the plot.  So Mrs Cressy also acts as a Whitehouse substitute – she’s less of a rabble-rouser, but is equally vehement about stamping out sex and violence.  Mrs Cressy is a member of the Purvis sub-committee, who have been charged with investigating all aspects of pornography and violence in the media.  Quist is also asked to look into the same question, which he’s less than keen about.

Pollution in the air or the sea he can understand, but moral pollution?  It’s not his thing at all.  But as we’ve seen several times before, Quist starts off doubtful but eventually gets more interested as the story progresses.  It’s just a pity that yet again he’s operating on the periphery of the plot. Dr Tarrant is seconded to the sub-committee, which means she’s as an active participant, leaving Quist as a fairly passive onlooker.

The other members are Professor Fairbairn (Brian Wilde) and Steven Grainger (Bernard Horsfall) who tend to lean towards the permissive end of the spectrum.  Mrs Cressy and the Rev Charles Garrison (Llewellyn Reees) take the opposing view, which means that Dick Burns (Christopher Chittell) is a valuable floating voter, since he holds no firm opinions either way.  Burns, a pop star, is another clear analogue to a real public figure (at the time Cliff Richard had been asked to sit on a very similar committee).  Although Burns is a much less straight-laced figure than Richard, the parallel seems clear.

Sex & Violence is a dense, talky episode – a great deal of it revolves around the committee’s debates – which really comes alive thanks to the first-rate guest cast.  Brian Wilde and Bernard Horsfall are always a pleasure to watch, whilst June Brown (a decade or more away from achieving national fame in EastEnders) has some sharply written comic scenes.  It’s fair to say that Mrs Catchpole isn’t a subtle character though, and it’s no doubt this less than veiled attack on Mrs Whitehouse which sealed the story’s fate.  The Doctor Who fan in me was quietly delighted to see Llewellyn Rees and Bernard Horsfall in the same scene (a few years later they’d both appear in The Deadly Assassin).

There’s no stunning revelations here.  For example, Anne is attacked by Mrs Hastings (Angela Crow) as she attempts to buy a ticket for an Oh Calcutta type play.  Although Anne’s hurt and bruised, she’s much more interested why a law-abiding person like Mrs Hastings would be incited to violence.  The answer seems to be that she’s always been fairly repressed about sex (since her parents didn’t talk about it at all) which it probably didn’t take a psychiatrist to work out!  It’s also worth mentioning the décor of Mrs Hastings’ flat, which has the most garish early seventies wallpaper you could possibly imagine.

When Quist later wonders exactly why Doomwatch is involved, it’s easy to agree with him.  It’s an interesting enough story, but it’s also yet another example of how far the series changed from the early Pedler/Davis ecological tub-thumping.

Possibly the most interesting part of the plot revolves around the character of  Arthur Ballantyne (Nicholas Selby).  He’s a political figure who’s made considerable capital out of the sex and violence debate (he’s revealed to have financed a number of pressure groups, including Mrs Catchpole’s).  It’s easy enough to look around today and find politicians who have risen to prominence on the coat-tails of controversial debates – which is a final demonstration that Doomwatch, even forty years later, can continue to hold a mirror up to our society.

Doomwatch – Waiting for a Knighthood

waiting

Although Waiting for a Knighthood was only the fourth episode of series three, there had already been a number of key developments during the first three (all now sadly wiped) episodes.

The series opener, Fire and Brimstone, had seen John Ridge steal a number of anthrax phials in order to hold the government to ransom.  This plotline had been developed to lessen Simon Oates’ involvement in the show, as he’d disliked the way the second series had developed and didn’t wish to remain a regular for the third run.  Waiting for a Knighthood, which sees Ridge ensconced in a secure nursing home following his breakdown, is the last existing episode which features him.

Ridge’s removal from Doomwatch meant that a replacement had to be found – hence the introduction of Commander Neil Stafford (John Bown).  Stafford isn’t a scientist, he’s a security man, which meant he could take over the security and clandestine aspects of Ridge’s role whilst remaining a distinct character.  He’s certainly no womanizer and the fact that he reports to the Minster means that it’s not always easy to know where his loyalties lie.  Given the small number of series three episodes existing, he looked to be an interesting character and it’s a pity that we don’t have the opportunity to see more of him in action.

Perhaps the most jarring aspect of this episode is that we see Quist relaxing at home (or as it turns out, Anne Tarrant’s home) – the picture of perfect domestic contentment.  Up until the end of series two, Quist had been an emotionally isolated figure – living only for his work – so it’s something of  surprise to find that he’s now deep into a relationship (and also that Anne calls him “Spence”! which is something nobody else has done).

Given that when Dr Fay Chantry was introduced in series two Ridge mentioned casually in passing that she might be a decent match for Quist, it’s intriguing to wonder whether any thought had been given to matching them up.  It’s just as likely a coupling as the one-off character of Dr Tarrant (who had appeared in You Killed Toby Wren) linking up with him I guess.

Waiting for a Knighthood opens with Anne attending a church service.  Along with the other parishioners, she’s perturbed to see the vicar suffer a breakdown and it’s later revealed that he’s suffering from lead poisoning (he’s a keen mechanic and had ingested a dangerous level of fumes).  A similar thing seems to have happened to Ridge, which provides an explanation for his behaviour in Fire and Brimstone.

These incidents, and increasing concerns about the levels of lead in petrol, indicate that there should be tighter controls – but Richard Massingham (Frederick Jaeger), after enjoying a decent dinner with the Minister, Sir George Holroyd (John Barron), tells him he’s not convinced.  Massingham is an oil man and doesn’t see why a few high profile cases should mean swingeing restrictions.  After all, he says, it’s not as if people are dropping down dead all over the place.

The debate about harmful levels of lead both here and at the Doomwatch office keep the story ticking along, but the main part of the plot concerns the kidnapping of Massingham’s young child (played by Stephen Dudley).  Dudley, the son of producer Terence Dudley, would be a regular a few years later in Survivors (and already had another Doomwatch credit – Tomorrow the Rat – to his name).  Dudley the younger is rather irritating in this one, so I’m thankful his screentime was fairly limited.

Coincidence is the name of the game here.  The boy was kidnapped by Mrs Sylvester (Glenm Watford) who happened to be passing Ridge’s garage at just the right moment to hear Bradley and Stafford discussing the possibility that Ridge had suffered from lead poisoning.  Her own son had died from something similar and so she decides to kidnap Massingham’s boy in revenge.  And Massingham has direct links with the Minister, which means that Doomwatch are involved straight away.

If the plot seems a little messy and rather open-ended, then there’s still some useful food for thought about the dangers of lead in petrol.  Bradley gets  decent share of the action (as does Barbara, who becomes more of a central character during series three – just a pity that we can’t see most of it).  Frederick Jaeger as Massinghm is suitably solid.  Massingham isn’t a cartoon villain – knowingly polluting the air – he’s a realist who knows that the only way for the government to take action is if they raise petrol prices substantially, which of course they won’t do.

A pity that Quist’s rather sidelined though, but that tends to be par for the course with series three.

Doomwatch – Public Enemy

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After a young boy retrieves his football from the roof of Carlingham Alloys he collapses and later dies.  His death shocks the local community, not least Arnold Payne (Derek Benfield).  Payne’s family had previously owned the factory but sold it some time back to a major multi-national concern (and he now views it with a very jaundiced eye).

Carlingham are developing a new process to produce a low-cost substitute for carbon fibre.  If they succeed before the Americans then the profits will be immense – which explains why lead scientist Dr Anthony Lewis (Trevor Bannister) spares little thought for the fate of a child who had been trespassing.  But the later death of a factory worker confirms there is a major problem and Quist and the others are on hand to suggest a series of measures which will tighten up safety procedures to ensure such tragedies never happen again.

But the story doesn’t end there …..

Public Enemy is a Doomwatch tale of two halves.  It begins very much in the mould of a series one episode – a mysterious unexplained death which the team investigate.  The show had also covered the conflict between big-business and the environment before (for example in Train and De-Train).  Indeed, it’s interesting to directly compare this episode with Train and De-Train.  In Train and De-Train, Mitchell, the head of Alminster Chemicals, is only concerned with Alminster’s profit margin.  If they’re responsible for environmental damage along the way then that’s regrettable, but to him it’s just a fact of life (his chief scientist is the one shown to have scruples).

In Public Enemy the position is totally reversed.  The managing director of Carlingham Alloys, Gerald Marlow (Glyn Houston), totally takes on board all of Quist’s safety recommendations and promises to ensure they’re put into practice.  It’s Dr Lewis who’s shown to be dismissive and obstructive – he feels that as the boy shouldn’t have been on the roof it’s not really their fault that he died.  His attitude appalls Quist – Lewis is the sort of scientist who, in his opinion, cuts corners and is therefore dangerous – which leads to a major confrontation between Quist and Geoff.

It’s a lovely moment which helps to flesh out Geoff’s character in what turned out to be his final appearance (it was Fay’s last story too).  After the pair spend a few seconds staring at each other following Geoff’s outburst, the atmosphere is lightened by Ridge who asks Quist if he’d like him to throw Geoff against the wall to see if he bounces!

Both Glyn Houston and Trevor Bannister (best known for his later role in Are You Being Served?) offer first-rate performances.  Houston plays Marlow as the sort of caring, considerate employer who seems almost too good to be true whilst Bannister’s Lewis spends most of the episode simmering with barely concealed rage at the nosy do-gooders from Doomwatch.  When Marlow first tells him that Doomwatch have been called in, he reacts by calling them “failed boffins”.  Marlow then counters by replying that Quist can hardly be called a failed boffin, but Lewis doesn’t reply, he simply smiles faintly.

After Doomwatch have identified the problem, that seems to be an end of it.  But Carlingham are not prepared to pay the hundred thousand pounds needed to implement the safety procedures recommended by Quist – instead they decide to close the factory and move production up to Leicester.  All the workers’ jobs are secure, but few are keen to up sticks and move.

This is where the second part of the story kicks in.  Up until now both the works committee and Payne have been fully behind Quist’s recommendations.  But Payne (a noted local businessman with several shops) knows that once the factory closes he’ll lose most of his trade, so his former virulent criticisms of the factory’s safety record now undergoes an ironic adjustment.  If it means keeping the workers here, then surely a little pollution is a small price to pay?  The works committee also accepted Quist’s recommendations and indeed welcomed them, but if it’s a choice between a move to Leicester and staying at the old factory (even if, as Quist says, they could face serious lung problems in as little as five years time) many would prefer to stay put and take their chances.

The shift in emphasis helps to spin the story off in a very different direction.  Had this been a series one episode then it’s highly likely that the creative team of Pedler and Davis would have chosen to highlight the heartlessness of profit-driven modern corporate business (as happened in both The Red Sky and Train and De-Train).  But that doesn’t happen here, which is a good example of how Doomwatch changed direction once Terence Dudley wrested creative control of the series from Pedler and Davis.

The episode culminates in a blistering final scene, excellently performed by John Paul, as Quist addresses the various vested interests who have most to lose if the factory closes. As Quist finishes his impassioned speech, the camera zooms into his face as he stares directly down the lens.  Breaking the fourth wall like this was unusual and it can be taken as a clear hint that Quist’s message was meant for the watching millions at home as well.  The speech isn’t subtle, but it’s powerfully delivered and closes series two very memorably.

Raise production, raise consumption, raise wages, advance the standard of living. But is anyone any happier? All that happens is that the debris that must inevitable accumulate in the process, slowly builds up until one day it must choke us.

Now we all want a clean, healthy world to live in, don’t we? We’re all against pollution in any form? But only when the cost of fighting it is borne by someone else. When our own pocket’s hit, a shilling on the rates, six weeks on the dole, a capital investment which makes a company merely viable, then no thanks, let’s forget it. Well, I’m warning you, forget it and you’re dead.

Not just this community, but the whole of industrial civilisation. The way we’re carrying on, the way we’re polluting, over-crowding, chemicals, noise, we’ve got thirty years. Thirty years of, dirty, slow, dirty dying. Or it’s thirty years for us to clear up the mess. That’s the choice! That’s your only choice! Pay up or pack up! Not only you, or you, or you, but every single one of us, every living one of us, all of us.

It’s a pity that both Jean Trend and John Nolan were written out of the series following this episode. Nolan spent most of the second series doing very little, but that’s no criticism of him as an actor – simply that Geoff Hardcastle was such an undeveloped character. When he was given a role to play – his double act with Ridge in Invasion or indeed in this episode – he was very watchable.  Trend will also be missed.  As she was replaced by the rather similar character of Dr Anne Tarrant during series three (who had first appeared in You Killed Toby Wren) I do find the change a little baffling.

Other major changes would occur during the third and final series, but with only three episodes existing from the transmitted twelve, sadly most of the stories now are only accessible via scripts or synopsis.

Doomwatch – The Logicians

logicians

Fay and Ridge are at Beresfords, a major pharmaceutical company.  Beresfords have been been developing a powerful new antibiotic, K27, which Doomwatch have been closely monitoring – due to concerns over possible side-effects.

But since all the potential problems now seem to have been ironed out there seems no reason why K27 shouldn’t go into production.  However the next day, Beresfords’ managing director, Priestland (Noel Johnson), discovers that the formula has been stolen.

Although Ridge briefly becomes a suspect, he’s intrigued that a party of boys from a nearby private school called Elsedene were at Beresfords on the day of the robbery.  He and Geoff visit the school and Ridge is perturbed to see how dominant both computers and logical teaching methods are.  Could this be a breeding ground for emotionless, logical criminals?

Based on a story outline by Kit Pedler, it explored themes that he’d already developed in several Doctor Who stories, notably The Tomb of the Cybermen and The Wheel in SpaceTomb introduced us to Klieg and Kaftan, members of the Brotherhood of Logicians.  Pure logic was clearly something that perturbed Pedler – as it allowed Kleig to ally himself with the Cybermen with no thoughts given as to the consequences of his actions.  The Wheel in Space has even closer links to The Logicians, thanks to the appearance of Zoe.  Zoe, like the boys in this story, is a product of computer teaching and is shown to be emotionally deficient (“all brain and no heart”).

The scenes in the school, with the boys working at computer terminals, is clearly meant to be disturbing – although to a modern audience it probably seems perfectly normal.  Geoff isn’t happy with what he finds.  “It looked more like a space shell than a classroom to me. All the kids in headphones, wired up to a computer being fed questions and feeding back answers.”  This would have been a science fiction concept in 1971, but in 2016 it’s nothing out of the ordinary.

Quist approves of logical teaching for the young.  “Youth without an adult’s emotional stresses can absorb an enormous amount of this symbolic training. The ability to think straight, a cool appraisal of any situation, uncluttered by emotion or bias, that’s what the modern world needs today.”  But there are inherit dangers to this type of schooling.  Ridge tells Quist that the boys appeared to be display a type of mental arrogance (likening them to the Hitler Youth).

One slight flaw with the story is the notion that the boys are potentially dangerous because they’ve been computer taught – i.e. without the input of human teachers.  But when Ridge and Geoff observe them, the class is clearly being run by a teacher and the computers are only used as a aid to the lesson, they aren’t in control.  Elsedene is also the sort of public school where the only type of discipline is self-discipline, so even had the pupils not had access to these type of logical computer lessons they still might have developed along similar lines.

Although they’re criminals, it’s later revealed that the boys only stole the formula in order to extort a ransom (£25,000) from Beresfords so they could anonymously donate the money to Elsedene (which has been suffering from extreme financial difficulties).  But the unanswered question is what will happen when they leave school?  Will logic once again triumph over universally held notions of right and wrong?

Although the idea of a school dominated by computers may carry little resonance in the twenty first century (it’s a fact of life today) there’s plenty to enjoy in Dennis Spooner’s script.  Spooner was always the sort of writer who liked to inject humour whenever he could and this is reflected here.

Ridge is the recipient of many of Spooner’s funniest lines and Simon Oates delivers them perfectly.  Ridge and Geoff have some nice bantering scenes – Ridge turning his nose up at Geoff’s new coat and Geoff being theatrically disappointed at being forgotten when Ridge lists all the other members of the Doomwatch team.  Ridge is also on hand to pour cold water on Priestland’s gallant attempts to chat up Fay and he’s also entertaining when tangling with the police.  When Ridge later makes a clandestine call to the Doomwatch office from Elsedene and calls Fay “mother” you know that Spooner is enjoying himself!

Noel Johnson (Radio’s original Dick Barton) is suitably solid and dignified as Priestland, he’s a major plus point throughout the story.  Amongst the schoolboys is a young Peter Duncan, who’d turn up later in the Terence Dudley produced Survivors, as would Michael Gover (here playing Priesland’s number two, Kelsey).

If The Logicians is another Doomwatch story which feels a little underdeveloped (is there enough evidence to suggest that computer and logical teaching alone is responsible for turning the boys into criminals, or would that have happened anyway in the rarefied atmosphere of an unsupervised public school?) Dennis Spooner’s script clips along at a decent enough pace to cover any lapses in, well, logic.

Doomwatch – The Inquest

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Geoff heads down to the country as Doomwatch’s representative at an inquest due to be held into the death of Marion Duffy, a ten year old girl who died from rabies.  John McAlister (Robert Cawdron) from the Min. of Ag. and Fish believes that this rabies infection was due to contact with an infected dog, but Mary Lincoln (Judith Furse) has another theory.

Ms Lincoln is a local resident who is bitterly opposed to the laboratory run by Dr Henry Fane (Frederick Treves).  Dr Fane’s lab is licenced to carry out experiments on animals – something which Ms Lincoln is horrified about – but he also conducts research on insects.  Ms Lincoln is convinced that an infected tsetse fly escaped from the lab and bit Marion, thereby causing her death.

The smooth running of Geoff’s preparation for his appearance at the inquest is rather derailed after shots are fired at Dr Fane’s lab and Geoff finds himself laid up in hospital, with Bradley called on to deputise for him.

The Inquest is another Doomwatch episode with a strong hook in the pre-credits sequence.  After a couple of shots are fired, Dr Fane finds Geoff senseless on the floor – although since he was clutching his shoulder it’s clearly not a fatal wound.  The post-credits meeting between Quist and Bradley is also memorable, as Quist casually mentions that Geoff’s been shot and he therefore needs to hop on a train and take over his work.  Quist’s seemingly unfeeling and cold nature is again highlighted here – although it appears to be more that he knew that Geoff was fine (with only a superficial scratch) and had therefore had mentally moved onto more pressing matters.

With both Simon Oates and Jean Trend absent, this is that rarest of beasts – a Bradley-centric episode.  Joby Blanshard naturally seems to relish having more to do then simply react to the others.  Bradley’s a key participant at the inquest, although when he expresses the opinion that all dogs within a five mile radius should be shot he doesn’t find many supporters amongst the villagers!

It’s an interesting twist that for once there’s no twist.  Since we’ve become so used to seeing Doomwatch stories where a death that appears to have been caused by x was actually caused by y, it’s a neat trick when it’s revealed that a rabid dog was responsible after all.

This follows lengthy and passionate arguments from Ms Lincoln at the inquest, who remained insistent that Dr Fane’s tsetse flies were responsible – to the growing exasperation of the coroner (very well played by Edward Evans).  The revelation that it was just a dog does take the wind out of her sails, but Dr Fane is still culpable (the infected dog had been released from his lab) but he’s not the only one.

It was the landlord of the local pub who obtained the dogs for Fane – and with the money that Fane was offering he wasn’t too choosy about where they came from.  The long arm of coincidence comes into play when it’s established that the landlord’s son Harry was responsible for tending to the released animals (and also was the one who took a pot-shot at Geoff).  Like Marion, Harry’s been bitten, and the episode ends with the boy taken to hospital and it’s left open as to whether he’ll live or die.

The nature of the story means that this is a static, wordy episode.  The scientific content is pretty low – although Bradley goes into considerable detail about why he believes tsetse flies couldn’t be responsible for carrying the rabies virus, since that whole part of the plot was a red herring it doesn’t really matter either way.

Judith Furse is excellent as the animal loving Ms Lincoln and the ever-reliable Frederick Treves is equally as good as her implacable enemy Dr Fane.  Given that Fane has a licence for animal experiments, it’s never made clear why he should have gone to such extreme measures to obtain potentially dangerous dogs (unless he needed infected animals for his experiments?)  It’s also never explicitly stated, but it seems probable that Ms Lincoln released the dogs, if so then she must take part of the blame for the child’s death.

Quist keeps a fairly low profile, although he pops up at the end of the inquest (rather stealing Bradley’s thunder!)  And even though he gets shot, Geoff is still something of a third wheel, although the absence of both Ridge and Fay means that he does get a few more lines than usual.

Scripted by Robert Holmes, The Inquest is a well-written character piece.

Doomwatch – In the Dark

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A swimmer dies off the Scottish coast.  Quist doesn’t consider this to be much of a mystery – after all, people have been known to drown before.  But he begins to show a little interest when Ridge reveals that the man died of mustard gas poisoning.  Some twenty five years earlier, a ship commanded by Lionel McArthur (Patrick Troughton) sank nearby.   Since it carried mustard gas it therefore seems likely that somehow this deadly cargo has started to pollute the area.

Although McArthur is an old friend of Quist, he elects instead to send Ridge along to investigate.  But Ridge finds McArthur to be a very elusive man and even when he tracks him down he finds his answers to be rather vague.  Eventually the truth is revealed – the man posing as the public face of Lionel McArthur is actually his cousin, Alan.  The real Lionel McArthur exists in a vegetative state – kept alive by machines.  But he doesn’t regard this in a negative way, for him it’s a positive triumph.  His body became diseased, so he replaced it with machines …..

Although In The Dark has a striking pre-credits sequence showing the hapless swimmer’s death (and following the credits there’s another memorable shot of the man’s dead face in the water, overlaid with the story title) this part of the story is little more than a MacGuffin – designed to get the Doomwatch team interacting with McArthur.  It’s not the first time this sort of plot device has been used, but it still feels a little clumsy.

But no matter.  Once we get past the first twenty minutes the story proper can begin.  Immobile in a hospital bad, with only his head visible, Patrick Troughton still manages to dominate the screen.  It’s interesting that given the subject matter of the story you might have expected it to be scripted by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis, rather than John Gould.  McArthur is basically a Cyberman – his body fell ill, so he cheated death by replacing it.  The only part of him that remains human is his head, and he has plans to do something with that as well.  He tells a horrified Quist that he wishes to remove emotions – “anger, fear, love, hate” – in order to make him function more efficiently.  Anybody familiar with the first Cyberman story, The Tenth Planet, will instantly see the parallel.

The question of what existence actually means is at the heart of the story.  Both Ridge and Quist regard McArthur’s half life as no real life at all.  Quist asks McArthur some probing questions.  “We have no bodies, no needs, no desires. What’s the purpose of existing at all?”  McArthur responds he wishes “to become pure. To achieve that state that all the mystics have tried to achieve in their little futile, frustrated ways.  I may not look it to you Quist, but I am perfect. I am perfect man, because I am only brain.”

Alethea Charlton, as McArthur’s daughter Flora, has a small, but telling role.  She loves her father dearly, but implores Quist to try and persuade him to turn off the machines.  Unlike him, she’s realised that he’s now barely human and that although he’s gained a version of immortality it’s been achieved at a terrible cost.  Her husband, Andrew Seaton (Simon Lack) doesn’t share her concerns.  Somewhat coincidentally he’s in charge of McArthur’s treatment, telling Fay that “we virtually abolished death for him” and clearly regarding this to be a positive thing.

As for the Doomwatch team, Geoff and Bradley once more get the short end of the stick with just a few lines apiece.  It’s clear again that Quist, Ridge and Fay are the main characters and Gould’s script is tailored to all three of them.  Quist faces a moral dilemma – McArthur is a leading scientist and an old friend, so he feels an obligation to stay and do what he can to help.

Ridge has a wonderful monologue directed at Quist.  “You absorb all life into your own, did you know that? Everything that ever happens becomes a part of you. When you’re pre-occupied sometimes, I watch you walking. You don’t walk down ordinary, mundane streets, jostled by ordinary, mundane people. You pace the streets of a deserted village, or you tread the shattered planks of a seaside pier.”  Fay now occupies the same place in the narrative that Toby did during series one – acting as something of a buffer between Quist and Ridge.

The conclusion of the story doesn’t come as a surprise, but it’s still a powerful conclusion to a tale that poses difficult questions about how technology and medical care should co-exist.

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.

Doomwatch – Flight into Yesterday

flight

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 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 – You Killed Toby Wren

you killed toby wren

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 – 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 – 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 Red Sky

red

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 – 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 – 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 – 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 – 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 – 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 – 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.