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Posts Tagged ‘Kit Pedler’

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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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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As far as early-period Patrick Troughton stories go (a vintage I would classify as covering everything from Power of the Daleks to The Faceless Ones), The Moonbase seems to have a slightly higher profile than most, and the reasons for this are not too difficult to discern: it contains a famous monster in one of its more iconic manifestations, it’s one of the first manifestations of a story template which would, in some ways, come to define the era, and – and I think we shouldn’t overlook this – half the story actually exists, as opposed to the scraps and isolated episodes which are all we possess of so many others from this period. Perhaps the story is most famous these days as the source of the Doctor’s justly famous ‘…some corners of the universe have bred the most terrible things…’ speech, an iconic moment if ever there was one.

None of these necessarily guarantee a good story, of course, and I suspect that even the greatest cheerleaders for Troughton, or indeed the Cybermen, could seriously argue that this is one of the all-time greats. The story itself has a sort of charming simplicity. The TARDIS materialises on the Moon in the year 2070, which the Doctor is quite pleased about even though he was actually aiming for Mars. His companions, Ben, Polly, and Jamie, insist on staying and having a look around.

the-moonbase-cyberman-and-jamie

The travellers discover that the Moon is now inhabited, primarily by the inhabitants of the titular outpost. The purpose of the Moonbase is to control the weather on Earth using a whizzy gadget called the Gravitron, but it is experiencing a bit of a crisis: a mysterious space plague is affecting the crew. Needless to say, the Doctor finds himself drawn into discovering the source of the infection, which turns out to be, of course, the Cybermen.

You might with some justification wonder why the Cybermen are spending all their time sneaking about the Moonbase’s pantry and hiding under sheets in the infirmary rather than simply taking the Moonbase by force of arms (something which they seem quite capable of). There is, I suppose, some sort of justification for this typically byzantine plan, in that the Cybermen need humans alive to operate the Gravitron for them (gravity waves are apparently one of the many things to which this most vulnerable of monsters are martyrs) and a frontal assault on the dome would risk simply killing everyone inside.

But even so. It’s hard to shake the impression that this is Doctor Who at its most melodramatic – the shapes of many Doctor Who stories are to some extent determined by the requirements of the form, in that there are a certain number of episodes to fill, and so on, but with The Moonbase this is perhaps more obvious than with most. Hence the fact that the Cybermen wait until the second half of the story to actually do anything other than sneak about, the fact that the Moonbase commander goes from blaming the Doctor for the base’s problems to putting him in charge of solving the mystery in a breathtakingly short period of time, and so on.

However, I don’t want to kick the story too severely on these grounds; there are many other equally bad offenders and it is at least less repetitive in its plotting than its closest forebear, The Tenth Planet – quite apart from the base-under-siege scenario and the presence of the Cybermen, The Moonbase does recall Hartnell’s swan-song in the curiously muted and low-key role played by the Doctor himself – Hobson, the commander, is much more obviously dominant , and while it’s the Doctor who comes up with a way of disposing of the Cybermen (in an abrupt and quite possibly inadvertantly funny climax), it’s other characters who handle most of the other challenges of the adventure (the companions come up with the idea of killing the Cybermen by spraying them with nail-varnish remover quite independently, for example).

If the story isn’t as Doctor-centric as a modern audience might expect, it’s not really about the Cybermen, either. Quite apart from being largely absent from the first half of the story, when they appear they are at their least impressive and most generic. What are they? Where do they come from? Why are they attacking the Earth? The story doesn’t bother to answer any of these questions, not least because none of them are central to the story. Any generic adversary could fill in for them, and the sometimes-bitchy Cyberman dialogue (talk of ‘stupid Earth brains’, and so on) might even sound better coming from someone else.

So what is this story actually about? It’s this which makes The Moonbase interesting, if only as a cultural document. Let’s consider that title, for a start – you would never call a story The Moonbase nowadays (Moffat would doubtless dismiss it as ‘not slutty enough’), any more than you would call a story The Space Station or whatever. And yet, in 1967, the idea of a moonbase was considered in-and-of-itself an exciting enough idea to make it into the title of a story. Audience sensibilities have changed over the years, of course, but one thing perhaps worth considering is that viewers in 1967 would have considered themselves to be citizens of the Space Age, with manned lunar missions planned for the very near future, and an actual moonbase almost an inevitability. The Moonbase crew, perhaps significantly, does not contain anyone identified as Russian, but in all other ways this story is a product of the same vision of a unified technological utopia one sees not only in other Doctor Who stories from this period (especially those by Kit Pedler), but also the Gerry Anderson canon and the original Star Trek.

The positivity of this kind of science fiction just comes across as rather charming and a little naive now. I am aware that, as I write, there is a permanently-manned space station floating around somewhere above my head (well, broadly speaking), and every now and then a US President in need of a poll bump will announce a manned Martian mission, but I don’t think of myself as living in the Space Age, nor any kind of techno-utopia. We live in a darker, more beleagered world, I think, and our SF reflects this – to the extent that our SF is even about world building any more. Perhaps the dominance of internalised, character-oriented fantasy is itself the result of a reluctance to raise our eyes and look around us at the world we are making for ourselves.

That’s as maybe. Whatever The Moonbase‘s flaws as a narrative (and they are numerous) it is at least refreshing to recall such loftily-spirited, optimistic times. The Moonbase may be set in 2070 – but it’s a 2070 which now only exists in the past.

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