Doomwatch – By The Pricking of my Thumbs

pricking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doomwatch – Invasion

invasion.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doomwatch – Simply Media DVD Review

doom cover

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.