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Posts Tagged ‘No Room for Error’

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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