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The first episode of the second series of Doomwatch is an early example of what I would call a ‘consequences’ episode – a character-based piece in which the focus is specifically on how the protagonists come to terms with something particularly momentous which has just happened to them. Another notable instance would be the episode of TNG in which, having spent most of the previous story being assimilated by the Borg, Jean-Luc Picard retreats to his family vineyard, argues with his elder brother a bit, and ends up weeping amongst the grapes. Doomwatch 2.1 is arguably the same sort of thing.

Of course, we are in a slightly odd situation here in that, due to the unique way the BBC used to manage its programme archive, the climactic episode of season 1, Survival Code, has been wiped, although the title of 2.1 tells you everything you need to know: it’s called You Killed Toby Wren. Yes, due to Robert Powell’s refusal to sign on for a second series, the first one ended with him being blown up while trying to defuse a nuclear bomb which somehow got lodged under a pier. Luckily the climax of Survival Code survives as the pre-credits sequence of You Killed Toby Wren.

Naturally the death of Wren and two others causes ructions at the Ministry, which is back under the control of the chap from The Plastic Eaters (John Barron), despite at least two other people having had the job elsewhere in season 1. The Minister sees this as a golden opportunity to bring Doomwatch under tighter control and, perhaps more importantly, get shot of Quist.

Meanwhile, back at Doomwatch HQ, Pat the secretary has been overcome by grief at Toby’s death and quit the series, to be replaced by Barbara the secretary, who quickly grasps the essentials of the job (answering the phone and making coffee for everyone else). It’s not a great time to be starting a new job as Quist’s guilt over Wren’s death is making him even grumpier than usual, and this is exacerbated by Ridge’s deliberate attempts to wind him up over the matter. (Ridge himself seems to have been left somewhat unbalanced by the affair, as he has come in to work wearing a canary-yellow shirt with a dog-collar accessory round his neck – not a clerical collar, the actual thing you’d expect to find on a labrador. It’s almost like a rather awkward attempt at  Simon Oates trying to cosplay as Luke Cage; my understanding is that the dog collar at least was included to win a behind-the-scenes bet.)

What follows basically has a three-pronged structure. We have Quist, articulating his feelings and motivations to a comely psychiatrist (we also learn he sculpts in his free time) – this is quite well-played stuff, though inevitably a bit theatrical. Then there are the various pseudo-political shenanigans surrounding the enquiry into the deaths of Toby Wren and the others. The Minister sounds Ridge out about potentially taking over from Quist, should he be sacked, and Ridge seems not at all uninterested to begin with – the dislike between the two is at its most palpable, with Quist actually sacking Ridge (temporarily) partway through the episode. Given that this story is another example of the auteurship of Terence Dudley (written, produced, and directed by) it’s not entirely surprising to find a Survivors pre-union of sorts in progress at the enquiry itself, with Edward Underdown and Robert Gillespie both on the tribunal (these actors both recurred in a number of third season Survivors episodes, which Dudley also oversaw).

However, the most memorable part of the story concerns an investigation Ridge undertakes on a freelance basis, after being tipped off by Hardcastle, a young scientist involved in genetic research in Norwich (insert your own joke at this point). The researchers are working on genetically-engineered hybrids, and have got to the point where they’ve produced live specimens. Quist seems oddly unconcerned by this, but Ridge manages to gain access to the laboratory (mainly, it must be said, by knocking off one of the female scientists) and is appalled by what he finds: dogs and chickens with multiple human heads. Somehow, the very primitiveness of the special effects used to realise this (real chickens in rubber masks) only adds to how repellent it all feels. Faced with this, Ridge goes sort of berserk and ends up breaking the jaw of one of the lab technicians trying to throw him out; the sequence concludes with the female scientist proudly revealing that she herself is pregnant with a human-animal hybrid. It’s grotesque, nightmarish stuff, but the oddest thing is that this whole strand of the episode just seems to be there to push Ridge over the edge and allow him to empathise with some of the questionable decisions that Quist made prior to Wren’s death. There’s no indication that the issue of this project and the bizarre chimeras it is producing will ever be touched on again; one has to conclude it’s partly there to give an episode mainly composed of middle-aged men talking in offices a bit more water-cooler value.

In the end, Quist’s natural astuteness and quick wits allow him to survive the enquiry with his authority undiminished (the scene where John Paul is questioned by Robert Gillespie is, as you’d expect, a good one), and both he and Ridge have come to know themselves and each other a little better – the hostility between them seems to have drained away, for the time being at least, and the team has recovered from the loss of Wren and found a new determination to carry on doomwatching for the rest of the second series.

Which they do, starting with Invasion, a lavish big-scale episode with loads of location filming. Ridge and new recruit Hardcastle are in Yorkshire, checking nitrate levels in the local water table. To assist with this they’ve engaged the services of a couple of local lads who are into potholing and cave-diving, but there’s a bit of a panic when the duo disappear while exploring a local cave system. Having checked out the geology of the area, Ridge concludes they may have emerged near the Grange, a big local house that has been abandoned for years.

Of course, it turns out the Grange is not as deserted as it appears, for it is subject to a high-security military presence who insist there is no chance of the missing lads having been there. Ridge’s curiosity is piqued by the nature of the military presence, and attempts to do his world’s-worst-spy act in order to sneak in; he is caught, which upsets everyone.

Quist (who hasn’t bothered coming to Yorkshire until this point) discovers that the Grange was used for decades as a testing facility for bacteriological warfare, and the potential for infection is still worryingly high. This is why all wildlife going near the house is shot by the guards (hmmm, that doesn’t sound particularly reliable to me) and no-one is allowed in. Quist is disturbed by the existence of this kind of place, scorning the notion of germ warfare as a defensive weapon, but accepts there’s nothing to be done about it.

In any case, the missing lads turn up quite well, and deny ever having been in the Grange. Case closed, surely? But a slow accumulation of evidence leads Quist and Ridge to conclude that someone isn’t being completely straight with them, with dire consequences for the local community…

Invasion is a solid, straightforward episode written by Martin Worth, later head writer on the latter part of Survivors. The rural setting and comparative lack of political wrangling marks it out as a bit different – there’s not much needle between Quist and Ridge compared to usual, either. The story develops satisfyingly, and concludes with another of those memorably downbeat Doomwatch endings: faced with the fact that the contamination has escaped from the Grange, Quist is forced to call in the army and have the villagers relocated, their old homes placed in quarantine just as the Grange was. Their community is broken up, their livestock and pets all shot. The images of the deserted village patrolled by armed soldiers in hazmat suits is one of the series’ most striking. There’s not much moral ambiguity here, not much personal drama (something of a shame, as the great Geoffrey Palmer appears, but doesn’t get much to do), not really very much SF content – an atypical episode, compared to what we’ve usually seen up to this point, but a good one.

The next episode, Louis Marks’ The Islanders, is so much a companion piece to Invasion that it initially almost feels like a continuation of the same story. It opens in what looks like some kind of internment camp, where Ridge is attempting to fingerprint the inhabitants – who seem to be a collection of everyday country folk. They take violent issue with this.

Well, it’s not much of a pre-credits sequence, but it turns out we’re effectively six months into the story already. The people in the camp are the former inhabitants of a remote Pacific island, forced from their homes by an earthquake, and relocated to the UK. Due to their near-total isolation from modern civilisation, they are effectively a control group allowing scientists to measure the effects of industrial progress on human beings – hence the interest of Quist and the other Doomwatchers.

It soon becomes very clear which way this story is heading – the island elders bewail the way their close-knit community bonds are dissolving in this new world, as their young people become distracted by the pleasures and pitfalls of 1971 society. Ridge comes down with a mild case of the flu, which he inadvertently passes on to the islanders, who have no resistance: there is at least one death as a result.

Naturally, Quist starts to question the wisdom of bringing the islanders to the UK at all, but there’s a problem with sending them back – their old home is in a politically-sensitive region and is being considered for use as a military base. And then it transpires that the whole area has become contaminated with mercury leaking from a sunken ship, condemning anyone who does go back to a premature death…

Another story of Displaced Persons and a community under threat, then, though the tone is less ominous and more one of regret and resignation. There’s something slightly simplistic in the telling of it – it’s hard to shake the impression that the islanders are being depicted rather patronisingly. At one point the young islander who’s the key guest character says he finds working on a factory assembly line much more interesting than being a farmer, and – although he doesn’t notice it – Quist and the others are clearly viewing him with a mixture of condescension and pity. Then again, as this suggests, the story is also big on the idea that living close to nature is somehow better than modern technological life, and it’s just a shame that the former is being crowded out by the latter.

It’s fairly effectively done, the key problem for me being that nothing about the islanders themselves screams South Pacific to me – I could easily buy that they’re from the Scilly Isles or the Hebrides, or the next island over from Christopher Lee’s mob in The Wicker Man, but the South Pacific? I suppose they’re meant to be analogous to the Pitcairn islanders, but I still don’t think the episode quite convinces on this front. It doesn’t help that Quist’s visit to the island near the end of the episode has clearly been filmed somewhere rather closer to home, BBC budgets not extending to location shoots in the south Pacific in 1971. Nevertheless, this is a relatively minor point, and the episode sustains its theme and its tone rather well: no-one really lives on an island any more, these days, no matter how much we might wish it otherwise.

 

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Functioning on a rather more quotidian plane than many episodes of Doomwatch is Don Shaw’s Train and De-Train, which opens with a glum-looking Ridge overseeing the collection of bin-bags full of dead animals – no chance for him to rehearse his pick-up lines here. Practically a whole woodful of squirrels, foxes, and voles have turned up dead, and the evidence suggests that a pesticide company named Alminster Chemical may have been running tests on the quiet – with Quist off in New York, Toby is despatched to check the company out, something he’s a little hesitant to do, given their top scientist is his old supervisor from Cambridge, Ellis (David Markham).

As it happens, Ellis is having a hard time at work – first his parking space is taken away without warning, then his phone vanishes, then he comes back to his office to find all his furniture has vanished, too. This rather bizarre behaviour is apparently the SOP of Alminster’s new American parent company, the intention being to give Ellis a hint that his services are no longer required. The boss, Mitchell (George Baker, having fun), lays it on the line to him, antagonising Toby, who happens to be around when it happens.

Well, eventually Toby lets his dislike of Mitchell’s methods show, haranguing the businessman and promising to see his company made to answer for the ecologically-devastating pesticide tests. Unfortunately he lets himself get recorded doing so, thus compromising Doomwatch’s investigation into what happened – they can’t afford to show personal animus against people and organisations.

Quist bluntly sacks Toby, but promises him a good reference and lets him stay on until he can find another job. In the meantime, can the team find a way of linking Alminster to the pesticide tests before the company starts exporting the chemical involved in large quantities?

Largely another crack at the callousness of big business, then, without the leavening weirdness which at least made The Red Sky a bit more memorable. Given the treatment of Ellis at the start of the episode, you might expect the episode to be more about the ruthlessness of modern personnel management techniques – which would be an extremely peculiar theme for an episode of a mainstream drama these days – but while this indeed eventually provides the mechanism by which Mitchell is undone and Toby reinstated by the episode’s end, it’s much more about, well, office politics, and how to bring Alminster to book. (Meanwhile Bradley is slaughtering lab animals by the shedload in an attempt to prove the pesticide is dangerous, while Pat the secretary looks on dubiously. Just another day in the Doomwatch offices.)

There’s an attempt to make Mitchell a bit less of a pin-striped monster – the company has to start exporting or it’ll go under, and the new pesticide should eventually save lives – but Baker plays him with a malevolent relish that doesn’t leave you in much doubt as to who the bad guy is in this episode. It’s nicely written and well-played – and Mitchell’s comeuppance at the end is obviously fun to watch – but I find I do enjoy the particularly outlandish episodes much more.

Which leads us to the final extant episode of the first series of Doomwatch, Elwyn Jones’ The Battery People. In generally I would say that Doomwatch has been a bit lighter in proper SF than I’d have hoped for, but considerably weirder (compared to 21st century TV) than I expected, and we are squarely in this kind of territory here.

There is a new man at the top of the Ministry of National Security, and Quist orders the other Doomwatchers to come up with some ideas as to how to keep their new boss sweet. It turns out that a community in the heart of his constituency has a divorce rate much higher than the national average and an unusual incidence of cockfighting, too. This is enough to get Quist’s antennae twitching, and so he packs Ridge off to sniff around and see if anything odd is afoot in the area.

If nothing else it’s chance for Simon Oates to do his suave investigating schtick and show the world what we missed when he wasn’t hired to play James Bond for Diamonds are Forever or Live and Let Die (apparently it was near thing). Always assuming the Bond series decided to plunge into the unexpected world of very intimate male inadequacy, which on reflection is fairly unlikely.

The home lives of various local men of a certain age are indeed falling apart, the men themselves have become very keen on watching roosters rip each other to bits, and their drink of choice has become gin. What can have befallen them? Well, it turns out they’re all working in the food processing plant of Colonel Smithson (Emrys Jones), who’s using his own secret process to produce big juicy chickens and pre-filleted fish, said process apparently having being lifted from a chemical warfare research project. (Mmm, I feel like chicken tonight.) You can probably guess what the effect of the chemicals he uses is on the middle-aged men who make up most of his workforce.

Well, this is clearly a heartfelt episode, and the drama concerning the effect of mass impotence – effectively chemical castration – on a whole community is clearly very seriously intended, but the oddness of the implementation – gin and cockfighting – makes it just a little difficult to take seriously, and things do get just a bit melodramatic. The sheer unadulterated straight-from-central-casting Welshness of most of the guest characters (look you, boyo, yaki dah, etc) is also a little startling (Quist and the others back in London have fun bringing out their own Welsh accents in a manner which is not really un-patronising).

While the theme is once again the conflict of Doomwatch’s humanist values with the callousness of big business, this time the guy in the suit is less of a hissable villain, just being someone content to look the other way, but oddly enough his eventual fate is (we are invited to assume) far worse than simply losing his job or going bankrupt, with Quist seemingly happy to connive in covering up a serious assault on him. The other side of the argument is put more persuasively, too – a local gently puts it to Ridge that it’s all very well for him to visit the Welsh valleys, snoop about and make his report, but it’s the local economy that will really suffer if he shuts down the factory that provides much of the area’s employment.

Of the two episodes, I have to say I found The Battery People to be more effective, mainly because it seems to be a little more understated in its handling of the story, and because it’s much more successful in putting a human face on the effects of the problem it focuses on. The outlandish nature of the story and the way it is presented inevitably makes it difficult to view it as an actual drama, as opposed to a real curiosity from the archives.

 

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I have quite a low boredom threshold, which is only partly offset by the fact that as a rule I tend not to get bored by the same things as people with standard brain function. It’s therefore just a shame that I never quite connected with science at school, as I think I would have been quite a good fit for the Doomwatch team – their work is nothing if not extremely varied. Having already dealt with rogue polymervorous viruses, the ethics of transplant surgery, chemical warfare, genetically engineered super-intelligent rats, the threat of a computer-dominated society, and the issue of mental health in the space programme, episode seven of the first series finds the lads seconded to the Department of Health and doing research into how people are smoking. (This being 1970, the answer is usually ‘like a chimney’.)

I say lads, but of course there is also Pat the secretary to consider. This episode, The Devil’s Sweets (written by Don Shaw), is Pat the secretary’s big showcase, in which she gets to do much more than just sit around and get macked on by Ridge. (Although, to be fair, this does happen as well.) As things get underway, the team are finding a startling rise in cigarette consumption across London, for no readily apparent reason, and limited to one particular brand of cigarettes. Even Pat the secretary, who gave up years ago, is back on the fags, and no-one understands why.

A bit of detective work by the team, not to mention scans of Pat the secretary’s brain (‘let’s hope we can find it!’ chortles Ridge, as hilariously misogynistic as ever), reveals a connection between the cigarette company, a recent promotion giving away free chocolate, the ad agency handling both products, and a scientist at a local university doing research into behavioural conditioning.

It basically comes down to whether or not the team will be able to get evidence or a confession proving that illegal psycho-active drugs were put into the choccies, giving people the compulsion to smoke, but the situation is complicated by the fact that – lawks! – the drugs synergise extremely poorly with the diet pills that Pat the secretary has been popping, meaning she’s rushed off to hospital and put in intensive care – actually, it looks more like some kind of iron lung. (Told you Pat the secretary was central to this episode. Admittedly, she’s central and unconscious a lot of the time, but you can’t have everything.)

I’m tempted to say that any episode of Doomwatch featuring Ridge is bound to be a bit suspect in its sexual politics (to be fair, Toby comes across as rather a lech sometimes, too), but this one kind of takes the biscuit, opening with mini-skirted dollies handing out the tainted chocs to gleeful city gents, and the actual physical jeopardy limited solely to anyone taking diet pills – who are exclusively women, of course. This is my main takeaway from the episode, other than a rather extraordinary appearance by Maurice Roeves as the amoral ad man – it’s not his delivery of the material which startles as much as the wardrobe he’s given, which gives Ridge’s eye-searing outfits a run for their money.

The mystery of how the spike in smoking is linked to the chocolate giveaway is an engaging one – is it subliminal messaging? Is something else going on? – but unfortunately it doesn’t quite have the clever resolution one might have hoped for. Instead, the episode’s climax gets its impact from Quist’s brutal tactics in extracting the confession he needs. It is a little bit stagey, but the performances of John Paul and Simon Oates just about sell it. Again, this barely qualifies as SF by any reasonable metric, but it’s a bit difficult to say which other genre could comfortably contain it.

On to Pedler and Davis’s The Red Sky, one of the episodes most likely to seem slightly absurd to a 21st century audience. One interesting factoid is that Doomwatch was so popular in the 1970s that three episodes were adapted into a graded reader for students of the English language, one of them being The Red Sky. The English language teaching industry being what it is, these books are still in circulation forty years on, and I came across the Doomwatch reader a few years back. The main thrust of the plot survives intact, but the book can’t quite do justice to the extravagant weirdness of the plot.

The episode proper opens with unusually high levels of grumpiness between the various members of the Doomwatch team – one notable thing about this show is that the main characters often genuinely seem to dislike one another – and Quist in particular showing signs of stress. After an intervention by the others, Quist agrees to take a few days off, and heads to the country to spend some time with his conservationist friend Colley.

However, Colley and his daughter are distracted by the peculiar suicide of another friend of theirs – the local lighthouse keeper, who was seen staggering out of his lighthouse in a demented state and then jumping off a cliff in the pre-credits sequence. Quist is initially more concerned by the level of noise pollution from the test beds at the local aviation research installation, but then Colley himself has some kind of fit while visiting the lighthouse – could there possibly be some kind of connection? (Clue: yes.)

Well, as I’ve suggested in the past, many episodes of Doomwatch still do a decent job of feeling relatively plausible, one way or another, but this is one of the occasions where the show falls over in a fairly spectacular manner – the central conceit of The Red Sky feels about as scientifically plausible, to a modern audience, as that of the average episode of The Avengers. The proposition in this instance is that the sonic boom generated by a rocket-powered hypersonic aircraft, when focused by the distinctive structure of a lighthouse, can cause intense hallucinations and actual seizures in anyone unlucky enough to be in the building when the plane flies over. Even if this is true, it seems like a bit of a niche problem, and the episode’s credibility gap is not much helped by the way that Quist’s hallucinations are realised – lashings of garish CSO and close-ups of John Paul’s eyes bugging at the camera. The episode attempts a suitably ominous conclusion, with the lighthouse scheduled for demolition and flights of the rocket plane on hold. ‘What will happen when the plane is flying all over the country?’ someone asks. We don’t know, yet, says Quist. Well, I would venture to suggest, not much, in the real world at least, although to be fair this strange conjunction of lighthouses and rocket planes isn’t a particularly common one as far as I know.

That said, the episode is well-structured with the central mystery functioning more satisfactorily than in some other offerings. There’s a typically solid guest appearance from Paul Eddington as the top chap at the aircraft company, who is (understandably) dubious of Quist’s theory, and a fairly engaging subplot about Ridge, who suspects that Quist’s wild claims indicate he is having some sort of breakdown and seems primarily intent on mitigating any damage this may do to Doomwatch as an agency. Apart from the hallucinatory sequences, this is a solidly produced episode in all departs. But the central concept is still pretty bonkers.

 

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There’s an extremely well-worn old saying to the effect that, contrary to popular opinion, science fiction does not attempt to predict the future – science fiction attempts to prevent it. Not that it necessarily seems to be doing a very good job, although I suppose things could always be worse. Whether or not Doomwatch actually qualifies as bona fide SF is an interesting question – Wikipedia seems very sure that it is, while the actual DVD box declares it to be a ‘ground-breaking science-fact… thriller’. Who to believe? What a dilemma I find myself in.

Well, actually, it’s fairly obviously SF, some of the time at least, given the super-intelligent killer rats we were talking about last time round. I am glad to report that, at the time of writing, southern England is not in imminent danger of being devoured by organised tool-using rodents, but the next episode does end up somewhere a little closer to reality, although it certainly takes a circuitous route to get there.

Said episode is Project Sahara, another Gerry Davis script, which opens with the Doomwatch team hard at work evaluating a top secret biochemical warfare programme codenamed, well, Project Sahara. To help with this they have recruited Stella Robson, a brilliant biologist, whom they are all much impressed by. Robson is played by Hildegarde Neil, an actress perhaps most notable for marrying Brian Blessed forty years ago. (She is not much seen on screen nowadays, probably because she became profoundly deaf thirty-nine years ago.)

The team are alarmed that Project Sahara’s brand of agricultural warfare could prove devastating to the environment, but before they can complete their work word comes through from their government masters – Toby Wren and Stella Robson are both suspended from duty, effective immediately!

Toby goes off down the pub and gets wrecked, and – in another of those rather uncomfortably unreconstructed scenes which pepper this series – suggests that if Stella really wants to cheer him up, the two of them can have a roll in the hay together (so to speak). She declines this romantic offer, leaving him to pour his heart out to an older man he meets in the bar.

Quist is rather concerned when the same man (played by Nigel Stock) turns up in the Doomwatch offices and announces he is Commander Keeping, head of a new internal security agency  responsible for vetting the staff of this kind of operation. Quist suspects political pressure has been brought to bear to protect Project Sahara, but is there something else going on?

Well, yes there is, though it’s while until just what it is becomes apparent. It turns out the whole Project Sahara element, with its overtones of Silent Spring, is a bit of a red herring, because the episode is really about something else: Quist eventually discovers that Keeping’s agency is making decisions based in part on guidance given by a computer system. The system has a spooky electronic voice (provided by Peter Hawkins, one of the original voice actors on both the Daleks and the Cybermen in Doctor Who) and a frankly rather bizarre monitor screen, so accepting it as something sinister feels reasonably natural.

The episode thus devolves to being about the primacy of human decision-making in a world where computers can assess facts at a vastly greater speed and with immensely greater accuracy. The same theme as, for example, the Star Trek episode The Ultimate Computer, but this episode is rather more ambiguous – the M-5 computer in Trek rather predictably turns out to be sentient and goes spectacularly mad, requiring Kirk to talk it to death. The security system in this episode is just a very complex predictive network, not actually any kind of AI with its own consciousness, and the episode indicates it knows what it’s talking about – its prediction that Wren is a security risk proves unfounded (as far as this episode goes), but it turns out to be on the money about Robson, who has skeletons in her cupboard and proves potentially vulnerable to subversion.

Quist’s objection to the use of the machine is thus almost wholly a sentimental, philosophical one, rather than being based on its actual performance – there are things that men must do in order to remain men, as Spock puts it (in rather sexist terms) in The Ultimate Computer. And Quist’s victory is a heavily qualified one – the system is still running at the story’s conclusion, it’s just that its decisions are mediated by the human insight of Keeping, for the time being at least.

I imagine the average person will respond to Project Sahara in one of two ways: either it rings an impressive number of bells when it comes to the whole issue of Big Data and the predictive powers of computers, given it’s 47 years old, or it’s just another one of those slightly quaint examples of people from the past getting into a bit of a tizzy about stuff which everyone nowadays takes for granted – rather in the same way that people were at one point genuinely worried that transplant surgery was a threat to personal identity.

Personally I tend towards the former position, given the extent to which we are already influenced by the manipulation of our personal information by internet giants and their algorithms. Amazon already does a pretty good job of suggesting books and DVDs to me that I might like to partake of, the same is true of all the big internet and social media corporations. Not long ago I read Yuval Harari’s Homo Deus, in which he suggests that the future will see this kind of system improving to the point where the systems’ abilities to analyse and predict human behaviour will far outstrip human ability in this field – in short, the machines will know us better than we know ourselves, and what value will there be in human oversight or decision-making in a world like that? It’s a peculiar notion, but one I suspect we may have to get used to thinking about.

Then again, I suppose you could equally argue that the rise of these kinds of systems, and the fact that nothing particularly awful seems to have happened yet, just proves that Quist is being ridiculous in his concerns – and it’s not like computers have the power of life or death over humans yet. Well, maybe not, provided you discount the algorithms used to monitor and respond to the international stock markets, which of necessity operate without direct human oversight. I’m not saying I necessarily agree with Quist (and, I suppose, Davis) on this one, but I do think the episode looks a long way ahead with unusual clarity.

We’re back to the ‘is it or isn’t it science fiction?’ question with a vengeance for the next episode, Don Shaw’s Re-entry Forbidden, which deals with issues to do with the manned space programme – which was very much science fact at the time, but can’t help feeling a bit fantastical nowadays. The Apollo programme is never mentioned by name, but James Burke and Michael Aspel briefly cameo as themselves in a sequence clearly intended to imitate the BBC’s moon-landings coverage. It was obviously a no-brainer for any science-based TV drama to do an episode which tapped into public interest in spaceflight around this time – Doctor Who had a go with The Ambassadors of Death at virtually exactly the same time that this episode was in production, and apparently the two shows split the cost of the expensive space-capsule set used in both programmes.

There are faint shades of Quatermass as the episode begins – a NASA mission code-named Sunfire experiences difficulties on re-entry and ends up splashing down in the North Atlantic. Quist is initially concerned about the potential dangers of a nuclear-powered spacecraft burning up over a densely populated country, while Pat the secretary gets to articulate that argument that manned space travel is too expensive to justify in a world full of starving children (no-one seems very keen to debate her).

A lot of the episode isn’t even about the Doomwatch team, much, as it focuses on Larch (Michael McGovern), the first British astronaut to participate in the NASA programme. Larch does not seem like a happy bunny, is possessive of his wife, defensive when it comes to the mission, and so on. It was his decision that put the re-entry in danger, and so he is the focus of the ensuing enquiry. He is also an ex-student of Quist’s, who wrote him a reference.

This gives a NASA psychologist (Joseph Furst) the chance to deposit Larch with Doomwatch, requesting that Quist carry out a few discreet tests to establish Larch’s mental state – did he genuinely see a warning light, causing him to miss the planned re-entry window, or are there more serious issues? Quist finds himself rather reluctantly taking the mission on.

Definitely no genuine SF here, as this is another character-based drama – though sort of vaguely topical at the time it was made, given it was transmitted the month before the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission. It is, yet again, a rather talky piece of work, and it takes a long time to get going.

Actually, given a few more weeks and it’s very possible the episode would never have been broadcast at all on the grounds of taste, given it has a startlingly bleak conclusion. Quist gives Larch a clean bill of health, deciding that if he does have issues, NASA will have time to identify them – but then two things happen: Wren, talking to Mrs Larch, recognises her description of his various issues as resembling the symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia, triggered by going into zero gravity, and Larch’s team are unexpectedly bumped up the flight roster, going back into space only a few weeks later.

Quist and the others rush off to the nearest ground station, deciding that it’s essential that mission control know that Larch is a paranoid schizophrenic, but due to a cock-up with the radio, they end up beaming the information straight to the space capsule. Larch responds poorly, shall we say, and the ensuing struggle and confusion means the capsule misses its re-entry window, condemning the entire crew to die in space.

There are various things one can reasonably say about the ending of Re-entry Forbidden – is it likely that NASA’s exhaustive pre-flight testing would miss the fact that Larch is an incipient paranoid schizophrenic? Is it credible that he’d end up on two launches in not much more than a month? Isn’t Quist arguably to blame for the whole disaster, by his cack-handed attempt to share his (anecdotal and non-professional) diagnosis of Larch’s condition? How does anyone at Doomwatch manage to hang onto their job after being mixed-up and possibly culpable in the death of three NASA astronauts? But in the end it’s the conclusion of the episode that gives it its dramatic power and interest. Apart from that it’s just a curious historical piece about the demands and cost of the space programme. This is proving to be a very curious and unpredictable programme, although I must confess to finding the more overtly SF episodes more interesting.

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It is early in the Earth Year 1970, and BBC1 is launching a brave new take on the SF genre, as a semi-secret UK intelligence group, led by a brilliant but somewhat eccentric scientist, takes on a chilling plastic-oriented threat to human civilisation! What? No, no it’s not the revamp of Doctor Who with the episode Spearhead from Space. No, certainly not. This is a different show for a brand new age. This is the age of Doomwatch!

Well, what can I say – as frequent readers (may God have mercy on your souls) will have noticed, I recently spent a very satisfying few weeks watching the mid-70s version of Survivors, produced by Terence Dudley, and just the other day I had the pleasure of spending an afternoon in front of The Invasion, an epic 1968 Doctor Who story based on an idea by the scientist-turned-SF writer Kit Pedler, sometime collaborator of Gerry Davis, with whom he created the Cybermen (of course). Dudley, Pedler, and Davis came together in 1970 to make Doomwatch, an undeniably cool name for what’s a slightly peculiar mixture of procedural (sometimes political) thriller and science-based speculation. I’m obviously much too young to remember this show when it was on (though I do remember catching the 1972 movie version when I was a teenager, and bought one of the VHS releases when it turned up on discount), but as it’s finally out on DVD…

Things kick off with the episode The Plastic Eaters, written by Pedler and Davis themselves. The pre-credits sequence finds an airliner coming in to land experiencing peculiar difficulties, as significant chunks of the plane appear to be liquefying for no apparent reason. Tragedy ensues.

After some very serious music and a suitably ominous credit sequence, there follows the narrative equivalent of having a wheelbarrow full of produce dumped over your head – lots of interesting and important bits bounce everywhere, but keeping track of them all is a little bit tricky. Well, first and foremost, we are introduced to the core Doomwatch team, although quite what Doomwatch is is a little unclear – it’s initially suggested that Doomwatch is the nickname of the team’s computer, but generally it’s shorthand for the Department of Observation and Measurement of Scientific Work, something that these days would probably get called a quango, devoted to stopping scientists from destroying civilisation. Doomwatch was, it’s implied, intended to be largely for show, and the fact that it has teeth is down to its leader, Dr Quist (John Paul).

Quist is a Nobel-winning mathematician haunted by his role in developing the atom bomb, and generally tetchy with everyone. Also on staff is the rakish John Ridge (Simon Oates), who appears to be the world’s least competent spy, Wendy Hall as Pat the secretary, who’s mainly there to be patronised, and Joby Blanshard as a slightly camp northern technician. Joining the team in this first episode is Robert Powell, playing scientist Toby Wren. You would expect Wren to be the audience point of identification throughout – what’s new to the audience is new to him as well, after all – but the new boy is packed off to South America pretty much for the duration.

Someone has tipped Doomwatch off to a connection between government research and the plane crash, but their ministerial contacts are refusing to play ball, resulting in Ridge going off and turning over the minister’s office (security was clearly a lot less rigorous back in the early 1970s). Having done so, he then goes off and – with equally absurd ease – breaks into a top-secret bacteriological research establishment – the place is so top secret that from the outside it looks uncannily like a secondary school.

Well, it turns out that the government has been cooking up a new bacteria or virus (the episode uses the terms interchangeably) which feeds on plastic, breaking it down into liquid – it’s part of a waste disposal initiative. Of course, the virus – ‘Variant 14’ – has got out of the lab and ended up on the plane, causing the initial accident. Now, unfortunately, Toby Wren is flying back with virus-laden samples of wreckage, and it’s just a question of whether he can get home before his own flight melts…

The episode eventually breaks down into two main strands – the material with Powell on the plane, which gradually disintegrates as Variant 14 starts doing its stuff, and the more political aspect, as Quist and Ridge get dragged over the coals for their cloak and dagger shenanigans and try to establish not just a connection between the government lab and the crash, but also ministerial culpability for the escape.  The latter stuff is slightly dry and melodramatic, with the senior members of Doomwatch proving a fairly unsympathetic lot, but the scenes on the melting plane have a delirious, almost psychedelic quality.

This is partly because we are, after all, in early 1970, with floral shirts and cravats in common usage, and the series making every attempt to reward those viewers who’d stumped up for a colour set. Garish hues of every type fill the screen, clashing weirdly with the drab film footage used in CSO sequences in the cockpit of the plane. Trippiness abounds.

In the end, though, the episode can’t quite tie the two strands together in a completely satisfying way – there’s a limit to how exciting they can make the landing of the plane on a BBC budget, and the stuff in the minister’s office is rather talky. This episode has an interesting borderline-SF gimmick, but it can’t quite find a way to convert it into a proper thriller. I wonder if this will prove to be emblematic of the series as a whole.

Due to the unique way the BBC managed its archive in the 1970s, 14 of the 38 episodes of Doomwatch are missing, presumed wiped, which means the next one available for perusal is the fourth – Tomorrow, the Rat, written, produced and directed by Terence Dudley. Very much a Dudley family outing, in fact, as the pre-credits teaser features Dudley’s son Stephen (later a Survivors regular, of course) as a toddler who is set upon by a rat.

Yes, this is the one with the rats, the episode that gets dragged out for cheap laughs whenever lazy shows about the ‘hilarious’ BBC SF shows of yesteryear are broadcast. A series of rat attacks on people around London draws Doomwatch’s attention, and Quist’s antennae perk up when he notices that one of the research scientists in the pest control authority is noted genetic engineering expert Mary Bryant (Penelope Lee).

Again, the plot basically has two angles to it: Quist packs Ridge off, basically with orders to seduce Bryant and see what she’s been up to, and there’s a lot of supposedly charged interplay between the two of them, which has not dated well. I can’t help thinking a lot of this episode would be quite different if Bryant had been a man, because much of it is about Bryant’s personal issues and self-doubt. (There’s also the implication that some of Bryant’s beliefs – her ultimate goal is the eugenic improvement of mankind via genetic engineering – are made all the more shocking by the fact they’re held by, gasp, a woman.)

Much more interesting is this episode’s SF element, which concerns Bryant’s genetic experiments on the rats. As you might expect, these have not quite gone to plan, and rather than rats which eat each other and thus keep the pest population down, a super-intelligent breed of killer has been unleashed on London. There’s a moment where Toby Wren gradually realises that the rats he’s been trying to catch have used makeshift tools to jam the traps open, and that they’re effectively dealing with a new species, rattus sapiens. Powell’s performance does a great job of selling this as one of those transcendent, SF-shivery moments – and then he and the camp northerner go through a ridiculous attacked-by-rubber-rats routine (said fake rodents are glued onto their trousers, and so on), and it utterly ruins the whole thing.

Once again, it feels like the programme can’t quite get the two aspects of the story into sync so they properly support one another, and it’s also at a bit of a loss as to how to depict a plague of super-intelligent rats on a 1970 BBC budget – we get shown the rats’ handiwork much more than the beasts themselves. The resolution of the rat problem is disappointingly pedestrian, too: the exterminators, police, army, etc, are called out, and it’s all done very quickly in a montage sequence.

One obvious question is whether Tomorrow, the Rat was an influence on James Herbert, who started writing his notorious horror novel The Rats in 1972 – the novel depicts London beset by a plague of deadly mutant rats, and the slightly shambolic establishment response to this. It is a strikingly similar tale in many ways – the biggest difference is that Doomwatch leaves most of the rat attacks and the associated nastiness off-screen, whereas Herbert revels in the gore. The novelist always suggested his inspiration was the 1931 film version of Dracula, which on the face of it has much less in common with the other two pieces of work, and it seems very possible to me that he saw this episode (Doomwatch was a very popular show) and either never consciously realised its influence on him, or didn’t want to tempt legal action by admitting he’d been inspired by a TV show.

Tomorrow, the Rat is a bit more visceral and character-led than The Plastic Eaters, which has a stronger focus on its political wranglings, but the two episodes do have a lot in common – really interesting high-concept ideas, which they struggle both to use as story material and to bring to the screen on the budget the show has been assigned. On the strength of these two episodes, does Doomwatch live up to its reputation as one of the most interesting pieces of SF drama made by the BBC in the 1970s? Well, maybe, but only just; you do have to cut this programme some slack, but if you do it is by no means without points of interest.

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I’m starting to wonder if I haven’t been letting my acquired prejudice against most modern TV colour my attitude towards New Survivors. I mean, it’s a modern mainstream drama, so I feel that managing ones’ expectations downwards is probably a good idea, and most of the writing in Episode Nine is fairly risible, but even so… Once you factor in the sentimental focus of a modern TV show, and the great subtlety drought, Episode Ten at least becomes not uninteresting.

To recap: having decided to forsake conventional notions of morality in favour of a ‘let’s just look out for our own, no matter what’, our heroes are intent on springing Greg and Tom from the slave camp they were packed off to at the end of the previous episode (on the principle that ‘Tom may be a murderous psychopath, but he’s our murderous psychopath’).

Unfortunately, they have no idea where said slave camp is, and have to resort to driving around trying to find Billy the secret slave-trader, on the off-chance he knows where it is. As the episode is less than an hour long, this is required to happen improbably quickly, and Billy (scenting the chance to enslave them all) takes them back with him to his base of operations, just around the corner from the slave-operated coal mine.

We are, I suppose, obliged to accept that the country is in a state where there is sufficient demand for a coal mine to be a going concern, and the various communities (none of which we’ve ever seen on-screen) have enough of a food surplus for this to be viable. It feels a little implausible, but – as mentioned – we haven’t seen much of the state of the wider country. (It occurs to me that the first phase of the original show, in which the core trio basically wander the wasteland meeting different other survivor groups, performs an invaluable service in terms of world-building.)

The slave mine is the brainchild of Smithson (Christopher Fulford), a former Oxford don and expert in classical history who is such a fan of the slave-based economies of ancient Greece that he has decided to reinstitute slavery in the post-viral world. Well, I suppose it is just about possible. Greg and Tom get put to work down t’pit, giving them a chance to grumble at each other some more, and then Greg comes up with a cunning plan to escape by pretending to be an expert on mining. Good luck with that one, Greg.

Meanwhile, despite their record in the whole ‘rescuing people’ department being frankly questionable, the others attempt to rescue them, although not before allowing themselves a little moral outrage at Smithson’s vision of the new world. Fairly predictably, Greg’s escape plan and Abby and Anya’s rescue attempt bang into each other, resulting in everyone ending up down t’pit, apart from Tom, who has managed to escape all by himself in the meantime. (Honestly, the plotting in this episode…) Will he come back and save his former companions? (Clue: yes.)

Well, one thing about New Survivors which wasn’t the case with the old show is that it’s not afraid to be political in a fairly specific way: the new series is much more interested in the post-apocalyptic economy, specifically in the way it mainly seems to function by people exploiting one another, whether it be explicitly in the form of slave labour, as depicted here, or the trading of favours for sex (touched upon in a few episodes), or the exploitation of children as labourers (Episode Six). It’s all very firmly anti-capitalist, which I don’t necessarily have a problem with, and it may just be that the new show is a product of its time (this series was in production during the immediate aftermath of the financial collapse which was, I think, one of the defining events so far this century).

The episode is surprisingly uncompromising in its handling of the aftermath of the climactic slave rebellion, with quite brutal retribution being handed out to the various oppressors, and on top of this there’s a scene where one of the prisoners, who’s mortally injured and dying in agony, is euthanised (in a fairly back to basics manner) by Tom. It may be the programme is sincerely trying to depict people trying to make sense of a post-morality world, where conventional notions of good and evil no longer apply – but many of the characters are still framed in terms of the moral outrage they express about slavery and the treatment of the various prisoners. Smithson is an out-and-out villain, there’s no attempt to give his philosophy any real credibility. So I rather fear this is just a case of a confused production which can’t quite make up what its central emphasis should be. Still the best episode of the second series so far, though.

I would say Episode Eleven continues this upwards trend, but for the fact it’s an incredibly mixed bag. The A-plot is quite strong – our heroes rescue a bunch of other survivors from some raiders, and go back with them to their idyllic community. (Even Pointless Al and Dim Sarah, who’ve been getting it on in the back of a moving lorry, finally do something useful in helping drive the raiders off.) Pointless Al and Dim Sarah are so loved up you just know a Major Development is on the cards, while Maybe-Gay Anya takes a break from her UST with Tom to feel that certain spark with the girl in charge here. Needless to say, this puts Tom into brutish thug mode.

(I have to say that for all the weaknesses in this series – and attentive readers may have noticed I think there are plenty – Max Beesley’s performance is consistently solid, perhaps even surprisingly so. Then again I do mainly know him from playing the bongos in the title sequence of The Word and supporting roles in things like Torque.)

It all goes epically wrong, of course, when the occupants of a remote part of the community fall victim to what seems to be bird flu – it turns out this is a mutant form of the plague, from which the survivors’ genetic immunity does not protect them. Poor old Dim Sarah blunders in on the afflicted, catches the new flu, and cops it, although not before there are many opportunities for longing looks between her and Pointless Al, long speeches and declarations, and the sadness music soaring as it has seldom soared before.

It’s quite well-played (though, needless to say, the 21st century subtlety drought is in full effect), although (broken record time) wasn’t New Survivors supposed to be less depressing? In the end Abby gets to burn another corpse while someone recites that ‘A time to live…’ bit of the book of Ecclesiastes. They should probably have stressed that ‘a time to refrain from embracing’ part more, seeing as Tom and Anya decide to mark Dim Sarah’s passing by having frantic doomsday rumpo on top of a hill (even Tom has figured out that the new flu is eventually bound to kill everyone but Abby and her Magic Immune System).

So far so good, but as far as the B-story goes… I know I’ve been hard on the plotting of this series so far, but we’re into a whole new world of nonsense here. Basically it goes as follows: for no very particular reason, Greg decides to go back to his former home, taking Abby with him. There he comes across a mysterious postcard he received before the pandemic hit, which has a mysterious map reference on it. For no particular reason, Greg and Abby decide to visit the map reference, which is conveniently local, and find an airfield. There they find an unhinged businessman who received a similar postcard and has been hanging around waiting for a mysterious flight ever since the plague struck. When he realises the flight really isn’t coming, the businessman tops himself. Greg figures out that this was all part of a secret evacuation plan to save certain individuals from the apocalypse, and assumes his mysteriously-vanished ex-wife must have added his name to the list. As you may have guessed, this is all laying in plot ahead of the final episode of the series, but the incredibly clumsy way it is done is difficult to credit.

Anyway, to the final episode: realising the new flu may finish the job of wiping out humanity, Abby decides to go back to the boffins in their lab and let them finish work on their vaccine using her tissue. She gets back to discover that the manner of her earlier escape breached security there and the virus has got in and killed nearly everyone – but, looking on the bright side, her son Peter has been brought here by Roger Lloyd Pack (don’t ask, it’s a bit involved). Now the chief boffin, who’s survived using a semi-vaccine derived from Abby’s blood, has secreted Peter somewhere and is awaiting extraction by his mysterious superiors. (Yes, months after the end of civilisation, Skype is still working, apparently.)

Well, one thing that follows is the quest for a vaccine, which ends up being tested on Pointless Al (maybe I’ve been too hard on him). It’s a close thing, but he survives, thanks in part (it’s implied) to a visit by the ghost of Dim Sarah (quite how Dim Sarah’s ghost was bright enough to find her way to the right bedside is not explained). (This looks very much like one of those things where a performer was contracted for every episode of the series despite dying before the end, hence some odd flashbacks/spectral appearances, etc.)

Elsewhere, Greg and the others manage to capture the chief boffin, and Abby gets Tom to try and torture the location of Peter out of him. When the cultural history of the 2000s is written, scenes like this one – where the good guys reluctantly admit that torture is sometimes necessary – will surely be recognised as a trope, for they turn up in so many different programmes. They seem to me to very obviously be an expression of western liberal angst over the measures governments felt compelled to employ to protect themselves, following the September 11th attacks: if it’s okay for these characters we’ve come to empathise with and care about, it must surely be okay for us too, sometimes. (Not that the torture actually works in this case, but that’s just down to plot requirements.)

Everything concludes with a big chase, some shooting, and a proper appearance by the fine actor Patrick Malahide as the boffin’s boss. Again, interesting cultural stuff going on,  as (of course) it turns out the evacuation flights are connected to the boffins, who decided to save the elite of society from the disaster. A disaster it turned out they caused. So, we have a global disaster, which the architects of which have managed to escape using their wealth and influence: not the most subtle allusion to the financial crisis, but it does fit in with the general theme of this second and final season of the new show.

Let us speculate as to what may happen next: Abby and her friends have ‘enough’ vaccine to protect themselves from the new flu, but it’s strongly implied that mass production is required in order to save the rest of the world. Slightly ominous, then, that the series concludes with Tom, still quite possibly a virus carrier, stowing away on the plane to the secret enclave where civilisation still endures. It is easy to imagine this not ending well – Tom infecting the elite, wiping the overwhelming majority of them out, and the vaccine never being produced, resulting in Abby and Greg and the others eventually wandering about as the last survivors of an almost completely depopulated world. Hey, but it can’t be as depressing as all that – if we’re shown one thing in the course of this show, it’s that all these people really, really love each other, so it can’t be all that bad.

Well, New Survivors turned out to be a bit more authentic than I expected – just my luck to choose to watch the very worst episode as my first exposure to the show. I don’t much care for the manipulative sentimentalism of the new show, nor the atrocious plotting of many of the episodes, and the absence of subtlety also irks me – but then I could say all those things about Moffat-era Doctor Who, and I’ve still stuck with that, although it does sometimes feel like a contest between myself and the show to see which one of us dies first. If nothing else New Survivors is sometimes rather well acted, and offers an interesting mirror of the period in which it was made. That latter point is equally true of the old show, of course. I suppose that, in the end, I am just a man of the 1970s at heart.

 

 

 

 

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Accepted wisdom is that the second series of a TV show is often when it hits its stride, as everyone involved has figured out the logistics and issues involved in making it and can now get on with trying to make it really well. Just look at – to think of a few examples off the top of my head – Star Trek, Blake’s 7, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Avengers, Babylon 5, and so on. That said, this isn’t an absolute rule: it wasn’t the case with the original Survivors, which lost a crucial character and cast member and got bogged down rather in bucolica, and I have to say that the omens are not good for the remake of the show, which (just to reiterate) I am currently checking out in its entirety for the first time.

We are of course well beyond the original conception of Terry Nation by this point. Abby has been kidnapped by the minions of evil boffins searching for a vaccine for the plague virus which has already destroyed civilisation, Greg has been grievously wounded by killer chav Dexter after the group’s resident psycho Tom Price killed one of his men in cold blood, and everyone is stuck in the middle of a city, which (we were invited to conclude) is a really bad place to be.

The end of series one picked up the pace a bit and Episode Seven (this seems to me to be the easiest way of keeping track of which one we’re on about) appears to have been written to the brief ‘don’t give the audience time to think about anything’. Abby’s adventures in dubious virology are basically the B-plot, or maybe even the C-plot. The bulk of the episode concerns the travails of Greg and the others.

Treating Greg (who apparently has ‘shrapnel’ in his chest, rather than the shotgun pellets you might expect) requires medical supplies, and so Anya, Al, and Tom leave him in a hotel and rush off to the nearest hospital, which happens to be on fire. The hospital has the bad manners to collapse on top of them, trapping Anya and Al in the rubble. Tom rushes back to the hotel and collects Sarah and Najid to help dig them out. (Meanwhile Greg is having flashbacks to the collapse of his marriage, as you would: perhaps the programme-makers realised what a drab and thin character New Greg tended to come across as in the first series, especially compared to Ian McCulloch’s version, and this is intended to fill him out a bit.)

Well, as the digging progresses and Al and Anya are (of course) sharing significant moments of emotion in the rubble, a bunch of locals turn up looking rather sheepish – despite the city centre being a decrepit hell-hole, they are trying to build a new life here, which apparently involves burning down hospitals in order to stop the spread of disease. (No, you didn’t read that wrong, and this is basically the reason given on screen.) Rather than being completely abandoned, it seems like the city is full of people, and one of them is a slightly rum character who survives by lending construction equipment to people. (I mean, really. Really?) However, in order to get him to lend them a JCB (or, as it eventually turns out, a trolley jack), our heroes basically have to pimp Sarah out to him, against her will. I’m left slightly queasy by the casual attitude towards rape which is taken in a lot of modern culture, and by people talking about it, but this is much too close to it for comfort – and it’s not just that, it’s the fact that the situation is so ridiculously contrived and melodramatic. If the whole ethos of the show was that it takes place in a horrible, totally amoral world, then it might be more acceptable (though the ludicrously implausible plotting would still stink the place up), but it’s not – the focus of the show is still largely on the relationships between the regular characters (the group is now casually referred to as the Family, for God’s sake – note that significant capital F). Sarah wuvs Tom. Tom wuvs Anya. Anya wuvs Tom, maybe, but she’s not sure. Al and Najid wuv each other in a brotherly kind of way. Greg doesn’t wuv Tom, as he’s cottoned on to the fact that Tom’s a violent psychopath. Everyone wuvs matriarch Abby. Urrgh.

I suppose the thing that annoys me the most is that while the programme may still be called Survivors and take place in a post-apocalyptic world, there’s only the barest lip-service paid to that in the episode itself. No-one seems especially worried about where their food or water or petrol is coming from, people talk about hiring a JCB, they have video-conferences and wear suits. It doesn’t feel post-apocalyptic in any real sense.

More or less the same is true of the other storyline with Abby (who is, we’re told, an exceptional walking miracle as far as her body’s response to the virus is concerned). It may be a nightmarish satire of the attitudes of Big Pharma. It may be a disturbing conspiracy thriller. (At one point Abby is threatened with being intentionally put in a vegetative state for her own good, and at certain points I feel like this series is trying to do the same to me.) But I’m pretty sure it isn’t anything really to do with surviving after the collapse of civilisation and the tough choices involved in building a new society.

Abby stays nabbed by the boffins until the end of Episode Eight, at which point she is released by the sympathetic wife of the main villain (they are both Mums and share a Magical Mum Connection which means they instantly trust each other). Of course the evil boffins want Abby back as she is the source of a vaccine for the virus, which (we are told) may mutate at any moment into an even more lethal form.

While all this is going on, everyone else is looking for Abby, without very much success. Despite the fact that the city seemed busting at the seams with folk in Episode Seven, who all seemed pretty well-fed, here we are told the city is a decomposing wasteland where our characters are slowly starving to death. Hmmm. What follows is essentially a load more soap-opera shenanigans, with the usual ambiguous attitude towards Tom’s violent psychopathy, Sarah getting a big emotional moment as a result of having been raped the week before, Al not doing anything very interesting (as usual) and Najid being stroppy. The chickens are not mentioned at all; I fear the worst. None of it really lingers in the mind or goes anywhere particular, but at least at the end everyone is back together and ready to push on with this year’s plot, which no doubt will concern the boffins chasing Abby about the place.

Although not in Episode Nine, it seems. This is notable on one level as the one marking the first appearance of Roger Lloyd Pack in the new show (he is the only actor to appear in both TV versions of Survivors) – he plays, effectively, a slave trader (NB, New Survivors = ‘less depressing’) – and on another level as the only episode of the new show I caught on your actual television (I think it was a 2011 re-run), and it was so bad I didn’t bother going back for any more.

The crux of the episode is that the increasingly preposterous Willis and her killer chav henchman Dexter catch Tom and decide to put him on trial for the murder he carried out at the end of Series One. Abby and the others try to mount an intervention, resulting in the most ridiculous trial scene in the annals of human literature: the members of the jury are chosen at the whim of the judge, who is also counsel for the prosecution. Two of the jury are close associates of the defendant, and closely involved in events leading up to the crime. One juror recently shot and nearly killed one of the others. None of the characters seem to find anything remotely peculiar about this arrangement, of course, but despite the incredibly brazen attempts at fixing the trial by the useless Willis, Tom is found innocent, but still sent down for seven years anyway. How does someone as blatantly incompetent as Willis keep her job? Do the words ‘Hello, I’m the only government minister who didn’t die’ have some weird mystical power over everyone else? I could go on at some length, but it frankly doesn’t warrant it.

(Meanwhile, Pointless Al and Dim Sarah are getting it on somewhere else. There is not much else to the B-story this episode but at least it isn’t the A-story.)

I seem to recall that on the same day I watched this on TV, I also found a copy of the Nation novelisation in a charity shop, and after the episode concluded, I retired to bed with the book, finding it to be vastly superior in every aspect of the writing. That opinion still stands, in case you were wondering.

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