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Posts Tagged ‘Hair Trigger’

Due to the unique way the BBC managed its archives in the early 1970s (it involved a furnace), the vast majority of the third series of Doomwatch is gone – missing, presumed burned or wiped. It’s easy to give the corporation a hard time for its short-sightedness in this respect, as it completely failed to foresee the rise of the market for home entertainment, but I’ve heard it argued that Equity should shoulder some of the blame too – the actors’ union imposed strict limits on the number of repeats the TV networks were allowed to run, meaning that the majority of programmes in the archives were never likely to be shown again, making the costs of their preservation unjustifiable.

Well, either way, we’re left with only three episodes of the twelve – a small irony being that one of these episodes was never shown on TV in the first place. The first survivor, Terence Dudley’s Waiting for a Knighthood, is the fourth episode of the series, and watching it now one gets a distinct sense of arriving late to a party – developments have clearly, um, developed in the early episodes of the season.

Ridge has gone nuts, for one thing, and this has taken the form of more than just dressing up as Luke Cage now and then – apparently in the first episode he stole some anthrax and attempted to hold the government to ransom with it. By the time of this episode, he is safely ensconced in a rubber facility and has apparently made a full recovery. Replacing him at Doomwatch is a new character, Stafford, who may in fact be a mole for the Minister. Or not. Chantry has also been banished to the outer darkness, but at least Barbara the secretary is still there, and also apparently making regular appearances is Anne Tarrant, Quist’s shrink from the start of season two – the two of them appear to have shacked up together, in an unexpected move towards a more domestic Doomwatch.

Waiting for a Knighthood features Ridge and does, to some extent, focus on the reasons for his peculiar behaviour. It opens with a vicar going full-on bonkers mid-sermon, collapsing in the aisle of his church, and needing to be rushed off to hospital. This happens at Tarrant’s local church and so Quist gets wind of it. A little investigation reveals the hapless clergyman was a keen mechanic who was regularly exposed to fumes from organic lead in his petrol, and that his breakdown may have been caused by lead poisoning of the brain.

At this point someone remembers that Ridge was also a keen mechanic and welder (oh, really?) and that lead poisoning may have been a factor in his episode of atypical behaviour as well. However, the issue of whether or not to fully exonerate Ridge and get him back on the team (never going to happen; Simon Oates didn’t want to be in the show full time any more) becomes rather secondary, when a woman whose young son died of lead poisoning gets wind of what’s been happening and kidnaps the young son of a wealthy oil man whom she blames for the pollution of the environment.

Doing an episode about lead poisoning is clearly within Doomwatch‘s mission statement, especially when you consider the long-term environmental damage done by lead in petrol (the life story of Thomas Midgley, pioneer of this development, and also CFCs in fridges, is a real eye-opener). But this script never quite seems to come to grips with it. It revisits a couple of the classic themes – particularly how everyone wants a cleaner world but nobody wants to actually be the one to pay for it – but on the whole the sense of driving anger which characterised the Davis-Pedler seasons is absent, perhaps epitomised by the way Quist himself has become a more human figure, less of a voice of morality. It seems much more interested in the various political goings-on between Doomwatch and the ministry, and the somewhat underpowered kidnapping plot. Terence Dudley clearly seems to have found no shame in nepotism, for once again he casts his own son Stephen Dudley in a crucial role (he was previously Rat Attack Victim in season one, and would be a regular for most of the run of Survivors).

I’d hesitate to call this episode actively bad, but it’s very bland and unengaging stuff, with the new characters and emphasis making the show a more comfortable and mainstream drama – which surely was never the point in the first place. One gets a definite sense of a shark having been jumped.

Episode six is better, but not quite good enough to dispel this impression. This is Hair Trigger, by Brian Hayles, who (the attentive will recall) wrote The Iron Doctor, one of the best second series episodes. Things get underway at a secure research facility under the auspices of the DHSS, which sounds like a joke but isn’t. Dr Tarrant is visiting the place in her professional capacity as a psychiatrist attached to the civil service. She discovers that patients with serious psychological disorders are being given computer-controlled therapy, to the extent that they have electrodes implanted in their brains which can both monitor and control their behaviour. A violent psychopath, Beavis (Michael Watkins) has a homicidal episode artificially triggered and then controlled for her benefit.

Naturally, Tarrant is disturbed by this, and (in another lengthy domestic scene between her and Quist) she explains why – it’s not just that the line between treating patients and experimenting on them seems to have become rather blurred, but that the focus of the procedure is not really to treat at all. The emphasis is on controlling dangerously violent individuals rather than addressing their problems on a human level.

There are various scenes of civil servants and scientists discussing this all in a rather clubbable manner, with Quist and the rest of the Doomwatchers somewhat peripheral figures. Tarrant decides to speak in more detail with Beavis himself, to get a better idea of how he feels about this. Beavis is twitchy about the prospect of the conversation, only wanting to talk about the treatment he’s received, not his own past, and as they talk in the unit’s grounds he becomes agitated and there is a struggle. Tarrant is knocked unconscious and the receiver which controls Beavis’ brain function is damaged. He flees the scene and takes a young woman in a nearby farmhouse hostage…

The ethics of how to treat the criminally insane was one of those issues which many people weighed in on in the early 70s, one way or another. This episode was broadcast in 1972, and it’s hard not to see it as being in some way influenced by the previous year’s A Clockwork Orange, which similarly suggested the solution was to artificially condition the brains of contenders, or possibly even the Doctor Who story The Mind of Evil, which took the more radical step of suggesting hardened recidivists should be fed to alien mind parasites. Much of it is good solid humanistic stuff, arguing that people should be treated as people, rather than malfunctioning machines, even if they are a danger to themselves and others. The implications of computers directly controlling human behaviour are not overlooked, either, although the more loved-up season three Quist is less outraged by this than the original version would have been, I’d suggest.

The problem is that once the suspense-thriller element of the episode kicks off, about half way through, and Beavis goes on the run, all the more thoughtful aspects of the story are essentially dropped in favour of this. The resolution is dealt with solely in terms of characters and personalities, with the big ideas of the story completely forgotten about. This is still a watchable episode of a reasonably good thriller series, but it is largely lacking in the moral and intellectual power of the best offerings from seasons one and two.

And so to Stuart Douglass’ Sex and Violence, the final completed episode of the series, which may have survived simply because it was never broadcast as planned – nor has it ever been shown on British TV, as far as I have been able to determine. Exactly why this is the case remains somewhat obscure, and watching the episode itself is not especially illuminating.

The episode opens with a public meeting led by a moral campaigner, decrying the so-called permissive society of the day and the ‘filth’ permeating all levels of the media. No sooner have the pre-titles concluded and the credits got underway than you find yourself thinking ‘this is an odd topic for a Doomwatch episode’. Quist agrees, when Doomwatch is tasked with assisting an inquiry into whether censorship laws should be tightened or not – chemical pollution, certainly, but moral pollution?

He shifts his position a little when Anne Travers is co-opted onto the inquiry committee, which includes a morality campaigner, a bishop, a sociologist, an educationalist, and a pop star (playing some of these are Brian Wilde and Bernard Horsfall, so at least the performances are good). As part of her duties Travers goes to see a controversial play and is attacked by a protester. What motivates these self-styled guardians of public morality? And what motivates the shadowy figures who are funding their crusade?

Well, this is very definitely another for the ‘they don’t make ’em like this any more’, for much of Sex and Violence is a very talky discussion of some rather abstruse topics – the work of Wilhelm Reich is casually debated, which doesn’t happen on BBC1 very much nowadays. It’s very different to any other episode of Doomwatch – when Quist does attend the committee, all he does is sit quietly in the corner.

So why has the episode never been broadcast? The popular theory seems to be that it’s because it includes documentary footage of a public execution taking place in Lagos, Nigeria, but this seems a little implausible since the same footage has been shown on TV since. It seems to me to be more likely that concerns were raised about the fact that at least one of the characters is a thinly-disguised caricature of a significant public figure of the period. Whether the pop star is intended to be Cliff Richard or not, I’m not sure; but it seems a dead cert that ‘Mrs Catchpole’, scourge of the permissive society, is based on Mary Whitehouse. Whitehouse and the National Viewers And Listeners Association which she founded were a power in the land in the 1970s (managing to get Philip Hinchcliffe effectively sacked from Doctor Who in 1977, for example), and you can imagine the BBC getting a little nervous about an episode in which she is explicitly depicted as a fanatical extreme-right bigot (the fact she is played by June Brown, best known nowadays as Dot Cotton, is just one of those historical quirks), especially given her litigiousness.

Then again, none of this is exactly rigorously impartial: Quist tracks down the financier of the anti-permissiveness campaign, and finds a right-wing millionaire with political aspirations. Persuade people to give up their freedom to decide what they watch, read, and listen, runs the argument, and in the fullness of time they will happily hand over their other freedoms to the state – when the right leader comes along. Given the BBC very much had a dog in this fight, this would have been touchy stuff even back in the 1970s (quite how far back the routine Tory-press whine about ‘left wing bias’ at the BBC goes is not something I’ve been able to discover, but political bias may well have been another issue).

In the end the episode concludes with the status quo unchanged, and Quist musing on the rise of Hitler from joke to despot in less than a decade, while Bradshaw informs him the computer has suggested sex and violence in the media have no effect on people’s behaviour. (It is at least somewhat appropriate that the final scene features the two remaining original characters.) ‘No change… no change…’ says Quist. This may not be a particularly strong episode of Doomwatch, but like the best of the series, it deals with issues which are alive and kicking today. No change, indeed.

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