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 – The Human Time Bomb

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Doomwatch have been asked to investigate the Amblethorpe project.  The brainchild of Sir Billy Langly (Kevin Brennan) it aims to solve the problem of population overcrowding.   Langly paints a nightmarish vision of the future to Quist.  “By the year 2000 there’ll be over eighty million people living in this country. They’ll want cars and places to park them. They’ll want clothing and feeding and educating and work to do, to say nothing of housing…”

Langly’s solution is to build more and more high rise flats.  With a booming population, he sees no other solution – but concerns have been raised about the dehumanising effect such places have on their occupants.  Fay has been assigned to do research at a typical block of flats – the Langly estate – living and working there for an extended period.  There certainly seems to be a malaise affecting some of the people and Fay herself also begins to crumble under the pressure …..

The Human Time Bomb has a social, rather than a scientific, problem to deal with.  Although tower blocks were still a fairly modern concept at the time, it’s plain from the tone of Louis Marks’ script that their inherent dangers were already clearly understood.  We open with the unfortunate Mr Hetherington (Talfryn Thomas).  As he joins his neighbours waiting for the lift, he gives them a cheery greeting – only to receive blank contempt from them.  As the lift descends, his anxiety at being jammed in like a sardine begins to tell.  Once he gets outside he rushes straight into the path of an oncoming car – still observed with dispassion by his neighbours.

When it’s later revealed that Hetherington worked for the planning office, it’s possible to wonder whether Langly is targeting people who might be a threat to him.  Fay has begun to receive crank calls and also has to deal with innuendo and abuse from some of her neighbours, whilst another member of the planning team, Scobie (Roddy McMillan) also has a breakdown.  This turns out not to be the case though as it simply all seems to be a coincidence, which is slightly hard to swallow.

The Human Time Bomb is an excellent vehicle for Jean Trend.  Fay, seemingly by the nature of the work she’s doing at the Langly estate, becomes isolated and paranoid.  This is demonstrated best when she asks the odd-job man Donovan (Ray Armstrong) to come to her flat to repair her lights.  He does so, but Fay interprets his attitude as hostile and attempts to attack him with a hammer.  Armstrong cleverly plays the scene in a fairly neutral way, so although his line about her promise to make his visit worth his while could be taken several ways, it does seem that Fay jumped to the wrong conclusion.

Quist is fairly dense throughout.  He seems to regard Fay’s concerns as the ravings of an unbalanced woman (surprising, since he’s supposed to consider her a first class scientist) and it’s only at the eleventh hour that he realises she could well be right and rushes back to her flat – just in time to save her from attacking Donovan.  Earlier, he failed to acknowledge that she saved him from being attacked by a young boy with a hammer – which confirms that by not living in the Langly estate like Fay he’s been unable to pick up on the atmosphere of fear and alienation.

If the vision of urban, inner-city life we see here isn’t terribly oppressive in a visual way (later productions would do it much better – in The Human Time Bomb everything still seems a little too neat and tidy) then Louis Marks’ script still manages to pile on the misery.  There’s few moments of light relief – even Ridge doesn’t really crack any decent gags – so the overall impression is quite relentless, which I presume was the tone Marks was aiming for.

The main flaw with the story is that it’s debatable just how much the tower block environment is responsible for the behaviour we see. Quist is convinced – but there’s little of the rigorous, methodical research he usually champions to back this up (instead, his conclusions seem to be derived more from hunches and guesswork). Fay’s bouts of hysteria do give Jean Trend something decent to work with, but it also has the unfortunate side effect of making her character seem rather neurotic.

So whilst this isn’t the strongest that series two has to offer, thanks to placing Fay front and centre it’s certainly of interest.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doomwatch – The 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 – By The Pricking of my Thumbs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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