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Posts Tagged ‘John Gould’

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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