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

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At the start of The Red Sky Quist seems to be a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  As Ridge, Wren and Bradley look on – all with varying degrees of concern – Quist snaps at Pat and isn’t able to complete a simple scientific experiment (his hand trembles so much that he drops a glass beaker).  His colleagues all agree that he needs to take a break, but will the workaholic Quist agree?

Unsurprisingly it’s Ridge who’s the most outspoken.  It’s often been observed that Quist’s guilt at being involved in the development of the atomic bomb was one of the main reasons why he pushed himself so hard afterwards – in order to make amends for his “crime”.  Ridge has another suggestion, that he’s motivated by hate and is a control freak.  “That man’s obsessed. There’s nothing worse than a paranoiac leader; he wants to know everything, he won’t listen, he’s got no confidence in anybody.”

Quist, of course, has come back into the office and has heard every word.  John Paul deadpans nicely through this initial scene, as well as giving the impression that Quist really is at the end of his tether.  Toby tells him that if he takes a break then all their work stops.  This is a little odd, as there’s no doubt that although Quist is a key figure there’s no reason why the others can’t function without him.

What makes this scene interesting (if not slightly perplexing) is that Quist then tells them that he plans to go away for a couple of days.  His trip had already been arranged  before the scene in the lab, so did Quist simply engineer it in order to play power games (Ridge seems to imply so) or was he really close to breaking point?

He heads off to the countryside, for something of a busman’s holiday.  His old friend Bernard Colley (Aubrey Richards) is concerned about the noise from a nearby airfield, run by the Palgon Corporation.  Before Quist arrives, Colley and his daughter Dana (Jennifer Daniel), witness the death of Tommy Gort (Edward Kelsey).  Tommy lived in a lighthouse directly in the airplane’s flight path and apparently committed suicide by throwing himself off the cliff (it’s obviously a dummy, but it looks quite realistic).

It’s clear that the planes are somehow responsible and not only did they drive Tommy to his death they’ve also deeply affected Colley.  After spending some time at Tommy’s lighthouse, Colley is hospitalised with what Quist says is a cerebral hemorrhage.  He later dies without regaining consciousness.

Quist meets with the man from Palgon, Reynolds (Paul Eddington).  Unsurprisingly he brushes off Quist’s concerns and reminds him that thousands of people work for Palgon (strongly hinting that any interference with their work would have severe economic repercussions).  It’s a theme that’s replayed throughout the series – if you rock the boat then innocent people’s jobs will suffer.  Quist knows that innocent people are already suffering – from noise pollution – and won’t give up that easily.

The Red Sky, written by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis, is classic Doomwatch.  At its heart is a solid mystery and a strong dynamic between the regulars.  Quist has a personal stake as his friend has died (“he was a splendid man you know, when my wife died …”) whilst he and Ridge butt heads in a very entertaining manner.  The relationship between Quist and Ridge continues to fascinate. Ridge has undeniable respect for Quist as a scientist, but as a human being?  Quist’s views on Ridge remain fascinating to ponder as well.

Given that two people have died after spending time at the lighthouse it seems foolhardy in the extreme for Quist to decide to go back there alone to monitor events (and also that Ridge and Wren – who’ve now travelled down at Quist’s request – didn’t raise any objections).  Visual effects were somewhat limited in the early 1970’s, but thanks to the wonders of inlay we’re able to share his nightmare vision.

After Quist collapses at Gort’s lighthouse, Ridge is content to ship him off to a nursing home and go home.  For him, the work of Doomwatch is the most important thing – more important than any one man – and he also believes that fighting a battle against Palgon (who have the confidence of the minister) is pointless.  They can’t win, so attacking Palgon would simply give the government the excuse they need to close Doomwatch down.  It’s possible to see Ridge’s actions as something of a palace revolution – the king is dead, long live the king.

But by the merest chance Toby is at the lighthouse to witness another attack.  If he hadn’t then no doubt the whole thing would have been dropped, which is a slight weakness of the story.  It’s also hard to credit that Ridge dismisses the notion that there’s anything wrong at the lighthouse so quickly.  Two deaths and Quist’s injuries should have hinted that something wasn’t quite right.

Eventually Toby comes up with an answer and Quist is able to manipulate both Reynolds and the man from the ministry, Richard Duncan (Michael Elwyn) very neatly.  Reynolds is adamant that there’s no substance to Quist’s story, so when they all meet at the lighthouse he’s happy to remain there whilst the next jet flies overhead (as does Duncan and Ridge).  Reynolds is therefore unusual, a member of the “enemy” who becomes a convert after he realises that Quist’s story was true.  At the enquiry, he supports him – even though it might cost him his job.  And although Duncan had been described as the Minster’s hatchet-man, that’s not actually the case.  He seems a reasonable chap and is more than ready to listen to Quist’s suggestions and offer his support.

The ending is rather downbeat.  They’ve convinced Reynolds, but that’s about all.  The government agrees to fence off part of the coastline, purchase Tommy’s lighthouse and suspend flights for a month, but nothing more as Quist mutters that they “can’t let an isolated death stand in the way of progress.”  Bradley asks what will happen when the planes start flying all over the country.  Quist’s response is bleak.  “We don’t know and as usual we won’t know. Until it happens.”

Doomwatch – 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.