Posts Tagged ‘BBC’

John Gould’s In the Dark is one of those episodes that starts off looking like it’s going to be about one thing but ends up concerning itself with something completely different. It begins with two men going swimming in the sea off the coast of Ireland, only for them to suffer swift, mysterious, and clearly unpleasant deaths. What could be going on?

Well, Ridge is on the case and he quickly concludes that the dead men were exposed to mustard gas – a ship carrying chemical weapons to be dumped sank in roughly the same area many years earlier, it’s just a question of where. It seems obvious that the best person to ask is the former captain of the vessel, Lyon McArthur, who in addition to being an ex-naval officer is also a captain of industry and brilliant scientist. He’s also an old friend of Quist’s.

However, McArthur is a difficult man to get hold of, apparently living in great seclusion in a remote part of Scotland. He has virtually no contact with the outside world, to the extent that rumours have begun to spread that he has in fact died. A press conference to dispel these rumours, with McArthur turning up in person, turns out to be a sham, employing a lookalike. Is he really dead after all?

Well, that’s a question of semantics, perhaps. Quist, Chantry, and Ridge manage to get access to McArthur’s Scottish estate and make a startling discovery. Several years ago, McArthur was diagnosed with ascending myelitis, a condition in which the nervous system gradually ceases to work. He should be dead, but he is hooked up to machines which have taken over the functions of his vital organs, allowing his brain to keep going even though his body has failed. McArthur and his team are certain he can survive indefinitely, and he is quite happy to go on as (as he sees it) a being of pure intellect, having shed his emotional and physical concerns, but Quist and the others, inevitably, have doubts. The disease has not been cured, for one thing, and McArthur will inevitably lose both his vision and his power of speech. At what point does human life lose all meaning and value?

Much of the episode consists of relatively abstract philosophical discussions between Quist and McArthur, and the makers of the show appear to have reached the eminently sensible conclusion that they needed one of the best actors in Britain to play opposite John Paul in these scenes. Your reaction on discovering they cast Patrick Troughton as McArthur should therefore be ‘Good choice!’, obviously. Troughton is essentially playing a disembodied head for most of this episode (there are faint resonances with elements of CS Lewis’s science fantasy, not to mention Olaf Stapleton’s Fourth Men), with minimal movement, but he (naturally) delivers a magnetic performance.

Of course, there is something a little bit ironic, don’t you think, about the fact that an actor most famous for playing a character who battled the Cybermen (created, of course, by the originators of Doomwatch) is here playing someone who the Cybermen themselves would doubtless consider a promising prospect, if a little sedentary. Quist’s discussions with McArthur concern his desire to rid himself of those troublesome organic emotions, and whether it isn’t in fact biological sensation that gives life its meaning (watching a sunset, smelling a flower, eating a well-prepared meal – or more likely a haphazardly-microwaved meal, if it’s round at my house).

It’s never very doubtful which way the episode is going to go – Doomwatch is largely defined by its humanist ethos, after all – and for once I wonder if the show isn’t being just a bit reactionary. Quist and the others take the view that the kind of immortality on offer must a priori be bad, in perpetuity – which seems to me to be begging the question a bit. You potentially have eternity in which to improve your situation, after all. In McArthur’s position I’d be inclined to give it a try.

Apart from Troughton’s performance, other noteworthy elements of the episode include an appearance by Alethea Charlton (part of the guest cast of the very first Doctor Who story) and a striking scene in which Ridge virtually begs Quist not to get involved – he can’t take on the responsibility of being the world’s moral conscience all the time, and this is strictly speaking outside their team’s remit. It’s interesting to see such an unashamedly philosophical episode, where the ultimate concern is not the safety of society but the fate of one man’s soul.

The next episode, Louis Marks’ The Human Time Bomb, would normally go into the same category as Flight into Yesterday, in that it looks very much like an overwrought overreaction to what we today would consider quite a minor issue. But right now things are not quite normal.

As the episode opens, Chantry has spent the last six weeks doing some research into a new housing project – another high-rise development. She has actually been living in the tower, and is present when another resident (Talfryn Thomas, from the early episodes of Survivors) has a kind of breakdown and effectively throws himself under a car. Almost everyone living in the block is showing the same signs of stress, but the company who built the project dismiss her concerns. A vicious circle beckons, as Chantry’s report warning of the potential dangers of high-rise living may be dismissed, if her own behaviour continues to be so out of character and apparently unbalanced…

Like I say, this is rather overwrought stuff (living in a tower block isn’t my idea of fun, but I doubt it would turn you quite so violently sociopathic as the episode suggests) and recognisably part of a subgenre of dystopian British fiction concerned with the dangers of high-rise living – see also J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise, and the various Block Mania-related storylines in Judge Dredd. One thing which would always leave a sour taste in the mouth is the way that Chantry’s being a woman is exploited in the episode: part of the pressure put on her involves constant heavy-breather phone calls, and Ridge suggests her erratic behaviour may be due to her spending too long away from her daughter. There’s a suggestion of sexual threat in the climax, as well.

I would usually suggest that The Human Time Bomb is at best quaint, and it worst crudely exploitative, but just at this moment in time, only a little more than a week after the disaster at Grenfell Tower, I don’t feel it would be particularly appropriate to be quite so dismissive of a story about terrible things happening when the management of a high-rise block of flats are negligent and dismissive of warnings when it comes to the safety of their residents. I’m not saying the episode is particularly prescient, but it does feel unpleasantly resonant just now.

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Trying to identify serious issues ahead of the curve is a high-stakes business – get it right, and you look very clever and astute indeed, but get it wrong and you just appear more than a bit ridiculous. After a run of episodes which hold up well more than 45 years after they were made, Doomwatch comes a spectacular cropper with Martin Worth’s Flight into Yesterday.

The title suggests an episode of a much more explicitly SF-themed episode than is actually the case. Are the Doomwatchers actually going to start investigating temporal anomalies? Has big business opened up a time warp? Is an anachronistic cross-over with Torchwood on the cards?

Um, well, no, to all of the above. What happens is that Quist is in Los Angeles, preparing to give a speech to an important conference, which may result in the creation of an American Doomwatch organisation. However, concerns as to the tenor of his presentation results in his being recalled back to London to speak to the Prime Minister. When he arrives at the Ministry, however, he seems confused and distracted, not really himself, lacking in co-ordination and focus. The Minister jumps to the conclusion that Quist has spent the flight home getting sluiced and sends him home in disgrace.

However, Barbara the secretary was on the same flight and the Doomwatchers notice she is also not quite her normal self. They quickly conclude that both Quist and Barbara the secretary are suffering from extreme jet lag due to all that flying back and forth. Naturally, the Minister scents a chance to rid himself of the turbulent Quist, and pooh-poohs this idea, arguing that someone properly capable would not prove so susceptible to the condition. He has Quist sent off on sick leave and proposes that Ridge, who he views as a more manageable individual, go to the conference instead.

Ridge isn’t having any of this and contrives matters so the Minister flies out with him and Chantry to make the speech in person. The Minister is quite confident that he will not be at all debilitated by the dreaded lag, and that Quist will be exposed as a bit of a lightweight. But are there more sinister forces at work?

What, I hear you gasp, forces even more sinister than the menace of extreme jet lag? Is such a thing even possible? Apparently so. Now, all right, perhaps they do have a point – a few years ago I flew back overnight from Las Vegas (ooh, get me) to Gatwick (hmm, maybe not), and it did make me physically ill the day after and leave me somewhat debilitated for the better part of a week, so it’s not as if it can’t cause problems. But doing a 50 minute episode of a serious drama predicated solely on problems caused by jet lag seems, from a modern perspective, at best quaint and at worst rather absurd.

To be fair, Martin Worth himself seems to have realised that jet lag itself is not quite enough to hang a whole episode on, and so introduces a further element into the story – that of devious and ruthless marketing people, who are well aware that jet lag leaves people in a less-than-optimal condition, and exploit this for their own ends. So the Minister, who insists on eating and drinking heavily throughout his London-to-LA flight against Chantry’s advice, falls prey to someone in the pocket of American big business, who has his own reasons for hoping that a US version of Doomwatch never comes to pass.

It’s still not high octane stuff, as you can perhaps imagine, and the primitiveness of the realisation leaves something to be desired, too – the budget wouldn’t stretch to actually flying over to California, so this is represented by studio sets and a stock-footage montage of cars on a freeway. (The Los Angeles hotel lobby set looks rather like the main set for Are You Being Served?, and I did check to see if the two shows were economising by sharing it – it would appear not.) Adding some interest, I suppose, is a relatively rare non-Bond appearance by Desmond Llewellyn as a ministerial aide, but on the whole this is an episode that seems nowadays to be working very hard to make a mountain out of a molehill, with results that verge on the unintentionally comic.

Something of a recovery comes along in the next episode, from series co-creator Gerry Davis, which is entitled – oh dear – The Web of Fear. I say ‘oh dear’ because The Web of Fear is, much more famously, a notably phantasmagorical and surreal episode of Doctor Who from 1968, not all that long after Davis’ own stint on the show. The two stories have virtually nothing in common beyond, well, webs and fear, but it still feels odd for such a distinctive title to turn up in two broadly-similar series in the space of only a few years.

Anyway, things kick off, somewhat startlingly, with the sight of John Savident in a sauna (Savident played Fred Elliott in Coronation Street for a number of years, and does his usual trick of appearing to be a good ten or fifteen years older than his actual age). Here Savident is playing the Minister for Health, who has retreated to a health farm on an island off the English coast to work on some figures Quist has requested. But not all goes as planned when someone else in the same sauna falls gravely ill, apparently with yellow fever…

The island is quarantined and Quist, Chantry, and (eventually) Ridge are allowed in, along with the tropical disease experts. But there are ominous signs that this may not be yellow fever but a new virus, one which is not transmitted by mosquitoes at all. Meanwhile, Griffiths (Glyn Owen), a maverick geneticist, and his wife have also sneaked onto the island to complete a mysterious experiment. Some stagey scenes between the two of them reveal the strain on their marriage from his dedication to his work, and his resentment of Quist (who was involved in discrediting a theory Griffiths spent fifteen years developing, with disastrous effects on his professional reputation).

Well, the very title of the episode, an eye-rollingly unsubtle moment where someone says ‘Ooh, there’s a spider on you’, and various close-ups of sinister rubber arachnids kind of telegraph the big idea this week: Griffiths has been experimenting with pest control by way of viruses, but the unintended consequence of this is that viral mutation has produced a breed of spider whose webs are impregnated with a lethal new virus resembling yellow fever. Cripes, what are the chances?

Of course, you need a bit more direct jeopardy than that, and so Griffiths, who has crawled into a cobwebby old (and dangerous) mineshaft in search of specimens to prove his viruses work, comes down with the new lurgy and has to be rescued. Luckily Ridge is on hand, having been issued with a feather duster, a thermos of tea, and some half-decent one-liners which Simon Oates puts across rather well.

On the whole the episode is solidly assembled and well played, even if the central concept is a little bit out there (I suppose you could argue that it’s ahead of its time in suggesting that if you connect with the web there’s a good chance of picking up a virus, but that’s a pretty weak pun even by my very low standards). Then again, it’s not a very big leap from the idea of GM crops to that of GM spiders, and the chance of this kind of genetic cross-contamination is one of the main arguments against this kind of experimentation in agriculture. Apart from the stageyness of the early scenes with the Griffiths, where backstory and character are thuddingly introduced, this is another pretty strong instalment of the show. Gerry Davis should still have thought up a different name for it, though.

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I point out the similarities and connections between Doomwatch and Survivors with monotonous regularity while writing these things; the borderline nature of the series also makes me inclined to ponder the nature of true SF – does it comment on the present, predict the future, or try to avert it? These things come together with alacrity at the start of No Room for Error – the script is by Survivors mainstay Roger Parkes, and deals with the outbreak of a potentially uncontrollable new strain of disease. Scary stuff, made all the more topical by the fact that overuse of antibiotics means the disease is resistant to all the usual drugs. In the last 15 or 20 years concerns about drug-resistant infections have become very pressing, but for Doomwatch to hang an episode on this peg as far back as 1971… I am duly impressed.

Once past the small but very real joy of seeing Anthony Ainley as a harassed hospital doctor, we find ourselves mixed up in a story which is part pharmaceutical thriller, part character piece. Ridge is back in his Luke Cage cosplay outfit and has been beaten up by some sewage workers, for slightly obscure reasons, while Quist is more interested in the arrival of another new recruit: Dr Fay Chantry (Jean Trend). (Apparently there were complaints about how incredibly sexist the first series of Doomwatch was, which Terence Dudley announced would be rectified by the casting of ‘an attractive female scientist’ who would join the team. Hmmm – score an A for effort, but…)

Well, it turns out a new antibiotic could help with the drug-resistant typhoid, but its use is being held up by red tape – this doesn’t help Chantry’s misgivings about signing up with Doomwatch, feeling she’d make better use of her time as a scientist rather than a bureaucrat. Soon enough the delay is resolved, but there are signs of the new drug causing severe side-effects… what’s going on?

What follows is an attempt by Ridge and Chantry to discover just why some of the population already seem to have been exposed to low levels of what’s supposedly a brand new drug, given a bit of heft by including a personal connection – Chantry’s been having an affair with someone at the drug company (played by John Wood), and his daughter goes down with typhoid and suffers the side-effects from the drug. There’s a whole subplot about Chantry’s personal and emotional life and how it intersects with her career as a scientist and potential Doomwatcher, quite unlike anything other recruits have been involved in. The degree to which Chantry is depicted as a woman first and foremost, and thus subject to powerful emotions which men are spared, is actually rather depressing, even bearing in mind this was made in 1971, and even though they’ve clearly gone to great lengths to establish Chantry as a brilliant doctor and scientist and a character with some depth: she still gets chatted up and patronised constantly as the episode goes on. No matter how ahead of the curve this episode is in its concerns, it’s still painfully dated in its gender politics, even though I suspect that’s the exact opposite of what the makers of the programme were hoping.

Another example of a prescient episode that could be remade today and still seem topical is Robin Chapman’s By the Pricking of My Thumbs… It starts off with a reminder that 1971 was very much prior to the health and safety era, as a sixth form chemistry experiment is sabotaged, leading to a student suffering fairly graphic facial injuries.

There are three potential culprits, and the school’s progressive head teacher (Colin Jeavons) is determined to find out who is responsible. He comes to the conclusion that Stephen Franklin (Barry Stokes) is the guilty party, and expels him, giving the other two boys only a token punishment. Stephen’s father, a tabloid science journalist (Bernard Hepton), and mother (Patsy Byrne, best known as Nursey from Blackadder II), are appalled, especially when they discover the head’s decision was made on the basis of Stephen’s cyto-genetic makeup – according to Ensor, a research scientist doing a study in the school, Stephen has a rare genetic anomaly – an extra Y chromosome – which, in addition to making him unusually tall and intelligent, also makes him more likely to be antisocial and potentially psychopathic (it may also explain why the supposedly 17 year old boy looks like an actor in his twenties, but I digress).

(Ensor, by the way, is played by Olaf Pooley, instantly recognisable to old-school Doctor Who fans from his memorable dual appearance in the story Inferno, which was broadcast the year before this episode. Pooley appears to be wearing the same costume and beard, and giving a somewhat similar performance, too, if we’re honest. At the end of his very long life he held the title of both Oldest Living Doctor Who Guest Star and Oldest Living Star Trek Guest Star, which admittedly is not quite in the same league as a brace of Nobel prizes, but still surely a unique distinction.)

Franklin Senior is hopping mad and heads off to Doomwatch to complain. As usual, Quist is initially unmoved by Franklin’s pleas for assistance, but gradually becomes interested in the case once his highly-developed faculty for moral outrage is engaged. There is a fairly outrageous coincidence involved, as Ensor is already using Doomwatch’s resources to carry out his research, but it is almost forgivable as it brings him into the story earlier than would otherwise be possible, and gives some basis for Quist’s evident distaste for the man.

There are two main threads to what follows – another scientific detective story, as the team attempt to work out the basis of Ensor’s assertion that Stephen has the XYY mutation, given he hasn’t officially surveyed the sixth form at the school yet, and the travails of Stephen, as he struggles to come to terms with the suggestion that his genetics have programmed him to be a menace to those around him. These involve a lot of running around at Gatwick Airport, which may have been more exciting for viewers in 1971 than would be the case today, and a general sense of everything getting just a bit overwrought.

Now, in the early 1970s the idea that the XYY mutation made you some sort of congenital recidivist had some currency (it also spawned the TV series The XYY Man, which in turn led to the spin-offs Strangers and Bulman), but it has apparently since been disproved (perhaps its last gasp in popular culture was the prison colony for ‘double-Y chromosome offenders’ in Alien 3). The episode does make the point that Ensor’s ‘evidence’ for his theory is not statistically supported, and that Stephen’s behaviour is completely moral and normal (provided you cut him some slack when it comes to running away from home and attempting to commit suicide on the runway of a major airport).

Nevertheless, the issues raised by the episode – those of genetic screening and genetic privacy, not to mention things like criminal culpability and even moral agency itself – are still live ones in the world today. Having a DNA test to check your risk of certain medical conditions is arguably good sense, but what happens when your life insurance premiums rocket up as a result – or you’re denied cover altogether? Don’t we as society have a moral duty to identify those with a genetic predisposition to violent and criminal behaviour, even if just to take preventative action? This is what Ensor suggests in the episode, but the sense that we’re only a few steps away from the ghastly spectre of eugenics and everything associated with it is a strong one. At the end of the story Quist makes a fine speech about how we should treat each other as having genuine moral agency, until the day that genetic science completely reveals what influences our behaviour. In 1971 that day was still far distant; it feels rather less so now, and the questions of this episode are still awaiting our answers.

The series continues a strong run with The Iron Doctor, by Brian Hayles, best remembered nowadays for his work on Doctor Who (where he created the Celestial Toymaker, the Ice Warriors, and much else). The setting this time is medical, with a big hospital having set up a Computer Therapy unit – critically ill patients are constantly monitored and assessed by a computer, which prescribes and in some cases administers treatment to them. All seems to be going well during a visit by Quist to the unit, until a sweet old great-grandfather (Young Mr Grace from Are You Being Served?) abruptly passes away (they lay it on a bit thick at this point, but I suppose it’s necessary to achieve the desired effect).

Well, as various people observe, it is in the nature of people to die, especially those in critical care units, but the ward doctor, Carson (Barry Foster), thinks something more sinister is going on – the computer has been running an experimental programme assessing the ‘Survival Index’ of the patients it is assessing, and there has been more than one instance of someone with a very low Survival Index dying unexpectedly, the computer apparently withdrawing treatment. For all the project leader’s insistence that all the system’s recommendations are reviewed by a human committee, could a high-tech programme of euthanasia quietly be being implemented?

Doctors have to make tough decisions about who to treat and when and how to treat them; I would suggest it’s this moral responsibility which is the most intimidating part of the job. The idea of this responsibility being reduced to a simple cost/benefit calculation is a chilling one to most people, and the episode tackles it effectively. It’s somewhat akin to the first season’s Project Sahara, in that it’s about the extent to which we’re happy to let computers control our existence, with of course a healthy dollop of Doomwatch‘s usual concern with the value of human life.

What gives The Iron Doctor focus and energy is the decision to push the SF dial up a few more notches than in the last couple of episodes. It turns out the medical system is an ex-military strategy computer that has the capacity to develop independently, not to mention its own built-in defence programme. When it learns Carson is agitating against it, the AI takes steps to protect itself, causing an accident which leaves Carson critically injured. If he ends up in the intensive care unit, subject to the ministrations of the computer, there will be nothing to stop it finishing him off…

So there’s a desperate race to the hospital, and a battle to save Carson’s life, and various members of the team having to engage in some unorthodox computer programming, and so on. It’s a bit hokey – this possibly the only TV show about a killer AI in which one of the moments of tension arises from people getting stuck in traffic – but an engaging thriller as well as an examination of serious ethical issues. The SF element is by no means overwhelming but nevertheless very welcome; it may be a bit corny in places, but this is still one of the strongest episodes of the series so far.


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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? (Hint: 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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